Ancient foods: 9 of the oldest enduring recipes from history still in use today

Ancient foodsImage credit: Pramoda

Food is so much more than just a source of nourishment and subsistence. Its richness colors culture, history and even literature. Its coalescing prowess brings people together into communities by creating a sense of familiarity and brotherhood. Some might go so far as to say that food is one of the major forces forging national identity. It gives individuals a feeling of belonging that is at the core of nationalism. It serves as a hobby, a passion, a profession and sometimes even as refuge.

It is interesting to see how food preparation has evolved through history, from the Paleolithic man’s roast meat cooked over open fire in shallow pits to the modern art of molecular gastronomy. Some ancient recipes, however, have miraculously stood the test of time and continue to be in wide use even to this day. Below are ten of the oldest surviving recipes known to historians:

Note: The list focuses on the oldest enduring recipes that are more intricate than just bread, rice, meat roasted over fire or dried in the sun, noodles or for that matter soups. Most of us know that bread was one of the first foods prepared by man, some 30,000 years ago. Although there are many recipes of flatbread, leavened bread and others that are more complicated than just toasting a flattened gruel mixture over fire, they largely belong to the category of staples much like rice, kebab and noodles. Here, we are more concerned with specific recipes or at least family of recipes that use spices and herbs to enhance flavor, and have slowly evolved over time thanks to advancements in cooking technologies.

1) Tamales

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Soft parcels made from masa (a type of dough) and filled with fruits, meats, vegetables among other things, tamales are a popular Mesoamerican dish that has a long, enduring history. First prepared somewhere between 8,000 and 5,000 BC, tamales were widely consumed by Olmecs, Toltecs, Aztecs and later Mayas. Steamed gently inside corn husks or banana leaves, they were commonly used as portable edibles by travelers and soldiers back when preserving food for long duration was difficult.

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Historically, the dish was served at festivals and feasts, and usually contained a variety of fillings, including minced rabbit, turkey, frog, fish, flamingo, eggs, fruits, beans and so on. Many pottery fragments dating back to 200 to 1,000 AD have been discovered in the region bearing the Classic Maya hieroglyph for tamales. Today, tamales are eaten all across Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, the United States and even Philippines.

2) Isicia Omentata

Burger

Burgers are emblematic of the modern fast food phenomenon. Sandwiched between two soft slices of bun and embellished with cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise and even pickles, this sumptuous meat patty is loved unanimously across the globe, ever since it was introduced in the United States in the 1900s. It was widely popularized by street vendors, and was one of the first American fast food items. Although the origins of this iconic recipe remains murky to this day, some historians believe that it can be traced back to isicia omentata, an ancient Roman beef preparation that dates back to the early 4th century AD.

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The 1,500-year-old recipe, which has survived in the extant ancient Roman cookbook Apicius:  De Re Coquinaria, involved mixing the minced meat, condiments, pine nuts, white wine, and the famous Garum fish sauce, and cooking the resultant patties over open fire. Speaking about the dish, UK-based food historian Dr. Annie Gray said:

We all know that the Romans left a huge mark on Britain, fundamentally altering the British diet forever. Street food became available en masse, and many of our favorite foods were introduced, including Isicia Omentata, what can be seen as the Roman forefather to today’s burger. This ‘burger’ was decidedly more upmarket than many of today’s offerings, and is richer and more complex than the plain beef version most common today.

3) Pancakes

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Around the world, pancakes are a quintessential breakfast food, often consumed with fruits, chocolate, syrup and a variety of other toppings. It refers to any flat, thin cake made from a starchy batter and cooked in a frying pan or griddle. Depending on the place of origin, pancakes can be very thin and crêpe-like (as in France, South Africa, Belgium among others), made from banana or plantain (like ‘ kabalagala’ in Uganda) and even fermented rice (such as dosa in South India). Tracing the history of pancakes, however, leads us back to Otzi the Iceman, who was alive sometime during 3,300 BC. His naturally-mummified corpse, the oldest in all of Europe, was discovered in 1991 in the Italian Alps.

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Analysis of the body, according to historians, has uncovered a wealth of information about the Neolithic diet. At the 7th meeting of the World Congress on Mummy Studies, researchers revealed that Otzi’s last meal likely consisted of alpine ibex and red deer meat, along with einkorn wheat pancakes. They argued that the traces of charcoal found in the 5,300-year-old man’s stomach in turn suggest that the food was cooked over open fire.

