The oldest cookbook in the world is made of mud recipes — not recipes for eating mud, but tablets fashioned from mud and inscribed with cuneiform script. They are from Babylon and are now in the Yale Collection in the university’s Mesopotamian Collection. There are three nearly complete tablets and a forth fragmentary one and they date from about 1750 BCE, nearly 4,000 years ago and roughly the time of Hammurabi.
Most of the recipes they contain are for broths and stews, but no doubt these fragments are only the remains of a larger cache of recipe tablets so far unearthed or uncatalogued. It is notable, though, that the evidence suggests that it is at this time and place that cooking in liquid was first introduced. It was an innovation in cooking and supplemented the open fire roasting and closed oven baking.
The recipes we have are sketchy at best, mostly a list of ingredients with rudimentary instruction, most likely because the recipes were written down for the use of well-trained chefs who already knew the basic methods of the kitchen.
A recipe for lamb stew reads literally: “Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.”
The ingredients for many recipes includes ingredients that are obscure, at best. Translating from the Akkadian text is often ambiguous. Modern scholars disagree on what is meant by “sebetu,” and they are probably a type of greens, like collards, but arguments persist.
There are recipes older than these tablets, like an Egyptian recipe for flatbread from the 19th century BCE tomb of Senet and a formula for beer — or “liquid bread — from Sumer in the 14th century BCE, but the Yale Tablets are the oldest collection of recipes pulled together, in other words, the first cookbook.
The oldest book, not on clay, is from the Fourth or Fifth Century CE and is typically ascribed to a Roman gourmand named Marcus Gavius Apicius. He almost certainly didn’t write the book, since he had been dead for at least 200 years when it was produced, but several recipes in the book are named for him. (Plato in his Gorgias has Socrates mention a book by Mithaikos on the cuisine of Sicily, which the philosopher calls a “gluttonous food culture.” Plato disapproved of so much. The book, if it existed, is lost.)
Apicius was once the byname for gastronomic excess. Pliny tells us he loved the “superb flavor” of flamingo tongues, and that he once sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to sample Libyan shrimp, but when his boat pulled up to the coast, and he saw what the local fishermen had caught, was unimpressed by the size of the shrimp and turned his ship around and went home without even going ashore. The Historia Augusta tells of his taste for “camel heels, cockscombs, the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, the brains of flamingos and thrushes, partridge eggs, the heads of parrots and pheasants, and the beards of mullets.”
The book is De Re Coquinaria, or “On the Subject of Cooking,” and while it contains such exotic recipes, most are of more mainstream foods, and gives us an insight into the typical Roman diet.
A recipe for Pork with Apples translates literally as: “Put in a sauce pan oil, broth, finely chopped leeks, coriander, small bits of cooked pork shoulder cut into long strips, including the skin, having everything equally half done. Add Matian apples cleaned, the core removed, slice lengthwise and cook them together. Meanwhile crush pepper, cumin, green coriander or seeds, mint, laser root, moistened with vinegar, honey and garum and a little reduced must. Add to this broth of the above morsels, vinegar to taste. Boil, skim, bind strain over the morsels, sprinkle with pepper and serve.”
There are no measurements, no cooking times, and a few ingredients that may make you scratch your head. “Garum,” for instance, is a ubiquitous Roman fish sauce made by layering whole small fish with salt in a one-to-one proportion and letting the whole concoction ferment for a month or so and to collect the juices. “Laser root” is the Latin equivalent of the Greek sylphion, which is an extinct herb. Modern versions of the recipe often call for the substitution of asafoetida, “Must,” or “defrutum,” is a thick, reduced grape syrup.
A recipe to stew lamb or goat kid says: “Put the pieces of meat into a pan. Finely chop and onion and coriander, pound pepper, lovage, cumin, garum, oil and wine. Cook, turn out into a shallow pan, thicken with wheat starch. If you are cooking lamb, add the spices while the meat is raw; if goat kid, add it while it is cooking.”
De Re Coquinaria was popular in many editions and variants through the Renaissance and first printed commercially in 1498, with dozens of editions to follow.
