Die-hard foodies, rejoice! Thanks to the fact that humans have loved to write about food since, well, we invented writing, there are collections around the world of ancient recipes. Long before all the 21st-century trends in gastronomy, pretty much all food was farm to table. But in the undemocratic ways of old societies, the most elaborate dishes were usually those prepared for rulers and warlords.
Although archaeologists and linguistic experts have found evidence of recipes—or at least methods to prepare food—dating back thousands of years, most cookbooks are more recent (but still centuries-old) inventions, particularly in areas of the world without a long written history. Combined with ideas of globalization in food production and consumption, these modern cookbooks, according to anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, “belong to the humble literature of complex civilizations. They reflect the boundaries of edibility and the structure of domestic ideology.”
Following are 13 recipes gathered from different times, places, and cultures to give you a taste of some of the more offbeat meals (and one toothpaste) from the past.
1. HUMAN STEW (AZTECS, 17TH CENTURY CE; OLMEC, 7TH CENTURY BCE)
Sure, the Aztecs are best known for their xocoatl recipe—a chocolate drink that impressed European explorers. Less well known, though, is that they occasionally ate human flesh. In a 1629 treatise on “heathen superstitions,” Spaniard Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón wrote about tlacatlaolli, or human stew. He notes that they cook the corn side-dish first and put a bit of the meat on it. The meat itself was curiously devoid of chiles and only seasoned with salt. There is archaeological evidence of human barbecue associated with the much earlier Olmec civilization as well. When archaeologists noticed the odd yellow color of the bones, they analyzed them and found that they had been cooked at low heat with annatto, or pipián, or chilis. Although cannibalism is a worldwide phenomenon that people engage in for a variety of reasons, some of our earliest evidence of “recipes” with human as a choice ingredient comes from Mesoamerica.
2. PIG VULVA SAUSAGE WITH HERBS AND PINE NUTS (ROMANS, 4th CENTURY CE)
From the cookbook of Apicius, a 4th-century CE text that represents recipes from numerous elite cooks passed down through the years, comes vulvulae botelli. To make this dish, you mix pepper, cumin, leek, roux, and pine nuts, and add it to what was considered a great delicacy in ancient times: pig vulva. Stuff that mixture into a sausage casing, boil in broth, and serve with dill and more leeks.
3. BLACK SOUP (SPARTANS, 1st MILLENIUM BCE)
Although no official recipe exists for this, Spartan warriors were known to eat melas zomos. To make it, combine pork, salt, vinegar … and lots of blood. Ancient writers joked that this was a pitiful diet but also thought it made the Spartans brave. Black soup was served with figs and cheese.
4. STEWED GUINEA PIG WITH HOT PEPPERS AND FLOWERS (INCAS, 17th CENTURY CE)
Eating roast guinea pig (cuy) goes back at least 5000 years to the ancestors of the Incas. The site of Machu Picchu revealed guinea pig teeth in caves, suggesting that cuy was eaten during funeral rituals.Cuy has been also found mummified with human burials, and the creatures are even depicted on ancient pottery. Although several recipes for cuy can be found today, it’s hard to pinpoint the oldest recipe. Jesuit scholar and traveler Bernabé Cobo wrote in the 17th century that cuys were stuffed with hot peppers and river pebbles, and sometimes mint and marigold, then turned into a stew called carapulcra.
5. FERMENTED SHARK (VIKINGS, 9TH CENTURY CE)
Still consumed today in Iceland, hakarl is fermented shark meat. A big problem with shark meat is that it contains cyanide, and needs to be cured in order not to be poisonous. Although fish are more commonly cured and preserved through a salting process, the story goes that there was not enough wood in early Iceland to boil water to make enough salt. Sharks are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas (written in the 13th–14th centuries about the origins of the country in the 9th–10th centuries), and hakarl became popular by the 14th century. The recipe is not complicated: Bury the shark meat in the ground near the shore until the meat becomes squishy … kinda like how you can make moonshine from peaches. Hakarl is often eaten while drinking Brennivin, a strong Icelandic liquor.
6. POACHED PARTRIDGE IN A BREAD BOWL WITH SPLEEN BROTH (BABYLONIANS, 2ND MILLENNIUM BCE)
The oldest cookbook ever found is a three-piece clay tablet dating to about 1750 BCE—the time of Hammurabi—and is in Akkadian. The tablet contains 40 recipes written in cuneiform script, most of which have just a few ingredients but complicated instructions. In short, to make partridges, you would remove the head and feet, then clean the birds inside and out. To a pot, add milk, fat, rue, leek, garlic, and onions, along with the birds. After poaching, make a soft dough with grain and more leeks, onions, and garlic, and split it in two. Place one disk on the cooking plate, then the bird, then bake in the oven. Serve with a bread disk on top of the partridge-in-a-bread-bowl. And if you want an accompaniment, perhaps try some spleen broth, which consists mostly of water, fat, salted spleen, and milk, to which you can add bits of bread, onions, mint, leek, and blood.
