The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia

The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia

by Jean Bottero

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In this intriguing blend of the commonplace and the ancient, Jean Bottéro presents the first extensive look at the delectable secrets of Mesopotamia. Bottéro’s broad perspective takes us inside the religious rites, everyday rituals, attitudes and taboos, and even the detailed preparation techniques involving food and drink in Mesopotamian high


In this intriguing blend of the commonplace and the ancient, Jean Bottéro presents the first extensive look at the delectable secrets of Mesopotamia. Bottéro’s broad perspective takes us inside the religious rites, everyday rituals, attitudes and taboos, and even the detailed preparation techniques involving food and drink in Mesopotamian high culture during the second and third millennia BCE, as the Mesopotamians recorded them. 

Offering everything from translated recipes for pigeon and gazelle stews, the contents of medicinal teas and broths, and the origins of ingredients native to the region, this book reveals the cuisine of one of history’s most fascinating societies. Links to the modern world, along with incredible recreations of a rich, ancient culture through its cuisine, make Bottéro’s guide an entertaining and mesmerizing read.

Editorial Reviews

“An enticing new book of Ancient Mesopotamian recipes.”
History Today
“[These recipes] shed light on aspects of social life related to food preparation and eating at the time. Here we are given intriguing, sometimes alluring quotes, on processes of preparation and what the Mesopotamians ate. Often the author has to patch and bridge from the fragmentary bits; what certain items and methods might have been, but he does this with the support of his considerable scholarship, and with a flare that suggests that M. Bottéro must be an accomplished cook himself. These rare recipes carefully reconstructed and sometimes deduced can seem surprisingly modern, yet this book is ever fascinating. . . . It makes one yearn to know more about these ancient sophisticates, as revealed in the swirling robes and haughty profiles of reliefs in the British Museum and in Berlin. Economically illustrated, with neat chapter headings, it is elegantly presented. The engaging chapters go from the practical to the mythical. Truly a wonderful read.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Edition description:
New Edition
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Cooking in Mesopotamia

By Jean Bottéro
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-06735-3

Chapter One

There is nothing more commonplace than eating and drinking. And certainly nothing can acquaint us better with the representatives of a culture than joining them for a moment or two in these activities.

Since the dawn of time, every society has organized these universal, fundamental needs according to a certain number of givens, all unique to a given society:

-a deliberate, half-instinctive, half-weighed choice of foodstuffs taken from the immediate, or close, surroundings;

-a system of effective traditional techniques and procedures aimed at working with and altering foodstuffs, transforming them from their original state so as to make them edible and tasty;

-routines and rituals, perhaps even myths, to regulate the use of food, indeed, to confer a value upon food that goes beyond the mere consumption of it;

-and of course the amount and the quality of the food served, according to the status of those eating.

All of this, like other "invariables" of a civilization, is faithfully preserved and transmitted from generation to generation-sometimes altered, enriched, or improved, depending on unexpected changes or new preferences, but most often without any obvious substantive differences, as is true of those deep-rooted, unconscious rules that govern our lives.

Such prolonged continuity creates an uneventful historiographical relief, even in the view of those vigilant, but distant, spectators-historians. For unlike other curious observers of a more or less distant past, historians are naturally more attentive and sensitive to high waves in the ocean of time than they are to a flat calm. So they seem little inclined to take seriously such a trivial, fastidious, and monotonous subject as routine eating and drinking. Their lack of interest has been attested by their eloquent silence.

Few students of history have been seriously concerned with the topic of cooking and eating in ancient Mesopotamia, or have been compelled to consider it a basic component of the civilization of that land, even though they have come across the pertinent documents and have studied or worked with them.

This neglect by historians is no doubt why, in the two centuries since the rediscovery of that venerable land, so radically and so long erased from our memory, not one of these Assyriologists, as they are called, at the cost of incredibly hard, admirable work through which they have become masters of the distant secrets of the almost indecipherable "cuneiform writing" of that archaic culture, and of the languages, dead or forgotten, that were spoken there-Sumerian and Akkadian-from documents that have been dug out of the abundant underground stores of the land and have brought to light its countless vestiges and eloquent testimony, has seemed sufficiently inspired by culinary subjects in the land they were exploring to have attempted even a cautious general presentation, as I hesitatingly did in 1982.

I hope I will be forgiven, then, if I use a more immediately "anthropological" rather than historical approach here-in other words, one more attentive to the customary behavior and the deeper meanings of eating and drinking than to their vicissitudes within the passing of time. I have set my sights on that distant, multicolored, unexpected, and captivating tableau of the cuisine and the eating habits of those worthy Mesopotamians, who died so many centuries ago after obliterating, as if with a powerful beacon, the horizon, or future, of their eminent civilization: that Middle East of long ago, where some of our most ancient identifiable ancestors lived and breathed. There is good reason for the reservations of most scholars, just as there is for the indulgence I now request as I venture to break their silence. That reason is the almost complete absence until quite recently of any indigenous texts containing information about the most revealing and most fascinating subject in question here-the Mesopotamian art of cooking-that is, the customs and norms of the chemistry that was skillfully practiced within the confines of the main laboratory of eating-the kitchen.

