Reconstructing Cuisines and Recipes from the Ancient World

chinesecookingThe reconstruction of ancient recipes challenges experimental archaeologists and chefs alike, while concurrently offering unique glimpses into the culinary tastes of diverse ethnic groups. Ms. Laura Kelley, author and founder of The Silk Road Gourmet blog, analyzes the links between recipes, civilizations, and trade across great distances and over long periods of time. As a frequent traveler, Laura first noted the commonalities between recipes and cooking methods, which in turn provided the catalyst for her research as an independent scholar.

In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Laura about her interest in cooking — past and present — as well as how she has been able to reconstruct recipes from ancient Central Asia, Mesopotamia, and Rome.

JW: Ms. Laura Kelley, welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia! It is a pleasure to speak to you about your blog, The Silk Road Gourmet, in addition to your research on ancient cuisine.

The Silk Road was a conduit of trade, technology, and philosophy across the Eurasian continent. However, it was also an intersection of recipes, foods, and flavors. How did you first become interested in the Silk Road and the art of cooking? Had you always been interested in the cultures and cooking traditions of the Near East and Central Asia?

LK: Hi James! Thank you so much for the invitation to speak with you today. I am thrilled to be discussing The Silk Road Gourmet with AHE.

The best place to begin is often at the beginning, so I just want to note that I have always been interested in food. I grew up in a busy Italian-American family where most socialization took place in the kitchen — so I am natural-born “foodie.” Cooking and feeding people have always been expressions of creativity and caring for me. I started cooking Asian (Indian) cuisine when I was about 12 or 13, and I started traveling internationally when I was 16 through an American Field Service fellowship to Thailand. Much later, after college and graduate school, I held a few jobs that enabled me to travel to exotic locales in Asia for extensive periods of time. I always scheduled free time when traveling to explore the cultures I was visiting, and I always ate on the economy or when possible watched the cooks — at the guesthouses where I was staying — prepare meals.

Over the years, I noticed patterns and connections between the dishes in different countries, and I started to think about the links: I knew there was trade between nations, both in antiquity and in the present, but I did not frame my observations immediately. It was more a process of discovery over time.

titleBy the mid-2000s, when I began writing Volume 1 of my book, also entitled The Silk Road Gourmet, the concept of employing the Silk Road to relate current cuisines was well-developed in my mind. Using the Silk Road to explore historical cuisines and connect them to the present was still to come. To be honest, I think I have to give some credit to my husband for helping me extend the “Silk Road concept” to historical dishes. He is a serious amateur historian, with a couple of books on cryptological history and is also interested in historical cooking — mostly colonial American cooking. He tastes most of what I develop and cook and discusses recipes with me.

JW: Laura, how do you trace cross-cultural connections and interactions through recipes, and what surprises have you uncovered as a result of your investigations? I would image that your research is relatively difficult to conduct: Could you share a comment or two on how you approach the history of food and cooking at The Silk Road Gourmet?

LK: That is an interesting question with a complex answer. First off, I would say that I have no single approach to finding connections between recipes, as each problem requires a different mix of skills and abilities. I have some innate abilities that I bring to the table and some learned skills that come in handy as well. The most important of my innate abilities is the gift for tasting a dish and identifying ingredients. This allows me to reconstruct recipes at home and not rely on cookbooks or recipes gifted from others. The second is a natural facility for languages. I speak and read four languages on a regular basis, and I have a knack for picking up bits and pieces of other tongues and finding etymological connections between words. My competence with languages is often extremely important in unraveling historical recipes and connections. Moreover, I am a naturally curious and driven person who makes intuitive leaps when looking for answers. These basic personality traits combine to make me a relentless researcher.

“Basically I will eat anything when traveling simply for the experience of it…There simply is no substitute for experience! That is what experimental archaeology is all about.”

Basically I will eat anything when traveling simply for the experience of it. Over the years, I have built up an impressive “library” of tastes and flavors to compare new dishes or ingredients to. I also have a degree in anthropology from Barnard College, so this makes me generally interested in food as an aspect of material culture. By this, I do not mean the shapes of spoons or designs of ceramics between cultures, but rather the food items: the ingredients and dishes themselves. After graduate school I undertook a fellowship at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, receiving a very intensive training in pattern recognition from a renowned pathologist and art lover. He taught me to observe and perceive the world by looking for patterns. It has been a lifetime journey.

