The first cooked meal was likely an accident – researchers believe roasted meat only came on the menu when ancient humans encountered forest-fire toasted animals. Once the home cooking skills were acquired, people were keen to replicate good results – which led to some of the world’s oldest – and sometimes strangest – recipes. Here are ten surprisingly old recipes from history.
10. Linzer torte
The Linzer Torte is extolled as the world’s oldest recipe for a cake, but no one seems to know when exactly it was invented – or where – though it’s believed to be named for the Austrian city of Linz. The oldest existing version of the recipe was written down by a countess of Verona in 1653 in a cookbook succinctly titled Book of All Kinds of Home-Made Things, Such as Sweet Dishes, Spices, Cakes and also Every Kind of Fruit and Other Good and Useful Things, etc. The Linzer Torte was first commercially produced in the early 19th century, and was introduced to America around 1856.
According to the Linz Tourism Board, the traditional recipe features a crumbly pastry base with almonds and lemon zest, a jam filling (traditionally currant – raspberry is not authentic!), topped with a “well seasoned grid of dough.” It was also referred to as a “bowl cake,” meaning it was baked in a dish like a pie. A recipe for Linzer Torte can be found on the Official Travel Guide to Austria website.
9. El Draque
A “cocktail” is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients.” According to some, the first cocktail was invented while Sir Francis Drake was stranded near Havana, Cuba in 1586. It’s said that Drake (or in some versions, his cousin Richard Drake), invented the drink as a medicine to treat ill sailors. Dubbed “El Draque,” or “the dragon,” the beverage combined an early precursor to rum with mint, ginger, limes and cane sugar – similar to the modern mojito.
Some claim the sailors drank the concoction with a long “cock tailed” handled spoon, giving rise to the word “cocktail” (though there are plenty of other theories out there for how the modern word came into existence). The first recorded use of the term “cocktail” – referring to a beverage, rather than a rooster or horse – is from an 1803 American publication called the Farmer’s Cabinet – and likely referred to a non-alcoholic beverage.
8. Ashure (Noah’s Pudding)
If you believe the Turkish legend, the middle-eastern dessert known as “ashure” (pronounced “ash-oo-ray”) dates back to the last days of the flood, when Noah and his family were starting to run low on supplies. According to the legend, Noah gathered up the little bits of grain that were left over, cooked them all in the one pot, and hoped for the best. The result was a delicious sweet dish that fed everyone on board until the waters receded. Hence the other name for ashure – Noah’s pudding.
There is no formal recipe for ashure, but the standard recipe includes wheat, beans or lentils, dried fruit, nuts, sugar or honey, as well as aromatics such as orange peel or rose petals. In Turkey, the pudding is traditionally made to celebrate the holy day of Ashure – which (among other things) is venerated as the day of Noah’s departure from the ark. You can find a modern version of the recipe here.
7. Meat cooked in water (and 34 other recipes)
The oldest written recipes in the world date from Mesopotamia around 1600 BC – about 35 different recipes were found inscribed on three clay tablets, including many meat and vegetable broths. The recipes are frustrating to modern cooks though, as they’re more rough ingredient lists than any kind of formal instruction (for example, one recipe reads “Meat is used. Prepare water; add fat, mashed leek and garlic and a corresponding amount of [unknown ingredient]”).
The recipes were first translated in 1996 by French historian Jean Bottéro, who declared, “I would not wish such meals on any save my worst enemies.” Others have been kinder to the early Mesopotamians, claiming the untranslated ingredients could make all the difference. The New Haven Register extolled the virtues of one recipe, declaring “you can almost smell the 4,000-year old leg of lamb bubbling in a sauce thick with mysterious Mesopotamian herbs.” The vagueness of the ancient recipes means they’re impossible to accurately replicate, though you can find some modern attempts at the bottom of this page.
6. Porpeys in broth (and approximately 200 other recipes)
In 2009, researchers in England announced they had translated a handful of recipes from a medieval cookbook, written by the chefs of Richard II around 1390 AD. Known as the Forme of Cury (or “Forms of Cooking”), the recipes were written on vellum and are believed to represent both the dishes served to royalty, and those fed to servants working in the palace.
The recipes cover everything from frumenty (a porridge-like dish), to chicken stock, to two different dishes with porpoise (the simplest is just one line, directing the cook to “make as you makest noumbles of flesh with onions”). The text of Forme of Cury is available for free online, though you may want to check out this translated recipe or this one if your medieval English isn’t quite up to snuff.