The Mesopotamia we know is not one of those ancient civilizations that have so generously opened up their archives to us; it has not yet allowed us to enter that room, which we knew existed but was padlocked. The information those people left us touches clearly and often on the vast realm of simple foodstuffs; but apart from a few succinct, frequently hidden confidences, we have not yet derived anything from it that enables us to look over the shoulders of the chefs while they were busy in their discreet culinary workshops with their praiseworthy, but occult, metamorphoses of ingredients into haute cuisine.

For the secrets of eating and drinking can only be fully appreciated by looking at culinary practices, which cannot be discovered except through the detail explained in recipes.

The Oldest Known Recipes

The most ancient collection of recipes that we know of, the oldest cookbook, does not, however, go back farther than the end of the fifth century BCE. The first identified patriarch of cooking was a certain Mithekos, a Greek from Syracuse and a contemporary of Plato, who once cites his name. Being a "professional," he was known as "the Phidias of Cooking." He had published instructions to go with certain Mediterranean dishes, primarily fish, as Athenaeus recalls in "The Learned Banquet."

Aside from a few fragments, however, Mithekos's book has been lost. So whoever truly wishes to consult the oldest well-preserved collection of culinary advice and recipes can only-in the West, at least-refer to the famous On Culinary Art by Apicius, a well-known Roman gourmand, glutton, and gourmet who lived at the beginning of the common era but whose book, containing about a hundred and twenty recipes, and actually compiled three centuries later on the basis of notes left by that glorious explorer of sauces and stews. Antedating Apicius, we have not yet found any complete culinary text that might introduce us to the early art of preparing food, and to the preferences of ancient taste buds.

And this is true of the entire ancient world within our grasp: the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Hebrews with their Bible, the Phoenicians, and all the rest of them; we can easily find out what they ate, but not how they prepared or enjoyed it; their culinary secrets continue to elude us.

For Mesopotamia, until recently, we only had one brief recipe, dating from around 400 BCE, for a sort of court-bouillon; and from more than a thousand years earlier a vague idea of the composition of some kind of "cake." How might we go back farther and get an idea of the particularities of the food, indeed of the haute cuisine, in that venerable land?

An unexpected discovery, as is still sometimes made in these archives, shook things up a few years ago, causing us, if we dare say so, to make a rather prodigious leap of two thousand years backwards: two thousand years before Apicius! Three cuneiform tablets, dating from around 1600 BCE and exhumed from the drawers of the rich Babylonian Collection at Yale University-whence the name Yale Babylonian Tablets (YBC) as they are sometimes called-have transported us to a time well before that of the venerable Mithekos. The complete texts and their translation are presented and discussed in my Textes culinaires mésopotamiens, and they are cited or mentioned throughout the present work.

Originating in southern Mesopotamia, it appears, these documents, in some 350 lines, which unfortunately have not all escaped the normal ravages of time, contain about forty recipes, enough to gain some knowledge, at last, of the secrets of Mesopotamian cuisine and to provide a clear, honest account of the procedures and techniques-the "principles" we might say-that governed cuisine and taste at that time. These documents constitute an unhoped-for and exceptional contribution-the only one we have of such respectable antiquity-to the earliest history of eating, indeed of eating well, and it is a contribution well worth revealing and discussing here. It alone legitimizes the present book.

I saw this topic as a wonderful opportunity to delve into a subject that has been practically ignored and neglected by all, including professionals, but is fascinating for anyone who is at all interested in knowing humankind with its interminable and obscure past, its slow, mysterious progress. It allowed me to look into the most hidden corners of Mesopotamian life and thought, especially in a time that was at once so distant and yet so knowable, so obscure and so intangible until now, and about which we had as yet only formulated questions without answers, and formed only uneasy and shaky theories.

I took the opportunity to comb rather widely while focusing on this new information, to look beyond it and to present what we have come to know about the cuisine and eating habits among our most hoary ancestors, so that we may, thanks to the newly discovered documentary treasures, locate and identify another dimension of our oldest accessible past. This is especially important-as will become all too apparent-since everything in their daily lives, including their religious behavior, their concepts of life and death, were necessarily, and strongly, integrated into the cycle of eating and drinking. One can, therefore, through such a detour "of the mouth," obtain an original and solid introduction to the great paradigms of Mesopotamia's refined and intelligent civilization, which already shows signs of our own.

