Eat Like The Ancient Babylonians: Researchers Cook Up Nearly 4,000-Year-Old Recipes

Maria Godoy, Scott Simon and Peter Breslow wrote . . . . . . . . .

What did a meal taste like nearly 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylonia? Pretty good, according to a team of international scholars who have deciphered and are re-creating what are considered to be the world’s oldest-known culinary recipes.

The recipes were inscribed on ancient Babylonian tablets that researchers have known about since early in the 20th century but that were not properly translated until the end of the century.

The tablets are part of the Yale Babylonian Collection at the Yale Peabody Museum. Three of the tablets date back to the Old Babylonian period, no later than 1730 B.C., according to Harvard University Assyriologist and cuneiform scholar Gojko Barjamovic, who put together the interdisciplinary team that is reviving these ancient recipes in the kitchen. A fourth tablet was produced about 1,000 years later. All four tablets are from the Mesopotamian region, in what is today Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

For a long time, says Barjamovic, scholars thought the tablets might be medical texts. In the 1940s, a researcher named Mary Hussey suggested the writing was actually recipes, but “people really didn’t believe her” at the time, he says.

“The tablets all list recipes that include instructions on how to prepare them,” the authors write in a piece about their work published in Lapham’s Quarterly earlier this year. “One is a summary collection of twenty-five recipes of stews or broths with brief directions. The other two tablets contain fewer recipes, each described in much more detail. ”

The researchers write that the “stews represent an early stage of a long tradition that is still dominant in Iraqi cuisine” — specifically, aromatic lamb stews “often slightly thickened, enhanced with rendered sheep’s tail fat, and flavored with a combination of spices and herbs and members of the Allium family, such as onion, garlic, and leek. These seem to be direct descendants of the Babylonian versions found on the culinary tablet with stew recipes.”

So far, the cooking team — which also includes a food historian, a curator, a chemical biologist specializing in food, a professional chef and an expert on cultural heritage — has re-created three stews. “One is a beet stew, one is vegetarian, and the final one has lamb in it,” says Barjamovic.

NPR’s Scott Simon spoke with Barjamovic about the research. A transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity, follows.

Interview Highlights

Can you give us an idea of what’s in these stews?

The area that is today Syria, Iraq and Turkey [is] ancestral to many of the ingredients that we use in our cooking today. And something [like] 50 percent of the calories that you will have been eating over the last 24 hours, I bet, will have come from vegetables or animals that were first domesticated in this area.

Why have these recipes taken so long to come to light?

Well, people don’t expect ancient texts to be food recipes. They were known since the 1920s, really, but were thought to be perhaps medical texts, stuff like that. It was really only Mary Hussey, a scholar from Connecticut, who suggested that they might be recipes [back in the 1940s]. And people really didn’t believe her until a French author and scholar [French Assyriologist Jean Bottéro] in the 1980s was asked to write an encyclopedic article about cooking in the ancient world. He had heard about this rumor that they might be recipes. So he went to Yale and found out that they were. And of course, being a Frenchman, he started working on them.

So have you tasted any of the recipes?

Yes, I’ve cooked these many times now. And the big difference between our French colleague, Monsieur Bottéro, and the way that he could handle these texts in the ’80s and now is that we have a somewhat greater knowledge of, first of all, the ingredients listed in the texts themselves. We quite simply understand many of the words better than he did. But secondly, and more importantly, we’re working together as a team and he worked alone.

Are they good?

Yes, they are, I would say — some of them. Which is interestingly a conclusion that is different from our French colleague. He privately acknowledged that he didn’t really like much of the food that he was cooking — which might have something to do with his cultural background. Or the fact that our recipes are a little bit different and have moved on a little bit [thanks to a greater knowledge of Babylonian ingredients]. That is, I guess, an open question. [The food is] not as foreign as you might imagine. And there are some basic elements that we share with this kind of cooking. And there are certain aspects of the human palate which are not going to change, which biologically we remain the same.

Any big-name chefs express an interest in making the recipes or putting them into restaurants?