In the middle of the 10th Century, the first Arabic cookbook was compiled by Abu Muhammad al-Muthaffar ibn Nasr ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, or Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, for short. Called the Kitab al-Tabikh, or “Book of Dishes,” it collects 600 recipes in 132 chapters.
Because the Rome of Apicius and the Middle East of al-Warraq are both Mediterranean cultures, it shouldn’t be surprising that so many of their recipes share certain traits. If the Romans douse everything with garum, the Arabs had their murri, or fermented barley water (very like soy sauce).
A recipe for Barida runs thus: “Take roasted chicken, disjoint it and arrange the pieces on a platter. Beat together mustard made with good wine vinegar and a small amount of murri and some sugar so that the sauce tastes sweet and sour. Add to the mixture ground walnut and a little asafoetida. Pour the sauce over the chicken to drench it. Then pour olive oil all over, finally, sprinkle top with chopped rue and garnish with pomegranate seeds, God willing.”
And if you compare the Arabic, Roman and Mesopotamian cookbooks, you find a family resemblance: lots of coriander, mint, cumin, caraway, cinnamon, sesame, rue, long pepper, and the lost sylphion. They could really be considered variants of a single thousand-years-old basic cuisine.
Indeed, the Akkadian word for broth is “mu,” or “water,” and in al-Warraq’s book, a cooking broth is called “ma wa milh,” or literally, “water and salt.”
Some two centuries after al-Wassaq, another Kitab al-Tabikh was written by Muhammad bin al-Hasan bin Muhammad bin al-Karim al-Baghdadi (they had a thing for long names), al-Baghdadi for short. It contains 160 recipes.
Many early cookbooks, including al-Wassaq’s Kitab al-Tabikh, functions as much as a medical book as a cuisine guide. The quadri-humoral theory of medicine underlies all the recipes — the balance of wet, dry, cool, and warm. The subtitle of al-Wassaq’s book is “Winning a Lover’s Heart and Sparing Him the Need for a Doctor.”
The first cookbook from India is the Sushruta Samhita, a Sanskrit medical text and one of the foundations of Ayurveda medicine. It is usualy dated from the First Millennium BCE, but the oldest surviving version dates from 878 CE.
The Manasollasa is a 12th Century guide to Indian culture, from politics to dance compiled by Someshvara III, king of the Deccan empire of Chalukya. The Third Book is devoted to cuisine both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. A recipe for fish:
“Cut fishes into pieces and wash them well. Cook along with tamarind juice. Sprinkle well with wheat flour; fry in heated oil until brown. Add rock salt. Sprinkle powdered cardamom and pepper.”
The first Chinese cookbook was written in 1330 and was also a medical text. Called the Yinshan Zhengyao, or “Essential Knowledge for Drinking and Feasting,” it was assembled by Hu Sihui and presented to Emperor Tugh Temur of the Mongol court.
Hu Sihui is believed to have been of Turkic origin and many of his recipes seem to have been brought over from the Middle East, and therefore, share some of the habits of all the previous cookbooks. He was working during the Yuan Dynasty, which was Mongol, and the culture and cuisine of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia had a monumental affect on Asian and European societies, which may account for the similarities in cooking from Beijing to Marseilles, where you find meats stewed with fruits and exotic spices.
One recipe, for Wolf Soup calls for: “Wolf meat (leg: bone and cut up), cardamom, black pepper, kasini (powdered chickory), turmeric, saffron. Boil together into a soup. Adjust flavors of everything using onions, sauce, salt, and vinegar.”
The author was primarily a physician and was likely the first to discover the link between nutritional deficiencies and disease. A recipe for mutton stew says “it supplements and increases, warms the center, and accords qi [the life force, literally ‘air’].”
That Pan-Eurasian food culture lasts through the Middle Ages in Europe, but a more Western style of cuisine begins to emerge in the as the Medieval morphed into the Renaissance. Apicius still stood as the model for the kitchen staff of the wealthy, but at least in northern Europe, a different sort of cookbook began to emerge. And after about 1500 CE, the Columbian Exchange brought a whole new pantry of ingredients.
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