What is the World’s Oldest Recipe?
Lamb Stew – Unchanged from Ancient Times
What is the world’s oldest recipe? Well, of course, it was bread, but writing didn’t yet exist when bread started to be made and eaten. The real question is, what was the first written recipe?
This led to the question: when did humans actually start to write? And why? Who knew a food recipe would take me to that part of history!
A few things happened first. About 8,000 years ago, man started to make the shift from being nomads and hunter/gatherers to being agriculturalist, staying in one place and growing and raising their own food. This began in the Fertile Valley (Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.) and spread to Greece 7,000 years ago and Italy and eastern Spain, 6000 years ago.
As people lived together and the population grew, they started to specialize in things, leading to the need for trade, and the need to keep track of things.
“It has been argued that writing in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) grew from a counting system of clay tokens used to record transactions of goods. The goods represented were inferred by the shape of the tokens: spheres, cones and discs stood for measurements of grain, while cylinders stood for livestock. This counting system was used from 7500 BC onwards across the Fertile Crescent, from the Mediterranean coast down to the Persian Gulf,” according to the British Library.
As time went by, they had to write more and more things that didn’t have a direct symbol, for example, people’s names. And so the language grew.
By the time that recipe was written about 4,000 years, writing had progressed to cuneiform on stone tablets, which is where the researchers and scholars found this recipe for lamb stew, the oldest known written recipe, from Babylon and Assyria, now Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
When you make this recipe, think of this. A team of international scholars in history, food chemistry and cuneiform first had to decipher the meaning of the words, then experiment with proportions until realizing what the recipe actually is. Remarkably, it is unchanged for over 4,000 years as the ingredients are actually the same. As Harvard Science and Cooking Fellow Patricia Jurado Gonzalez said, “All of the food materials today and 4,000 years ago are the same: a piece of meat is basically a piece of meat. From a physics point of view, the process is the same. There is science there that is the same today as it was 4,000 years ago.”
Also interesting is that a staple in the diet 4,000 years ago is the same as it is in Iraq today. “It is really fascinating to see how such a simple dish, with all its infinite variety, has survived from ancient times to present, and in those Babylonian recipes, I see not even the beginnings; they already had reached sophisticated levels in cooking those dishes. So who knows how much earlier they began?”
As the culinary historian and Iraqi cuisine expert Nawal Nasrallah put it, “I was really surprised to find that what is a staple in Iraq today, which is a stew, is also a staple from ancient times, because in Iraq today, that is our daily meal: stew and rice with a bread,” Nasrallah said.
Part of the difficulty was that the recipe written in stone was only 4 lines long – “Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.” Compare that to the one below that came from the scholars. And then think about having to inscribe those four lines into stone versus pulling out a laptop and typing! And building and tending a fire versus just turning on the stove!
Recipe: Lamb Stew
1 lb leg of mutton, diced
½ c rendered sheep fat
1 small onion, chopped
½ tsp salt
1 lb beetroot, peeled and diced
1 c rocket, chopped
½ c fresh coriander, chopped
1 c Persian shallot, chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 c beer (a mix of sour beer & German Weißbier)
½ c water
½ c leek, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
For the garnish:
½ c fresh coriander, finely chopped
½ c kurrat (or spring leek), finely chopped
2 tsp coriander seeds, coarsely crushed
Heat sheep fat in a pot wide enough for the diced lamb to spread in one layer. Add lamb and sear on high heat until all moisture evaporates. Fold in the onion and keep cooking until it is almost transparent. Fold in salt, beetroot, rocket, fresh coriander, Persian shallot and cumin. Keep on folding until the moisture evaporates. Pour in beer, and then add water. Give the mixture a light stir and then bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add leek and garlic. Allow to simmer for about an hour until the sauce thickens.
Pound kurrat and remaining fresh coriander into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Ladle the stew into bowls and sprinkle with coriander seeds and kurrat and fresh coriander paste. The dish can be served with steamed bulgur, boiled chickpeas and bread.
Source: Food in Ancient Mesopotamia, Cooking the Yale Babylonian Culinary Recipes, with permission from co-author and translator Gojko Barjamovic.