Big name? No. Small name? Yes. All over the place, there are lots of people who are contacting me these days and asking whether, you know, one would be interested in collaborating on having this presented in a restaurant.

So …. red or white [wine]?

These people are beer people. In fact, lots of the recipes contain beer. The Assyrians would have had wine with the food, I think. The best of the stews we’re cooking is a red beet stew, and it has nice sour beer in it.

Source: npr

Chinese Comfort Food at Its Finest – Yuk Beng, or Steamed Pork Patty

Susan Jung wrote . . . . . . . . .

Yuk beng doesn’t sound that delicious when translated as “meat cake” but it’s comfort food for many Chinese people. It’s a basic, versatile dish: minced pork (the default meat for Han Chinese, but you can use beef) mixed with the usual seasonings (soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, salt and white pepper) then steamed. You can add toppings (the most common are salted fish and salted egg yolk) and other “mix-ins” (such as preserved vegetables).

Steamed pork patty with dried cuttlefish, and fresh squid

This version is based on a luxurious but homey dish I ate at Ding’s Club, in Central. There, the meat was hand-chopped, which makes the texture so much better, as does using a fatty cut (I use skinless pork belly).

It’s a lot of work, though, so I won’t blame you if you have the butcher put the meat through the grinder. If you do hand-mince the pork, freeze it slightly so it’s firmer; it’s difficult to chop at room temperature.

Buy a whole dried cuttlefish, not the shredded type sold as a snack; the whole cuttlefish is less salty and the texture is different. It should be soaked until pliable, then the skin needs to be peeled off (it comes off easily). If you can’t find dried cuttlefish or dislike it, leave it out.

Chun pei (dried tangerine peel) comes in seg­ments that are usually attached at the base; for this dish, you need one or two segments, depending on how much you like the distinctive flavour. You can soak the chun pei in the same bowl as the cuttlefish.

Because this dish tastes best hot, I divide the mixture into two portions and pat it into two dishes; I steam one to serve immediately then steam the other while everyone is eating, so it’s ready when the diners want seconds. If you like, you can make one larger meat patty and steam it all at once (it will need about 40 minutes to cook). This serves six as part of a Chinese meal.

Ingredients

10 grams dried cuttlefish
1 or 2 segments chun pei (陳皮)
600 grams skinless pork belly, minced
2 tbsp soy sauce
1-1/3 tbsp rice wine
5 grams sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 tsp finely ground white pepper
1 tsp sesame oil
5 grams cornstarch
3 very thin slices of peeled fresh ginger
4 fresh water chestnuts
1 fresh squid (about 150 grams)
4-6 spring onions

Methods

  1. Rinse the dried cuttlefish and chun pei under running water then put them in a bowl and add warm water to cover. Leave to soak until the cuttlefish is pliable (about an hour).
  2. If you’re hand-mincing the pork, freeze it for about 20 minutes, then slice it as thinly as possible. Use a very sharp cleaver to mince the meat. (Or just have the butcher coarsely grind it.)
  3. Put the minced meat into a bowl and mix in the soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, salt, pepper, sesame oil and cornstarch.
  4. Peel off and discard the tough skin of the dried cuttlefish, then cut it into small pieces. Squeeze the water from the chun pei, then finely chop it. Finely mince the ginger. Peel the fresh water chestnuts and rinse them thoroughly before cutting them into small dice. Add these ingredients to the bowl.
  5. Clean the fresh squid. Pull the tentacles from the body. Peel off and discard the skin. Slit open the body on one side then scrape out and discard the innards. Cut off and discard the face and beak from the tentacles. Chop the body and tentacles, then add the pieces to the bowl with the meat and other ingredients. Mix thoroughly.
  6. Divide the mixture into two even portions and put them into two shallow bowls. Flatten the ingredients to make meat patties about 1.5 cm thick. Heat water in a tiered steamer (or in a wok with a metal rack) and, when the water boils, place one of the bowls in the steamer and cover with the lid. Steam over medium heat for 20 minutes, or until the pork patty is cooked.
  7. While the meat patty is steaming, mince the spring onions. When the meat is cooked, remove the dish from the steamer, scatter the spring onions on top and serve immediately. Cook the second dish (you’ll need to add more boiling water to the steamer) while eating the first portion.