As to surprises, I think finding stuffed peppers and stuffed grape leaves in East Asia was a bit of a surprise for me, because I tend to think of both of those dishes as Eastern Mediterranean and West Asian. The East Asian versions, found mostly in Laos and Vietnam, make ingredient substitutions and use a lot of lime juice, but they are still recognizable as the same dishes enjoyed half a world away. Another example is the kebab. The earliest definitive evidence for kebab-making — in my opinion — is a brazier from Akrotiri, Greece, dating to the 17th Century BCE. Today, kebabs are enjoyed all over the world, including East Asia. Based on evidence from the Wei and Jin tombs in western China (dating from c. 220-420 CE), I believe that kebabs entered this region some 2,000 years ago. We know that they were brought by Indo-European traders coming across the northern Silk Road, but they were embraced by the Chinese, adapted to their tastes, and are now enjoyed across the country. I was also surprised to find that the ingredients for one of my favorite “Indian” curries originate on five different continents.

brazierJW: Your research transcends the set boundaries of traditional fields: Are you a proponent of utilizing an “interdisciplinary” approach?

LK: Absolutely, James. An interdisciplinary approach has helped me analyze issues at work, and has also helped a great deal with Silk Road and historical culture and cuisine issues. For my work on cuisine, I generally rely on my own varying skills and abilities, but at work I have taken part in a number of interdisciplinary teams. The outcome of these experiences is always productive, rewarding, and sometimes astonishing.

Right now, I am reviewing a Viking cookbook for Experimental ArchaeologyAn Early Meal by Mr. Daniel Serra and Ms. Hanna Tunberg. Mr. Serra knows the archaeology, and Ms. Tunberg has an in-depth knowledge of Scandinavian food and history. Working together, they produced a beautiful book, which is the definitive text about Viking food to date.

JW: Aside from the Silk Road, you have also been engaged in the reconstruction of ancient cuisines from other cultures and civilizations.

Could you please tell us about your reinterpretation of ancient Babylonian tablets and research into Roman gastronomy? I am aware that you have taken a keen interest in that most Roman of dishes — garum — and have some singular ideas about its origins and preparation.

LK: As to ancient Babylonian tablets, I have a great respect for the pioneering work of Dr. Jean Bottéro (1914-2007) who wrote Textes Culinaires Mésopotamiens (1995). He was a prominent Mesopotamian linguist and cultural scholar (as well as a skilled French cook), but I feel that some of his conclusions were limited by his preconceptions about what Babylonian food should be. For example, he interpreted most of the dishes on the Yale Babylonian tablets to be porridges. Since few of the recipes have the amounts of ingredients attached to them, I interpret them to be flavor guidelines. Instead of a recipe being for one dish — such as a porridge — I feel that it could be for a number of different dishes (roasts, stews, soups, etc.), depending on the desire of the cook and the relative proportions of wet and dry ingredients.

This concept of variation included in a recipe may be taken to extreme in the mersu recipe. Bottéro interpreted this to be a cake based only on the ingredient list of dates and nuts. Although mersu could be a cake, it could also be many other things as well. Using modern West Asian and Levantine recipes to consider all the possibilities, mersu might easily have been a date-nut roll as is enjoyed across the region. Adding only some type of flour, mersu could resemble the modern Iranian dessert ranginak, which consists of dates stuffed with pistachios enclosed in a thin crust of dough. Or it could be like the modern Lebanese ma’moul, which has a pounded-date center covered in a layer of semolina that is then covered in a layer of chopped pistachios.

garum1During my research I uncovered a recipe used to create mersu that was used as a sacrificial offering to the gods at the Mesopotamian city of Nippur, which is located in present-day Iraq. Because of the intimate relationship between the Mesopotamians and their gods, people would have eaten this dish at the conclusion of the ritual. This recipe gives several more ingredients for mersu, such as figs, raisins, minced apples, minced garlic, oil or butter, soft or hard cheese, and wine must or syrup. This widens the field of variation for the dish and allows cooks to mix and match combinations of ingredients in a “one from column A and one from column B” way. My use of sacrificial foods as dishes on both the human and divine tables also increased the number of Mesopotamian recipes available to modern cooks. I am uncovering more recipes in my research on a regular basis.

As to Roman cuisine and especially garum, the best advice I can offer to readers interested in historical cuisines is to give it a try and make the dishes yourself. There simply is no substitute for experience! That is what experimental archaeology is all about and that is what I did with garum. Fifteen pounds of mackerel, about eight or nine pounds of coarse sea salt, a large painter’s bucket, an old broom handle, and lots of patience is all one needs to produce a great crop of garum. Contrary to expectations, small-scale production was easy, not “smelly” at all, and yielded a sauce that enhances the flavor of other dishes — from meats to vegetables to sweets — quite unlike anything else available today. Recently, I also worked with a Californian vintner to reformulate a modern oenogarum — a mixture of wine and garum used both in cooking and as a table condiment — to add some more variation into these historical recipes.

