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13 Offbeat Ancient Recipes from Around the World

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)

Dtarazona via Wikimedia Commons //CC BY-SA 4.0

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)

Alan Levine via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

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 porpeysporridge 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!

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The Science Behind Why We Crave Loud and Crunchy Foods
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A number of years ago, food giant Unilever polled consumers asking how the company might improve their popular line of Magnum ice cream bars. The problem, respondents said, was that the chocolate coating of the bars tended to fall off too quickly, creating blotches of sticky goo on carpeting. Unilever reacted by changing the recipe to make the chocolate less prone to spills.

When they tested the new and improved product, they expected a warm reception. Instead, they got more complaints than before. While the updated bar didn’t make a mess, it also didn’t make the distinctive crackle that its fans had grown accustomed to. Deprived of hearing the coating collapse and crumble, the experience of eating the ice cream was fundamentally changed. And not for the better.

Smell and taste researcher Alan Hirsch, M.D. refers to it as the “music of mastication,” an auditory accompaniment to the sensory stimulus of eating. “For non-gustatory, non-olfactory stimulation, people prefer crunchiness,” he tells Mental Floss. Humans love crunchy, noisy snacks, that loud rattling that travels to our inner ear via air and bone conduction and helps us identify what it is we’re consuming. Depending on the snack, the noise can reach 63 decibels. (Normal conversations are around 60 dB; rustling leaves, 20 dB.)

When we hear it, we eat more. When we don’t—as in the case of Magnum bars, or a soggy, muted potato chip—we resort to other senses, looking at our food with doubt or sniffing it for signs of expiration. Psychologically, our lust for crispy sustenance is baked in. But why is it so satisfying to create a cacophony of crunch? And if we love it so much, why do some of us actually grow agitated and even aggressive when we hear someone loudly chomping away? It turns out there’s a lot more to eating with our ears than you might have heard.

 
 

The science of crunch has long intrigued Charles Spence, Ph.D., a gastrophysicist and professor of experimental psychology and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. Food companies have enlisted him and consulted his research across the spectrum of ingestion, from packaging to shapes to the sound chips make rustling around in grocery carts.

“We’re not born liking noisy foods,” he tells Mental Floss. “Noise doesn’t give a benefit in terms of nutrition. But we don’t like soggy crisps even if they taste the same. Missing the sound is important.”

In 2003, Spence decided to investigate the sonic appeal of chips in a formal setting. To keep a semblance of control, he selected Pringles, which are baked uniformly—a single Pringle doesn't offer any significant difference in size, thickness, or crunch from another. He asked 20 research subjects to bite into 180 Pringles (about two cans) while seated in a soundproof booth in front of a microphone. The sound of their crunching was looped back into a pair of headphones.

After consuming the cans, they were asked if they perceived any difference in freshness or crispness from one Pringle to another. What they didn’t know was that Spence had been playing with the feedback in their headphones, raising or lowering the volume of their noisy crunching [PDF]. At loud volumes, the chips were reported to be fresher; chips ingested while listening at low volume were thought to have been sitting out longer and seemed softer. The duplicitous sounds resulted in a radical difference in chip perception. It may have been a small study, but in the virtually non-existent field of sonic chip research, it was groundbreaking.

A view inside a potato chip bag
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For Spence, the results speak to what he considers the inherent appeal of crunchy foods. “Noisy foods correlate with freshness,” he says. “The fresher the produce, like apples, celery, or lettuce, the more vitamins and nutrients it’s retained. It’s telling us what’s in the food.”

Naturally, this signal becomes slightly misguided when it reinforces the quality of a potato chip, a processed slab of empty calories. But Spence has a theory on this, too: “The brain likes fat in food, but it’s not so good at detecting it through our mouths. Noisy foods are certainly fattier on average.”

Fatty or fresh, raising decibels while eating may also have roots in less appetizing behaviors. For our ancestors who ate insects, the crunch of a hard-bodied cricket symbolized nourishment. In a primal way, violently mincing food with our teeth could also be a way to vent and dilute aggression. “There are some psychoanalytic theories related to crunchiness and aggressive behavior,” Hirsch says. “When you bite into ice or potato chips, you’re sublimating that in a healthy way.”