Variations

For salted egg pork patty, make the dish as above, but leave out the chun pei, dried cuttlefish and fresh squid. After patting the meat mixture into two dishes, top each portion with a salted egg yolk (discard the white) and steam as instructed. Sprinkle with spring onion then serve.

For salted fish pork patty, make the dish as above, but leave out the chun pei, ginger, dried cuttlefish and fresh squid. After patting the meat mixture into two dishes, top each portion with a small meaty slice (about 1.5 cm x 4 cm) of salted fish that has been rinsed briefly under running water.

Peel several thin slices of ginger, then finely julienne them. Put the ginger over the fish and steam as instructed. Scatter the spring onion on top before serving.

Source: SCMP

Researchers Create AI System that Turns Food Photos into Written Recipes

Sam Shead wrote . . . . . . . . .

Researchers at Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) group have developed a piece of AI software that can determine what ingredients were used to make a certain dish and describe how they were assembled.

The AI system — built by research scientist Adrianna Romero and several others at FAIR’s Montreal lab — can look at a photo of some banana bread, for example, list the ingredients that went into it, and describe the method required to make it.

“Everyone is always taking pictures of their meals these days,” said Joelle Pineau, head of FAIR’s Montreal lab, in an interview. “Sometimes there’s ingredients you can see but there’s also ingredients you can’t always see, like sugar and salt and things like that,” she added. “So they train it [the AI] with pairs of images and recipes. But then when they test it they just give the image and it generates a recipe.”

While some Facebook and Instagram users would undoubtedly enjoy this feature, Pineau said the social media giant doesn’t currently have any plans to roll out the recipe generating AI.

Asked why FAIR developed the AI system, Pineau said: “We need to have machines that understand the world. Understand not just the visible in the world, but understand that when you have a cake there’s usually sugar in there.”

Source: Forbes

Campbell Soup Makes Its Online Recipes Shoppable

Ilyse Liffreing wrote . . . . . . . .

To boost online sales, Campbell Soup Co. is making all 3,000 recipes on its Campbell’s Kitchen website shoppable.

Here’s how it works: When people select the “Get Ingredients” tab at the bottom of a recipe and enter their ZIP code, they’ll get a list of retailers that deliver to their area, such as AmazonFresh, Instacart and Peapod. The shopper is redirected to the delivery service’s site, where a list of all the ingredients they need for a given recipe pops up. When the customer places an order, Campbell gets an undisclosed cut of all the product sales, Campbell’s brand or not.

Matt Pritchard, vp of digital marketing at the Campbell Soup Co., said the service eliminates the need to hunt for ingredients outside of the website. “Consumers shop very differently now,” he said. “They expect things to be there in an instant.”

Campbell’s Kitchen, as the company’s largest online property, gets 20 million visits a year, Pritchard said. If the service takes off, it’ll be rolled out outside the U.S., to the Campbell’s Kitchen app and perhaps its Alexa skill. Campbell partnered with tech provider Chicory to make its recipes shoppable.

Campbell’s sales in segments like soup and fresh foods have declined. The company reported a net loss of $475 million in the third quarter of 2018, shares hit a five-year low and CEO Denise Morrison stepped down. Pritchard joined Campbell in June 2017 with a goal of bringing in $300 million in e-commerce sales over the next five years. Right now, e-commerce only makes up a little more than 1 percent of the company’s overall sales, said Pritchard. Shoppable recipes mark the latest example of the company’s push into delivery. In February, Campbell started selling meal kits with Chef’d, after investing $10 million in the company.

Several marketers expressed doubt about the shoppable recipes approach, saying people won’t automatically purchase all ingredients from just viewing a recipe.

“While people will pay for convenience, as evidenced by all the meal-prep delivery services, restaurant delivery and even grocery delivery services like Instacart, but this one from Campbell’s may be a bit too niche,” said an agency exec.

Source: Digiday

Video: Mushroom Soup of Heston Blumenthal

Watch video at You Tube (11:17 minutes) . . . . .