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Chef Breaks Code to Ancient Recipes : Babylonian Collection Now the Oldest Known to Man

May 23, 1985|SYLVIA CARTER | Newsday

The cuisine of ancient Mesopotamia could be the hottest thing to hit the food world since the discovery of fire. The flurry of scholarly excitement over the first published translation of the oldest known written recipes promises to add a significant chapter to the history of food. It is doubtful, however, that chefs, no matter how desperate for a new wrinkle, will introduce dishes dating to the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon to Manhattan's trendy dining spots next season.

Recipe tablets from the Yale Babylonian Collection, previously thought to contain pharmaceutical formulas, have been decoded by French Assyriologist and gourmet chef Jean Bottero. The three Akkadian tablets, dating to about 1700 BC, revealed, Bottero wrote in a description of his find, "a cuisine of striking richness, refinement, sophistication and artistry, which is surprising from such an early period. Previously we would not have dared to think a cuisine 4,000 years old was so advanced."

Herbs and Spices

Various cooking techniques were known, and a complex assortment of herbs and spices was used to flavor a single dish. Garnishes and presentation were so highly esteemed that they were mentioned in recipes that are otherwise not highly detailed. In one recipe, crumbled bread provided a thickening. And, just as modern cooks collect recipes from other regions or countries, the Mesopotamian chefs gave credit to the Assyrians to the north for one stew and to the Elamites from the southwest corner of Iran for another.

Although some of the ingredients are unknown to us today or cannot be translated, the discovery of such ancient recipes is unparalleled. Until quite recently, the oldest surviving collection of recipes was that attributed to Apicius, the Roman gourmet who lived at the beginning of the first century.

Apicius' "De Re Coquinaria" ("On Culinary Art," also sometimes translated as "Of Culinary Matters") had been preceded by other recipe anthologies by the Greeks, but most of these works are lost, according to Bottero, save for a few quotations that were preserved in the work of Athenaeus of Naucratis, who lived in the second century. Athenaeus mentions the names of as many as 20 cookbook authors, but none of their work survived in its original form. And in the Bible, while food is mentioned, there are no conventional recipes.

Largely Vegetarian Diet

"We know that both the Egyptians and the Hittites had developed distinctive cuisines," said Bottero, a professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. "But we do not, in either case, have a single recipe which would give us a sufficiently detailed picture of how the food was prepared." Of the 25 Mesopotamian recipes translated by Bottero, 21 are for meat dishes and only four are vegetable preparations, but this proportion is not an accurate sampling of the overall diet, which was largely vegetarian. According to William Hallo, master of Yale's Morse College and curator of the Babylonian Collection, these recipes were written on tablets prepared by ancient scribes as part of advanced training in cuneiform, a form of writing using pictures and symbols.

The tablets survived and were found, and in 1933, they were catalogued into Yale's collection. Mary Inda Hussey, who died in 1952, had made hand copies of some of them, and Albrecht Goetze, a Yale professor of Assyriology, tried his hand at deciphering them--"21 entries concerning water of the meat and four on herb"--in an introduction, never published, to Hussey's work. For a time, the work languished. But at last, Jan van Dijk, who was doing hand copies of other, related tablets for publication by Yale University Press, told Bottero of their existence. They will be published this fall as Volume 11 of the Yale Oriental Series: Babylonian Texts.

Hallo, who is also professor of Assyriology at Yale, said the tablets were very difficult to translate, "and we have the happy accident that Bottero has a special interest." Some of Hallo's Yale colleagues, including Benjamin Foster, have dined sumptuously on Bottero's own modern European cooking at Bottero's home in Gif-sur-Yvette near Paris.

The code to the tablets was hard to crack. "I thought they were magical texts," said Foster, associate professor of Assyriology at Yale. Foster respects Bottero for more than his academic expertise. He is a specialist in Provencal cuisine and, Foster said, "one of the best gourmet cooks in France."

Despite Bottero's reputation as a chef, he said in a telephone interview that he would not attempt to re-create the recipes, although some business friends begged him to try. "The cook knows many things from having seen people work," Bottero said. "We can't identify all the ingredients, many words escape us." Imagine, he said, if we'd gotten a recipe from Japan with only a list of ingredients and no directions.

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