BAR Test Kitchen: Tah’u Stew

Eat like an ancient Babylonian

One of my favorite ways to familiarize myself with a foreign culture is to sample its cuisine. Not only do you learn what ingredients and cooking methods are favored, but also the setting in which meals are typically shared and with whom.

This new BAR feature hopes to introduce you to a new—yet old—kind of cooking. If you have ever wanted to eat like an ancient Babylonian, Roman, etc., now you can. We’ve tracked down ancient recipes and tried to recreate them using modern ingredients, so that you, too, can enjoy these dishes. Join us on a gastronomical adventure!

tahu

Tah’u Stew as envisioned by BAR. Photo: Kirsten Holman/Evergreen Visions

First on the menu is an ancient Babylonian stew. We selected a recipe that is named after its primary vegetable ingredient: tuh’u. Unfortunately, we are not able to identify tuh’u and a few other ingredients in the recipe. The late Assyriologist Jean Bottéro—formerly of L’École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) in Paris—translated numerous Babylonian recipes, a task for which he was uniquely qualified as both a scholar of ancient Mesopotamia and an accomplished cook, and we have used his translation as the basis for our work:

Tah’u Stew

“There must (also) be the flesh from a leg of lamb. Prepare the water. Add fat, [ … ], salt, beer, onions, (an herb called) spiney, coriander, samīdu, cumin, and beetroot to throw into the pot. Then, crush garlic and leeks, and add them. Let the whole cook into a stew, onto which you sprinkle coriander and šuḫtinnū.”1

This recipe is sparse and does not list exact measurements. It was discovered on Yale Babylonian Collection Tablet number 4644, which includes 24 other recipes. Written in Akkadian, the tablet dates to c. 1750 B.C.E. We have attempted to replicate Tah’u Stew, and the ingredients and measurements we used are printed here. All of the unidentifiable ingredients have been omitted.2

Bottéro claimed that he would never attempt to make ancient Mesopotamian recipes because there are too many unknown variables to ever be able to replicate them accurately.3 Although his assessment is certainly correct, we still thought this would be a worthwhile experiment. Perhaps our take is completely unrecognizable from the original; this is probably the case. Yet still, we thought it would be worth the try. It is our hope that in the process of studying ancient cuisines, we gain a deeper understanding of ancient cultures—adding new details to a complex, beautiful picture.

Every people in every place from every time eats—or has eaten—food. Perhaps you may better appreciate ancient Mesopotamian culture over a bowl of Tah’u Stew.

Enjoy!

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.

Tah’u Stew (BAR’s variation)

Ingredients:

1 lamb shank
3 cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil (We used fat in the form of olive oil; you could also use lard)
Salt to taste
2 cups beer (We used a wheat beer)
1 large onion, chopped (or 2 small onions)
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
3 beets, cooked, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 leek, sliced
Coriander to taste

Instructions:

1) Wash and prepare all of the vegetables for the stew. Chop the onion and beets.

tahu-2

Photo: Megan Sauter

2) Sear lamb shank on all sides with olive oil in a large pot. Add water, salt, beer, onions, coriander, cumin and beets. Let ingredients cook for 10 minutes on medium heat.

tahu-3

Photo: Kirsten Holman/Evergreen Visions

3) Chop the garlic and leeks.

tahu-5

Photo: Kirsten Holman/Evergreen Visions

4) Add the garlic and leeks to the stew and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and let the stew simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally.

tahu-stew

Photo: Kirsten Holman/Evergreen Visions

5) Take lamb out of the pot and pull or cut the meat off the bone; then return the meat to the pot. (The photo below shows a lamb chop; for a meatier stew, use a lamb shank, per the recipe here, or another cut of lamb.)

tahu-lamb

Photo: Kirsten Holman/Evergreen Visions

6) Sprinkle with coriander and enjoy a bowl of Tah’u Stew! We thought it paired well with crusty bread.

tahu-1

Photo: Kirsten Holman/Evergreen Visions


 

 
Based on Strata: “BAR Test Kitchen” from the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
 

 

Notes:

1. Jean Bottéro, “The Cuisine of Ancient Mesopotamia,” The Biblical Archaeologist 48.1 (March 1985), p. 42.

2. Jean Bottéro believes that samīdu and šuḫutinnū—two of the ingredients we omitted—were “probably in the onion family.” See Bottéro, “The Cuisine,” p. 42.