 
 

All of these factors explain why crunch appeals to us. But is it actually affecting what we taste?

Yes—but maybe not the way you’d think. “Sound affects the experience of food,” Spence says. “The noise draws attention to the mouth in the way something silent does not. If you’re eating pâté, your attention can drift elsewhere, to a television or to a dining companion. But a crunch will draw your attention to what you’re eating, making you concentrate on it. Noisy foods make you think about them.”

That crunch can also influence how much food we consume. Because noisy foods tend to be fatty, Spence says, they’ll retain their flavor longer. And because the noise reinforces our idea of what we’re eating, it affords us a sense of security that allows us to keep consuming without having to look at our snack—not so important in a brightly-lit room, but crucial if we’re in a dark movie theater. “It becomes more important when you can’t see what you’re eating,” Spence says.

Thanks to this hard-wired feedback, the snack industry has made it a priority to emphasize the sounds of their foods in both development and marketing. In the 1980s, Frito-Lay funded extensive work at a Dallas plant that involved $40,000 chewing simulators. There, they discovered the ideal breaking point for a chip was four pounds per square inch (PSI), just a fraction of what we might need to tear into a steak (150 to 200 PSI). The quality and consistency of the potatoes themselves is also key, according to Herbert Stone, Ph.D., a food scientist who has worked with companies on product development. “Too thick, too hard, and people don’t like them,” Stone tells Mental Floss. “Too thin and they just crumble.”

The right potato sliced at the right thickness with the right oil at the right temperature results in a solid chip—one resilient enough to make for a satisfying break when it hits your molars, but vanishing so quickly that your brain and body haven’t even processed the calories you’ve just taken in. “If they pick it up and put it in the mouth and the crunch is not what they expect, they might put it down,” Stone says. “It’s about expectation.”

A shopper examines a bag of potato chips
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Walk down the snack aisle in your local supermarket or glance at commercials and you’ll find no shortage of claims about products being the boldest, crunchiest chip available. For years, Frito-Lay marketed Cheetos as “the cheese that goes crunch!” Even cereals try to capitalize on the fervor, making mascots—Snap, Crackle, and Pop—out of the sound their Rice Krispies make when submerged in milk. One ad for a brand of crisps drew attention for “cracking” the viewer’s television screen.

For most consumers, the promise of sonic flavor will draw their attention. But for a small number of people diagnosed with a condition dubbed misophonia, the sound of a co-worker or partner crunching on chips isn’t at all pleasurable. It’s insufferable.

 
 

According to Connecticut audiologist Natan Bauman, M.D., the average noise level of someone masticating a potato chip is between 25 to 35 decibels. (Other sources peg it as closer to 63 dB when you're chewing on a chip with your mouth open, or 55 dB with your lips closed.) When you hear your own chewing, the sound is being conducted both via the air and your own bones, giving it a distinctively unique sound. (Like talking, hearing yourself chewing on a recording might be troubling.)

For someone suffering from misophonia, or the literal hatred of specific sounds, it's not their own chomping that's the problem. It's everyone else's.

When we chew, Bauman says, the auditory cortical and limbic system areas of our brain are lighting up, getting information about freshness and texture. But people with misophonia aren’t struggling with their own sounds. Instead, they're affected by others typing, clicking pens, or, more often, chewing. The sound of someone snacking is routed from the cochlea, or cavity in the inner ear, and becomes an electric signal that winds up in the brain’s amygdala, which processes fear and pleasure. That's true for everyone, but in misophonics, it lands with a thud. They’ve likely developed a trigger, or negative association, with the sounds stemming from an incident in childhood.

“If you are scolded by a parent and they happen to be eating, or smacking, it becomes negative reinforcement,” Bauman says. Chewing, lip smacking, and even breathing become intolerable for sufferers, who often feel agitated and nervous, with corresponding increases in heart rate. Some fly into a rage.