5. Hen in Winter (and other recipes)
In 2013, even older recipes were discovered in another medieval English cookbook, this time in Durham Cathedral. Dating from 1140 AD, the recipes originally were thought to be medicinal, but new research discovered a number of culinary recipes among the tinctures and salves. The recipes include numerous sauces for various meats, as well as complete dishes such as “hen in winter” (“heat garlic, pepper and sage with water”) and “tiny little fish” (“juice of coriander and garlic, mixed with pepper and garlic” – yes, that’s right, garlic twice). Some researchers speculated the recipes would have a “Mediterranean feel,” given the ample use of ingredients such as parsley, sage, mustard and coriander.
The recipes were incorporated into a 2013 cookery workshop for graduate students in history, English and archaeology at Durham University, culminating in a lunchtime lecture and banquet. One professor remarked, “it’s an intriguing thought that we’ll be tasting food that hasn’t been experienced for hundreds of years.”
4. Spayed Sow’s Womb (and hundreds of other recipes)
The oldest surviving western cookbook is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmand who was said to be so passionate about extravagant food that he poisoned himself when he could no longer afford the best cuisine. Apicius’ De re coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) is available in translation online, and features ingredients common to Rome’s upper class citizens, with many meats that would be less than appealing to modern palates – including dormice, flamingo’s tongue, and several recipes featuring a sterile pig’s uterus. While the book is laid out like a modern cookbook, with different sections on meats, vegetables, seafood, et cetera, the recipes fail to give any quantities or cooking instructions (frequently simply stating to “cook until done.”)
One of the most commonly used ingredients in Apicius’ cooking – in both sweet and savory dishes – is a Roman sauce known as “garum.” Although often represented as being little more than putrefied fish, many believe it to be similar to modern Asian fish sauce.
3. Kishkiyya (and more than 600 other recipes)
Drinking was prohibited in 10th century Baghdad, but that apparently didn’t prevent people there from needing the occasional hangover cure. Enter Kitab al-Tabikh – the Book of Cookery – by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. The book features more than 600 luxurious recipes and health cures. Only three copies of the book are believed to still be in existence, in England, Helsinki and Istanbul. Some pages from the book are available online in their original Arab, but you may want to invest in this translated version to do some cooking of your own from it.
Al-Warraq had many suggestions for drinkers wanting to avoid a hangover, including eating cabbage before drinking, eating snacks between drinks and sipping water the next morning. However, the recipe that has gotten the most international attention is the so-called “ultimate hangover cure,” kishkiyya – a stew made from meat, yoghurt paste, chickpeas, grape juice and spices.
2. Nettle Soup and Roast Hedgehog
In 2007, a team of researchers in Wales began the task of reverse engineering British cooking to discover the country’s oldest recipes. The researchers looked at everything from Roman recipe references to archaeological finds to piece together what ingredients people liked to combine, and when they started doing that. According to lead researcher, Dr. Ruth Fairchild, the country’s oldest recipe was for nettle soup (or pudding, depending on some interpretations), dating back to a startling 6,000 BC.
Dr. Fairchild says the nettle soup would have been made by beating the nettles with a stick before harvesting, then mixing the plant matter with barley and water to form a ball. The dough would be placed in an animal intestine before being boiled in a stock or stew.
The next oldest recipe would have been for a smoky stew of fish and bacon, followed by roast hedgehog (which Fairchild says would have been a real treat). Apparently medieval sources offer the useful tip of putting the hedgehog in hot water if it refuses to unroll. You can find versions of all of the team’s oldest recipes here.
In ancient times, beer was often drank more frequently than water as its alcohol content generally kept it more sterile. So it’s little surprise the world’s oldest known written recipe is for beer! In 1800 BC, a Sumerian poet penned an effusive hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer (lines include “When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat, It is like the onrush of the Tigris and Euphrates”). Among the exuberant praise of Ninkasi though, are instructions precise enough to be followed by modern brewmasters – which is exactly what the Anchor Brewing Company did in 1989. It replicated the 4,000 year old recipe to make a beer it called “Ninkasi” for the annual general meeting of the American Association of Micro Brewers. The beer was even served in large jugs with drinking straws, as the ancient Sumerians are believed to have enjoyed it.
The Ninkasi beer had an alcohol concentration of 3.5%, and had a “dry taste lacking in bitterness,” “similar to hard apple cider.” However, it couldn’t be bottled, as the recipe was designed for immediate consumption and didn’t keep very well. You can find the whole Ninkasi hymn – and its embedded recipe – here.