I do have some unusual ideas as to the history of garum: I think it was first produced by either the Phoenicians in Carthage or even by their kinsmen in their Levantine homeland (modern-day Lebanon). Fish and salt are the primary ingredients, and the Phoenicians had lots of both. My main reasons for thinking this is that there are a few early textual references to garum as a Carthaginian sauce c. 600-800 BCE, and most of the areas where the Romans produced garum — notably Iberia but also Sicily — were previously held by the Carthaginians and lost to Rome as spoils of the Punic Wars (264-146 BCE). More controversially, I think that knowledge of garum production probably flowed from west to east, into Asia. The main reason I support this hypothesis is because the production of garum in the west is documented almost 1000 years before any mention of it occurs in the east. The production methods between west and east are virtually identical, and the Chinese, Arabs, and Persians were moving goods via the maritime Silk Road from antiquity until the European Age of Exploration (c. 1500 CE).

oenogarumJW: Before concluding this interview, I was wondering if you might provide us with a little more information on your forthcoming publication(s). What can readers expect?

LK: I really hope to get Volume 2 of The Silk Road Gourmet out in 2014. This volume will treat the cuisines that blend elements from West Asia with those from East Asia. It will additionally encompass the cuisines of Central Asia, the Himalayas, and South Asia. With regard to historical work, I have two current long-term projects which may be outside the purview of AHE because they begin in the 16th and 17th Centuries CE. These projects are looking at Indian curry through foreign eyes and the early uses of chili peppers. These subjects are of interest to me because of the way foreign dishes and ingredients caught the attention and imagination of Europeans during the Age of Exploration.

It is fascinating to see how eagerly some of these dishes were adopted; for example, chili peppers were discovered in 1492 CE during the first Columbian expedition and had become naturalized crops in many places in Africa and India by 1510 CE. That is a “taste revolution” that can be compared to the dissemination of information caused by moveable-type printing or through the popularization of the personal computer in the 1990s. Within a couple of decades, world diet had radically changed because of the desire of Portuguese traders to procure and sell chili peppers across vast swaths of the Old World. Of course, I will be working more with Mesopotamian food, and I have been thinking about having an ancient Greek cook-off as well.

JW: I thank you so much for your time and consideration, Laura! Please do keep us posted, and know that we always look forward to your entries at The Silk Road Gourmet. We wish you many happy and tasty adventures in research.

LK: Thank you very much James, it is been an honor and a pleasure!

Photo Credits:

  1. Fresco terracotta tile showing kebab eating in China  (c. 200-400 CE). Photographed from postcards bought at the Wei and Jin tombs near Jaiyuguan, China. Image by Ms. Laura Kelley; courtesy of Ms. Laura Kelley.
  2. Volume 1 of The Silk Road Gourmet.  Image by Ms. Laura Kelley; courtesy of Ms. Laura Kelley.
  3. Brazier from Akrotiri, Greece c. 17th century BCE. Museum of Cycladic Culture, Akrotiri excavation artifacts, Santorini, Cyclides, Hellas (Greece). This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. It was released this into the public domain. Image credit: Leonard G., July 2007.
  4. Snapshot of a step in the process of making ancient Roman garum. Image by Ms. Laura Kelley; courtesy of Ms. Laura Kelley.
  5. A photo of an cucumber dish — from an Ancient Roman cookbook bearing Apicius’ name — in which the cucumbers are lightly braised in oenogarum (a mixture of wine and garum). Interestingly, the recipe can be used for braising melons and the taste is completely different. The cucumbers are savory and the melons are a bit sweet and tart. Image by Ms. Laura Kelley; courtesy of Ms. Laura Kelley.


lauraMs. Laura Kelley is a scientist, cook, traveler, and author of The Silk Road Gourmet, Vol. 1, Western and Southern Asia. She has also worked extensively on reinterpreting recipes from ancient Mesopotamia. Her revised recipes are published on the Silk Road Gourmet and in her essay: New Flavors for the Oldest Recipes (Saudi Aramco World, November-December 2012). Ms. Kelley has an excellent command of English, French, German and Russian, in addition to ancient Assyrian and Babylonian.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been properly attributed to their respective owners. Unauthorized reproduction of text and images is prohibited. Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt is to be thanked for her assistance in the editorial process. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

Filed under: Interviews


James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.