Misophonics don’t necessarily recoil at all of these sounds all of the time: It may depend on who’s doing the snacking. Often, it’s a co-worker, spouse, or family member munching away that prompts a response. Fearing they’ll damage that relationship, sufferers tend to vent online. The misophonia subreddit is home to threads with titles like “And the popcorn eater sits RIGHT next to me on the plane” and “Chips can go f-ck themselves.” (The entire content of the latter: “F-ck chips, man. That is all.”)

Bauman says misophonia can be treated using cognitive therapy. An earpiece can provide white noise to reduce trigger sounds while sufferers try to retrain their brain to tolerate the noises. But even the sight of a bag of chips can be enough to send them scrambling.

People with misophonia might also want to exercise caution when traveling. Although some Asian cultures minimize crunchy snacks because loud snacking is considered impolite, other parts of the world can produce noisier mealtimes. “In parts of Asia, you show appreciation for food by slurping,” Spence says. Slurping is even associated with a more intense flavor experience, particularly when it’s in the setting of a comparatively quiet dining establishment.

Western culture favors noisier restaurants, and there’s a good reason for that. Supposedly Hard Rock Café has mastered the art of playing loud and fast music, resulting in patrons who talked less, ate faster, and left more quickly, allowing operators to turn over tables more times in an evening.

Spence believes sound will continue to be important to gastronomy, to chefs, and to food companies looking to sell consumers on a complete experience. Snack shelves are now full of air-puffed offerings like 3-D Doritos and Pop Chips that create pillows of taste. With less volume, you’ll snack more and crunch for longer periods.

A woman snacks on a chip
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But the sound of the chip is just one part of the equation. The way a bag feels when you pick it up at the store, the aroma that wafts out when you first open the bag, the concentration of flavor from the granules of seasoning on your fingers—it’s all very carefully conducted to appeal to our preferences.

“When we hear the rattle of crisps, it may encourage people to start salivating, like Pavlov’s dogs,” Spence says, referring to the Russian scientist who trained his canines to salivate when he made a certain sound. We’re conditioned to anticipate the flavor and enjoyment of chips as soon as we pick up a package. Even hearing or saying the words crispy and crunchy can prime us for the experience.

When we’re deprived of that auditory cue, we can get annoyed. After news reports emerged that Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi had mentioned her company might consider a quieter version of Doritos for women—an idea PepsiCo later denied they would label in a gender-specific fashion—women Doritos enthusiasts rallied around the Texas state capitol, condemning the perceived gender discrimination. To protest the possible dilution of their favorite snack, they made a spectacle of crunching Doritos as loudly as they could.

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London Grocery Chain Encourages Shoppers to Bring Their Own Tupperware
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Why stop at bringing your own grocery bags to the store? One London grocery wants you to BYO-Tupperware. The London Evening Standard reports that a UK chain called Planet Organic has partnered with Unpackaged—a company dedicated to sustainable packaging—to install self-serve bulk-food dispensers where customers can fill their own reusable containers with dry goods, cutting down on plastic packaging waste.

To use the system, customers walk up and weigh their empty container at a self-serve station, printing and attaching a label with its tare weight. Then, they can fill it with flour, nuts, or other kinds of dry goods, weigh it again, and print the price tag before taking it up to the check out. (Regular customers only have to weigh their containers once, since they can save the peel-off label to use again next time.)

Planet Organic is offering cereals, legumes, grains, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, and even some cleaning products in bulk as part of this program, significantly reducing the amount of waste shoppers would otherwise be taking home on each grocery trip.

Zero-waste grocery stores have been popping up in Europe for several years. These shops, like Berlin's Original Unverpackt, don't offer any bags or containers, asking customers bring their own instead. This strategy also encourages people to buy only what they need, which eliminates food waste—there's no need to buy a full 5-pound bag of flour if you only want to make one cake.

The concept is also gaining traction in North America. The no-packaging grocery store in.gredients opened in Austin, Texas in 2011. The Brooklyn store Package Free, opened in 2017, takes the idea even further, marketing itself as a one-stop shop for "everything that you'd need to transition to a low waste lifestyle." It sells everything from tote bags to laundry detergent to dental floss.

[h/t London Evening Standard]

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