What did ancient Babylonians eat? A Yale-Harvard team tested their recipes

Part of the NYU event “An Appetite for the Past,” cooks used millennia-old recipes from the Yale Babylon Collection to concoct real, ancient comfort food.

Even ancient Babylonian chefs knew the value of a good cookbook.

Not unlike today’s chefs, the ancient Babylonians favored recipes of stews filled with savory meats, herbaceous herbs, and earthy vegetables. Unlike today, the recipes for these dishes were not presented alongside colorful photos in a hardbound book, but rather were impressed into the surface of clay tablets using reed styluses.

There are only four remaining ancient Babylonian culinary tablets detailing the world’s oldest known recipes — and they might have remained, unused, forever in a display case in the Yale Babylonian Collection were it not for an invitation to a cooking event at New York University in early May in which teams prepared foods from around the globe and different time periods.

Agnete Lassen, associate curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection, and Chelsea Alene Graham, digital imaging specialist at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, were part of the team that painstakingly recreated — step by step — three stews from one of the tablets as closely as possible to how they would have been prepared and eaten almost 4,000 years ago.

Our idea was to revisit the old translations and see where we could improve our understanding of the terminology and approach a better understanding of these recipes,” says Lassen, explaining that the recipes come from the same period and probably from the same place. “They might not have been written by the same person but they relate to the same interest in culinary recipes,” she says.

The event, “An Appetite for the Past,” was hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. Seven teams were invited to attend. Some chose to focus on the archaeological or textual aspects of the cuisine they represented, while others created modern interpretations of ancient dishes from ancient China, the Mediterranean, and Roman and medieval times. On the last day of the event, each of the teams presented the fruits of their collaborative research at a tasting symposium, where attendees were invited to sample the various foods that had been prepared.

The re-interpretation of the recipes, says Lassen, was done by a member of the team at Harvard University, Gojko Barjamovic, and the recipes were cooked and tested multiple times over the course of the spring at the Harvard Science and Cooking Lab by food chemist Pia Sörensen, and Patricia Gonzalez from the Basque Culinary Center. “Studying the chemical processes was a key element in the re-interpretation the recipes,” says Lassen. “It really was an interdisciplinary collaboration connecting the study of ancient text with chemistry and culinary science.”

The Yale-Harvard team prepared three recipes which were all from one tablet: two lamb stews — one with beets and one with milk and cakes of grain — and a vegetarian recipe enriched with beer bread. 

The variety of ingredients, complex preparation, and cooking staff required to create these meals suggest that they were intended for the royal palace or temple — the haute cuisine of Mesopotamia, says Lassen. Few cooks were able to read cuneiform script, she adds, hence the recipes were most likely recorded to document the current practices of culinary art.

This event gave us the opportunity to really connect with the people from that time,” says Graham. “By experiencing some of the processes that they would have used to cook these recipes and to taste the flavors that were prominent and popular then, you feel closer to the culture and the people, and I think that helps us to tell their story. It is interesting to think of all the tools we are aided by now and how cooking these recipes is so much easier for us than it was for them.”

The undertaking was not without its challenges, says Lassen. “Not only were some of the ingredients that were used during this time period not available, but two of the tablets are poorly preserved — there are big holes in them. Some of these terms that appear in the Akkadian original are difficult to translate because these are words that don’t appear very often in the other texts that we have and that makes it very difficult to decipher them.”

Having an understanding of what the food is supposed to feel and taste like is very important,” says Lassen. “We didn’t know what we were looking for. When we were recreating one of the recipes I kept thinking they were doing this wrong, ‘this is not how I would make this.’ And then when it had boiled for a while it suddenly transformed itself into something delicious.”

Like the home cooks of today, the Babylonians didn’t always specify the exact measurements of the ingredients, notes Lassen, so the team created the stews “to taste.”

While some of the Babylonian recipes were attempted prior to the event, one was new to the team and was prepared for the first time at the event. Called the “unwinding,” it is a vegetarian stew made with leek and onion. Lassen says that there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for this name, but that one hypothesis suggests it has to do with one of the stew’s ingredients, dried lumps of crushed grains that were “almost like hard cakes that you add to the stew and then it melts into the stew,” says Lassen. “That could be ‘unwinding.’ It could also simply be a more literal word for a comfort food.”

Making a stew is a very basic human thing and I think that is one of the reasons that we really went into this project,” says Lassen. “There is something really human about eating and food and tasting things, and that’s what we wanted to explore by recreating these recipes. Maybe not entirely as they as they would have prepared it — maybe our ingredients taste a little bit different — but still approximating something that nobody has tasted for almost 4,000 years.”

The group worked on the recipes with Nawal Nasrallah, a culinary historian and chef who specializes in Medieval Arabic cuisine and has studied the cuneiform cookbooks and their links with later Iraqi traditions— which, says Graham, augmented the experience for each of the team members by helping them to “read between the lines to learn more about the culture, and enrich the tablets and recipes with the stories of the people who created them.”

Adds Lassen: “Recreating foods gives us a profound sense of a deep history and connection with people that lived a very long time ago.”

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