The Cuisine of Babylonia Comes Back Again in Tablet Form

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Fed up with cuisine that's nouvelle? What you want then is some kippu stew or perhaps a side dish of turnips with dorsal thorn and kanasu. It's good, old-fashioned cooking. Extremely old-fashioned. The dishes are not on any menu, but the recipes can be found in the Gothic-style library that houses Yale University's Babylonian Collection, which includes what are probably the three oldest cookbooks extant, dating to 1700 B.C.

Never mind that the three baked-clay tablets, the largest of which measures 7 by 9½ inches, look more like cutting boards than cookbooks. Or that one needs to understand cuneiform to decipher the tiny scratchings. According to French Assyriologist Jean Bottero, who recently finished translating the tablets, the recipes reveal "a cuisine of striking richness, refinement, sophistication and artistry, which is surprising from such an early period."

The Babylonian tablets have been sitting at Yale since before World War II, but until 1978 they were thought to contain pharmaceutical formulas. While some recipes contain such familiar seasonings as cumin, mustard, coriander and juniper berries, many call for ingredients you won't find on your grocer's shelves. Not even Bottero is sure what some of them were. Kippu were possibly doves or pigeons, though not chickens, which didn't exist in ancient Babylonia (present-day Iraq). Kanasu was a legume, dorsal thorn a plant used as a condiment. All that is known of samidu and suhutinnu is that they were spices. But don't feel too bad about not finding them. Most Babylonians couldn't get them either.

"These recipes are comparable to, say, a state dinner at the White House," says Gary Beckman, assistant curator of the collection. "The average person in that period ate bread, a little bit of oil and some beer. These recipes represent the food of important occasions, when they pulled out all the stops." Most require slow cooking in covered pots, but quantities and cooking times are not specified. Last year Alexandra Hicks, a University of Michigan food historian, prepared a banquet for 150 people from the tablet recipes. "No one died," quips Beckman. "In fact, everyone loved it."

Not that they did their cholesterol any good, or their breath. Bottero says Babylonians went light on the salt but "adored their food soaked in fats and oils" and seemed "obsessed with garlic and every member of the onion family."

—By Ned Geeslin, with S. Avery Brown in New Haven

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