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Quarantine cooking challenge: Ancient Babylonian recipes

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Jul 24, 2020 12:00:00 AM

Many of us have made at least a few attempts at cooking or baking something new during quarantine or shelter-in-place, but Cambridge professor Bill Sutherland has taken that a step further…into the past, by trying out recipes from Ancient Babylon.

The recipes come from a set of 4,000-year-old stone tablets at Yale University’s Peabody Museum. Although it’s now widely understood that they’re essentially pages of an ancient cookbook, they were a mystery until 1985. The instructions and certain food terminology are so obscure, even for the most experienced translators, that for many years the tablets were thought to be anything from medical texts, to obscure magic spells!

To be fair, in the 1940’s,a researcher names Mary Hussey did suggest the tablets’ true nature, but no one listened to her. Whether this is due to gender politics or some other issue, I haven’t been able to uncover….

After they were properly translated, all but one of the tablets’ recipes were left untried (at least publicly) until 2019, when a group from Yale and Harvard came together to cook a few. You can watch them make and taste the recipes in this video.

Interestingly, the hardest part of cooking meals from Ancient Babylon isn’t obtaining the ingredients, but knowing how much of each to use.

For instance, in one photo that Sutherland shared on his Twitter feed, we see a translation of a recipe that contains lines like “You add fat. You sear. You fold in salt, beer, onion, arugula, cilantro, Persian shallot, cumin, and red[?] beet.” There are no measurements included anywhere.

Still, Sutherland has discovered that Ancient Babylonian cooking is pretty good!

Read on to learn more about Sutherland’s Ancient Babylonian cooking experience.

And if you’d like to try to make Ancient Babylonian recipe, the Peabody Museum has a nifty translation of one for lamb stew with beets that includes measured amounts of the ingredients (likely based on the 2019 cooking experiment’s results).

A section of one of the recipe tablets

Image source

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