3. Jean Bottéro, The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 125–126.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Biblical Bread: Baking Like the Ancient Israelites by Cynthia Shafer-Elliott

Fruit in the Bible by David Moster

The 10 Strangest Foods in the Bible by David Moster

A Feast for the Senses … and the Soul

Making Sense of Kosher Laws
 


 

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11 Responses

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  1. Jimmy says

    I didn’t think I’d be learning to make stew on a bible archaeology site

  2. Linda says

    Any suggestions for a vegetarian substitute for the lamb? Sounds like an interesting combination of ingredients otherwise to me!

  3. Jennifer says

    Not having a big enough pot for a leg of lamb, I used lamb already chopped for stew.
    Hate peeling hot beets, so used a can of beets instead.
    Cut back on final cooking time to 35 minutes instead of 1 hour.
    Result – a really good stew serving 4 to 5. Jenny

  4. Susan says

    I love your idea of sharing ancient recipes! Thanks!

  5. Helen says

    Linda: for vegetarians: I’ve seen some meat substitute stuff in the cold (not frozen) foods section at larger grocery.

  6. Stephen says

    Looks interesting. Someone should do a statistical analysis of spices used in the recipe against what is used now. Coriander and cumin have common accompaniments. If we looked at what spices in the modern Middle East are analyzed we might have a little more insight. Also, someone should look at bedouin and ancient Ethiopian spice mixes to come up with candidates. There is enough missing to realize as good as it looks like this will taste, it is still quite different from the original.

    Also, I would suggest Gardein’s “Beef Tips” for a frozen vegetarian alternative, it is probably the most “meaty” vegan imitation I have ever tasted. I would throw it in the stew frozen late in the cycle to preserve the integrity of the chunks. But realize lamb is a very strong flavor, so the taste will be utterly different if one is looking for authenticity.

  7. George says

    The nice thing about recipes are that they are “tweakable” to your personal taste. Even in ancient Babylon, I would think that even Tah’u Stew varied from region to region and perhaps family to family. Who doesn’t have that recipe handed down from grandmother’s private collection that no one else has? To have fun I think I will explore spices indigenous to that region and make reasonable substitutions for the samīdu and šuḫutinnū. This could be fun!!!

  8. Donna says

    Egyptians made beer from barley & it was so plentiful that the pyramid workers were paid with it. Common modern beers are also made from barley, so plain old Bud would also work. As far as the fat, using the fat from the lamb would also work, as the Egyptians often criticized the Semites for smelling of sheep fat.

  9. ginny says

    I would make a good guess at the spice being Rhus coriaria — Sumac. It is in a lot of lamb recipes. It is often paired with coriander and an integral part of the spice combination Zaatar. This spice/herb plant is the old world sumac, not the new world one, and not the poison sumac one.

  10. Milos says

    I have two criticisms of your recipe (as an amateur cook, and as a food writer).
    1. You should not use modern beers (let alone Bud) for the simple reason that though modern beers are also made from barley, they are _also_ made with a heavy dose of hops–a practice that did not come into common use until the 16th century or so. Try a non-hopped beer such as a ambic, or an African barley beer. The Assyrian and Egyptian beers were notably thick and either very sweet or very sour. You could try getting barley shoots (a Nepalese shop would have them), drying, crushing/grinding, moisten the result and leave for a day, then add to the stew.
    2. When a cook says ‘crush’ she means ‘crush’ not slice or chop: different techniques would change the flavor.

    The end result, I imagine, is a strong allium-flavored _thick_, sweetish-sour stew, not the very liquid stew you show. Eat with barley bread (not wheat, which was not common in Mesopotamia).

  11. Michele says

    This recipe looks fun, and really, that’s all we need with recipes so old we don’t know some ingredients…..just have fun, go with the flow and in the process maybe make history fun too!!?? I bet your ancient housewife tossed in what she had more than followed “Babylonian Cooking for 7″ to the smallest detail. I sure don’t do that with my cookbooks now!


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