In this spirit, it seemed beneficial to me, when the subject allowed, to include the greatest number of details, citations, reminders, entire pieces issued from these early, little known, or quite unfamiliar ancestors that would enable us to discover some of their unexpected secrets concerning eating and drinking as they understood and practiced them, so that we might appreciate and taste things as they appreciated and tasted them.

To speak only of the Mesopotamians' thoughts and preferences would be a strange and annoying way of presenting cooking and eating, which were in no way abstractions but were concrete and very common practices, connected to just about everything around them. Nor must we ever forget that good historians do not seek the past with our own vision and experience, distorted by our own perspective, our "specific mentality," but as those for whom it was the present contemplated and dreamed it.

I have tried to extract any professional pedantry from this work, any scholarly and "intellectual" language, in order to render my presentation more intelligible-even if here and there parts might not always be completely clear: there are occasionally, after all, technical formulations that require a slight personal effort by anyone who is not a professional but is simply eager to understand.

I myself have translated all the original texts that I have liberally cited here; that is, I have transposed into our language a discourse foreign to it, inserting, when it was useful, unknown or additional specifications into the originals. Anything that in the present state of our knowledge is not even approximately translatable I have simply transcribed, or I have cautiously added a question mark.

I have enclosed in parentheses material that the text itself has lost through the ravages of time but is relatively easy or safe to reconstruct: this practice, though sometimes irritating, is honest and trustworthy. To give a rough idea of quantities, for which those folks had a system very different from our own, I have chosen to convert everything, even if approximately, into the metric system. I hope I won't be criticized for using kilos and meters!


First, who were these people? Where and how did they live, those ancient eaters and drinkers whom we wish to join in their kitchens and at their tables?

Mesopotamia ("Between Two Rivers," as this Greek name defines it), whose territory covered approximately that of present-day Iraq, has deserved such a designation for only seven or eight thousand years-a small amount of time in the scheme of our dizzying geologic eras.

While the successive quaternary glaciers weighed down on the northern hemisphere, the heavy humidity that infused the atmosphere at that time as far as the Middle East, and the massive thawing of immeasurable blocks of snow and ice on the mountains, had turned this long valley, caught between the massive spur of the Caucasus to the north, the Persian Gulf to the south, the soft undulations of the Syro-Persian desert to the west, and the piedmont of the Iranian plateau to the east, into a huge basin: the bed of a single enormous river.

It was only after the slow global drying that began at the end of the last glacial period some ten thousand years ago that this huge body of flowing water, no longer being fed, gradually receded, revealing a territory that became increasingly wider. The river ultimately shaped the terrain into what it has remained ever since: a large expanse of land framed by the same natural barriers and drained by two parallel flowing bodies of water that were fairly substantial but much smaller than their single ancient ancestor: the Tigris to the east, and the Euphrates to the west.

The soil of this new land consisted of a heavy layer of sediment deposited through the millennia onto a base of rough sedimentary rocks, of the same earlier origin, which would forever form the foundation of the silty and fertile land. This fertile and generous ground became the agricultural destiny of Mesopotamia in some sense, for Mesopotamian civilization was primarily devoted to agriculture in general-and, more to the south, to the cultivation of date palms-and with its grassy steppes, to the raising of both small and large livestock, primarily cattle.

While the sun was bathing the ever-widening expanse of the new land, immigrants from surrounding populations, who had already settled on the solid highlands to the northeast and the east, came to take advantage of the bounty and to occupy portions of the open land.

Thus Mesopotamia was initially formed and populated.

Covering a few millennia we have found only scattered archeological vestiges of the first occupants of the land, and we know nothing about the physical characteristics of those people-their likes, their lives, not to mention their speech, the cultural traits that they had imported, each group in its own way-or of their herds, their familiar plants, their more or less domestic animals, their still cautious talents and abilities. They lived in modest "village" settlements, independent and most likely isolated, and they survived above all by gathering, and perhaps by producing a bit of what they needed to live.

These conquerors of a still new land had not made a bad choice in casting their lot upon it. Almost entirely lacking in rock and associated mineral resources, with the exception of a little mediocre limestone and a few bits of asphalt, and lacking many plant species, especially trees, the land nevertheless enjoyed untold advantages due to the nature of its soil. It offered a wide, free expanse, welcoming and fertile, with two large rivers to feed it. But the climate was too hot and dry, especially in the southern region; and rain was too rare and too meager to sufficiently water the ground or even to contribute to the annual rise of the rivers, so as to extend and prolong their salutary effect. These were disadvantages that in the beginning did not seem likely to steer the land toward a future in agriculture.


Excerpted from THE OLDEST CUISINE IN THE WORLD by Jean Bottéro Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Jean Bottéro (1914–2007) was director emeritus of L'École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. He is the author of many books, several of which have been translated and published by the University of Chicago Press. Teresa Lavender Fagan has translated numerous books for the University of Chicago Press.

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