7. ROAST GRUBS AND CRABS (INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS, BEFORE THE 19TH CENTURY CE)
In the late 19th century, European colonists in Australia began writing cookbooks. Most of these mainly included recipes that were “antipodean” takes on northern hemisphere food with local ingredients substituted. But a few included recipes learned from indigenous Australians, which were passed down through oral tradition. In an 1895 cookbook, author Mina Rawson notes that many colonists are disgusted by the idea of eating white wood grubs (wood-eating moth larvae) favored by the locals, but she compares the soft morsels to oysters. Rawson recommends parching them on a flat stone over a fire. And in a later cookbook, a recipe for nyoka (crabs) is written down based on indigenous tradition. The crabs are roasted over the fire. When they turn from green to orange, they're done. Interestingly, nyoka traditionally were forbidden for women during their monthly period, lest someone get bitten by a snake or eaten by a shark.
8. BLUE CORN PANCAKE COOKED WITH SHEEP SPINAL CORD (HOPI, 16TH CENTURY CE)
The Hopi of North America are fairly well known for piki, a blue corn pancake. The tradition of eating piki goes back at least 500 years. One recipe recorded by anthropologists after interviewing the Hopi is as follows: Place a thin layer of blue cornmeal, ash, and water on a hot, flat stone that has been greased with sheep spinal cord, and put it over a fire created from juniper and cedar wood. Because piki takes a long time to make from scratch, its creation is seen as an art, and the food is often used ceremonially. For a contemporary take on the recipe, try this one out.
9. MULTIGRAIN BREAD COOKED OVER HUMAN FECES (ISRAELITES, 6TH CENTURY BCE)
This recipe for a multigrain bread with a twist comes from the Old Testament, Ezekiel 4:12. For this, you would put wheat, barley, beans, millet, and lentils in a storage jar and make bread from the mixture. But the key part of this biblical bread is that you have to bake it—while people are watching—over a fire made with human feces. Oh, and you’re supposed to eat it while lying on your side. Chances are that the so-called Ezekiel bread you can find in some modern grocery stores was not cooked according to historical tradition. Here’s a modern take on it.
10. PORPOISE PORRIDGE (ENGLISH, 14TH CENTURY CE)
One of the earliest English language cookbooks is The Forme of Cury, compiled in Middle English by a chef to King Richard II. The digitized version of the cookbook was put online a few years ago and has Medieval gems such as furmente with porpeys—porridge of porpoise. To make this, grind wheat in a mortar, then wash and boil it with almond milk until thick. Put the porpoise in a dish with hot water or, if it’s salted, serve as is. Add saffron to the porridge and serve along with the poached or salted porpoise. Mmm, tastes like pig-fish (which is what the Latin origin of porpoise literally means).
11. CAMEL STEW WITH FERMENTED BREAD SAUCE AND ASPARAGUS VIAGRA (ABBASID CALIPHATE, 10TH CENTURY CE)
In the 10th century, Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq compiled the earliest known Arabic language cookbook, which was presumably used to cook for the caliphs, or ruling elite. One of the many recipes is for camel stew prepared with binn, a sauce made from fermented bread. To make this dish, cut the camel meat into strips, including the hump. Cook the meat, minus the hump, in a pot over the fire until the moisture evaporates. Then add crushed onion, salt, and the hump. Fry and season with vinegar, black pepper, coriander, caraway, fennel, and binn. The fermented bread sauce is pretty easy to make: You leave out bread until it gets good and moldy, then mix with water for a tasty sauce. As a bonus, the cookbook includes instructions for making medicinal foods, like asparagus, in such a way that they enhance sexual intercourse. For this one, boil the asparagus, and season with olive oil and fermented sauce. Then make an accompanying drink of the asparagus liquid, honey, cilantro, rue, aniseed, and black pepper.
12. SWEET-SALTY RAT WITH FRAGRANT RICE AND CURRY (INDIAN, 12TH CENTURY CE)
South Indian king Someshvara III wrote down in Sanskrit a text called the Manasollasa in the early 12th century CE. In this large volume, the king explains everything from politics to astronomy to food. The Manasollasa, while not specifically a cookbook, provides us some of the earliest evidence of what Indian cooking was like before the introduction of New World chilis. The book contains an interesting recipe for black rats. To prepare, fry in hot oil until the hair is removed. Wash, then cut open the stomach, cooking the innards with gooseberries and salt. Sprinkle the cooked rat with more salt, and serve with yellow curry and cumin-scented rice.
13. MINT, PEPPER, AND IRIS TOOTHPASTE (EGYPTIAN, 4TH CENTURY CE)
Don't forget to brush your teeth after an adventurous meal. The ancient Egyptians didn’t write down their recipes, or perhaps the recipes didn’t survive events like the fire in the Library of Alexandria. But since the Medieval shorthand for recipe—℞—survives into modern times in the form of prescriptions, here’s an old Egyptian recipe for toothpaste. You’ll need one drachma of rock salt (1/100 oz.), two drachmas of mint, one drachma of dried iris flower, and 20 grains of pepper, crushed and mixed together. This recipe was found written in ink on papyrus among documents in the basement of a museum in Vienna in 2003. While the formula has been called “pungent,” it is at least a considerable improvement over the Romans’ use of urine.
If you end up trying any of these offbeat ancient recipes, let us know in the comments!