The world’s first cookbooks
A fourth century AD collection of recipes from Rome, a book by king Richard II’s chefs and more
The oldest sequenced recipe ever found was on the walls of the ancient Egyptian tomb of Senet. Back in 19th century BC, it taught the people how to make flatbreads. The second oldest (14th century BC) described the making of Sumerian beer, locally referred to as “liquid bread”. It was captured on clay tablets as part of a hymn to a goddess named Ninkasi, dedicated to beer.
The first recorded cookbook that is still in print today is Of Culinary Matters (originally, De Re Coquinaria), written by Apicius, in fourth century AD Rome. It contains more than 500 recipes, including many with Indian spices. Apicius squandered his wealth on eating and when he came down to his last few million sestertii, he hosted an epic banquet. During the last course, he poisoned himself.
Spices, actually, were my shoehorn into the fascinating world of ancient cookbooks. A research project into the history of spices and their uses was the rabbit hole that dropped me into the magical world of 14th and 15th century explorers—Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama all set sail in search of spices— adventurers, gastronomes, historians, religious leaders, sailors, soldiers, chefs and writers, as I spent countless hours in the British Library, accessing ancient manuscripts related to spice-ship logs, ancient medical prescriptions using spices and ancient cookbooks.
From Egypt and Rome, culinary instruction moved to the Middle East and Asia. In the 10th century, Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq produced a book called Kitab Al-Tablikh (The Book Of Dishes); a couple of centuries later, Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi wrote another book by the same name. In China, Hu Sihui wrote Yinshan Zhengyao (Important Principles Of Food And Drink) sometime in the 13th or 14th century. We also have the Manasollasa, a 12th century Sanskrit text composed by king Someshvara III of the Kalyani Chalukya dynasty covering many topics, including food. Ain-i-Akbari (16th century) talks about Mughlai food. A 16th century palm-leaf manuscript on dietetics, called Bhojana Kutuhala, has survived, in the Grantha and Devanagri scripts.
From the 12th century onwards, Europe saw an ever- increasing number of cookbooks covering everything from nutritional and dietary advice to table settings, manners, medicines, managing the home, agriculture, wine and beer, carving meats, preservations and baking. A 14th century book, The Forme of Cury (meaning cookery), the oldest cookbook in English, was written by the cooks of king Richard II of England and contains 196 recipes, including ways to cook whales and herons with spices such as cloves, mace, nutmeg and pepper.
Although anonymously, a significant number of books were written by royal cooks: Only the elite could afford to explore new cuisines, ingredients and methods. The first woman author of a cookbook was the countess of Kent (the cookbook was published in 1653, two years after her death). At the time, most of the women were uneducated, so cookbooks were written by men. Le Ménagier De Paris (The Goodman Of Paris), a popular French book on moral conduct, sexual advice, gardening tips, domestic management and cookery, was written by a gentleman to educate his young, inexperienced wife.
European cuisine in the Middle Ages was also driven by Christian beliefs. While game and farm meat was eaten on other days, the faithful stayed away from meat and ate fish as the main course on Christian Saint Feast days or during the 40 days of Lent. This paved the way for traditions such as lasagne at Christmas in Italy; eggs and cheese on Ascension Day in Germany; goose on All Saints’ Day and pork on the Feast of Saint Anthony in France and the UK; and lamb on Easter across Europe.
Books for urban households differed from those for country folk, where food supplies relied heavily on local produce. Historic recipes, unlike today, only summarize steps without mentioning quantity, weight or preparation guidelines.
How we eat has changed as well. Since the 19th century, we follow an order of starters, main course and dessert. Before this, the order was based upon the medical dietary advice of the time and served based on how the stomach would handle food. The first course was for “opening” the stomach with fruits, followed by salads, saucy meats and roasts. Next would come the “entertainment” of pies with live birds (remember “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie?”). To “close” the stomach, confectionery items would be served with cheese and candied fruits, followed by parlour spices (eg. candied coriander seeds/ginger) as a mouth freshener and to assist digestion. Sometimes all courses were served together, with elaborate rich dishes reserved for the upper classes.
Reading ancient cookbooks makes for a magical journey: One needs only to close the eyes to imagine the cooks and chefs at work, to envision the roaring fires and platters of game meat, and the pomp and ceremony of presenting complex meals with rich sauces. I have been surprised by the similarities across the ages and regions, but utterly fascinated by the differences. Cookbooks enchant and tantalize all the senses of human nature—and the heart and mind.
The author is applying to study for his PhD on the history and use of spices in the 15th-17th century in the UK.