Pancakes were widely consumed by ancient Greeks, who called them “tagenias” or “teganites” derived from the word “tagenon” (meaning ‘frying pan’). They were cooked on clay griddle over open fire. In works of 5th-century BC poets Magnes and Cratinus, we find the earliest mention of these pancakes, which were made using wheat flour and olive oil and served with curdled milk or honey. Much like the modern version, tagenites were commonly eaten for breakfast.

The 3rd century philosopher Atheneaus talked in his book Deipnosophistae of a similar recipe (known as “statitites”), featuring spelt flour and adorned with sesame, cheese or just honey. Ancient Romans enjoyed similar creations, which they called “alia dulcia” (meaning “other sweets” in Latin). Interestingly, the 4th century Roman cookbook Apicius actually contains a detailed recipe for a pancake-like griddle cake, prepared from a mixture of egg, flour and milk and drizzled with honey. The first use of the English word “pancake” quite possibly took place sometime during the 15th century.

4) Pilaf

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Another rice recipe. Although bread was one of the first foods man prepared nearly 30,000 years ago, the more complicated varieties like stuffed bread or pastry started appearing much later. By comparison, rice has a long history of being used in rich, flavorsome and more intricate preparations. Pilaf, for instance, is an ancient recipe made by cooking rice, vegetables and meat in a broth seasoned with a number of different spices and herbs. Common ingredients include chicken, pork, lamb, fish, seafood, carrots and so on. Called by different names, depending on the country of origin, pilaf is widely consumed across the Middle East, Central and South Asia, the Indian subcontinent, East Africa, the Balkans and so on.

Etymologically, “pilaf” comes from the Persian “polow”, while the term “pulao” (Indian version) has its roots in the Sanskrit word “pulaka” (meaning “ball of rice”). While rice was first domesticated in China over 13,000 years ago and later in India, people of ancient Persia started cultivating it as a crop between 1,000 and 500 BC. This paved the way for the first pilaf recipe, which soon spread over other parts of the Middle East as well as Central Asia. In 328 BC, when Alexander the Great conquered the Sogdian city of Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), he actually feasted on pilaf. Soon, the recipe was taken over to Macedonia and then to different parts of Europe.

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Around the same time, a similar rice preparation called pulao sprung in India. In fact, some of the earliest mentions of this dish can be traced back to the epic text of Mahabharata (as early as 400 BC) as well as certain ancient Sanskrit scriptures like Yajnavalkya Smriti (3 to 5th century AD). The arrival of Muslims in India (as early as 7th century AD) further enriched the recipe, through the addition of saffron and other aromatic spices. This is basically what is called biryani, a type of Mughlai preparation in which the rice, meat and vegetables form distinct layers. The Spanish paella is believed to have descended from the original pilaf recipe, as well.

5) Cheesecake

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Dessert lovers like us often find themselves dreaming about the rich and decadent cheesecake. This creamy and delicious recipe usually features a thick, luscious layer of sweetened cheese and a buttery biscuit base or crust. While the all too famous American version requires cream cheese, which was invented only in 1872 by dairyman William Lawrence, cheesecakes were originally the brainchild of ancient Greeks, who used a simple mixture of honey, flour and soft cheese to make a light, subtly-flavored cake often served at weddings and other festivities.

Archaeological excavations in the last century have uncovered broken pieces of cheese molds dating as far back as 2,000 BC. Some historians believe that the very first “cheese cakes” might have been prepared in the Samos, a Greek island that has been continuously inhabited for more than 5,000 years. In fact, the dessert was offered to the athletes participating in the first Olympic games of 776 BC. The earliest written mention of this recipe can be found in a 230 AD book by the ancient Greek author Atheneaus.

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Following the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC the cheesecake recipe was adopted by the Romans and, turned into something even more delectable by the addition of eggs as well as crushed cheese. The baked goodness, called savillum, was often flavored with lemon or orange zest, something that continues to be done even to this day. Historical records show that the oldest extant cheesecake recipe can be found in the pages of Marcus Cato’s De Agri Cultura. Later on, it made its way to Europe and, is rumored to have been one of Henry VIII’s favorite desserts.

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