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The Poetry of the World’s Oldest Cookbooks

By Susannah Greenblatt

I notice how the spices call to me, how they’re the ones to dictate the sequence, the amount, the proportions, so I don’t have to reflect, it’s already been decided even before my hand reaches to them.
—Ananda Devi, “Kari Disan”

Ananda Devi’s short story “Kari Disan,” like Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, is peppered with family recipes and painstakingly detailed—almost instructional—cooking scenes. Many avid reader-eaters have taken to the kitchen to bring such mouthwatering literary moments to life. In her photo book Fictitious Dishes, Dinah Fried recreates lavish Gatsby spreads down to the last pastry pig and Dickensian gruel to the last starchy morsel. This impulse to consume literature, to turn it into something you can quite literally sink your teeth into and digest, can become difficult if, for example, after reading Ananda Devi’s recipe for Mauritian blood curry, one is inspired but does not have a kilo of fresh goat kid’s blood on hand.

In these instances, perhaps we can go the opposite route and savor the foods that we’re meant to eat as words instead—to make literature out of recipes. In honor of our May 2017 issue, The Global Feast: Writing about Food, here are some ancient recipes that may be impractical to recreate at home but that still make for delectable little poems. We’ve taken translations from some of the oldest cookbooks on record, added in line breaks, sprinkled in a few wistful ellipses, and let the juicy poetics simmer to the surface. So dig into these found recipe-poems or, if you’re feeling up to it, try out these time-tested recipes for wild boar that will make your dinner guests say “mmm . . . wild boar is prepared thus!” Bon appétit. 

The Yale Culinary Tablets​

Image: Yale Culinary Tablets. From the Yale Babylonian Collection.

The following recipe-poem is taken from the Yale Culinary Tablets, which date back to 1750 BC. An anonymous Mesopotamian scribe etched thirty-two recipes onto two clay slabs in cuneiform. The dish described below is presumed to be haute cuisine—a pheasant delicacy fit for the Babylonian royals. As a poem, the recipe perhaps leads us along the narrow ridge between destruction and creation.


Remove the head and feet.
Open the body
and clean the birds, reserving
the gizzards and the pluck.
Split the gizzards
and clean them.
Next rinse the birds
and flatten them.
Prepare a pot and put birds,
gizzards and pluck into it
before placing it on the fire
. . .
Rinse crushed grain,
then soften it in milk
and add to it, as you knead it,
salt, samidu,
leeks and garlic
along with enough milk and oil
so that a soft dough will result
which you will expose
to the heat
of the fire
for a moment. 

De Re Coquinaria of Apicius

Image: The Apicius manuscript (ca. 900 AD) of the monastery of Fulda in Germany (New York Academy of Medicine). Photo by Bonho1962 (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

This Roman cookbook was written in Vulgar Latin sometime in the late 300s–early 400s CE. It is often attributed to Caelius Apicius, although some scholars think that may be an invented pseudonym. It was first translated into English by Joseph Dommers Vehling in 1936 and is available online at Project Gutenberg. Here are two recipes that together form a sparse yet romantic poetical diptych.

329 Wild Boar is Prepared Thus 

It is cleaned;
sprinkled with salt
and crushed cumin
and thus left.

The next day
it is put into the oven;
when done season
with crushed pepper.

A sauce for boar:
honey broth,
reduced wine,
raisin wine.

330 Another Way to Prepare Boar 

You boil the boar
in sea water
with sprigs of laurel;
when done nice and soft,
remove the skin,
serve with salt,

Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ (The Book of Cookery)

Image: The Book of Cookery. From the National Library of Finland’s Digital Collections.

Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Baghdadi cookbook dates back to the tenth century and contains over six-hundred recipes. Nawal Nasrallah translated and edited the original Arabic text in her book, Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens (BRILL, 2010). The following recipe is excerpted from Nasrallah’s translation. Read as a poem, “[Untitled]” introduces its ingredients and utensils as characters, whose depths we enter as they, in turn, enter us.


Break eggs
on the [spread] meat,
enough to cover the whole
face of the frying pan,
which, by the way,
should be of stone.

Let the eggs
look like eyes
[sunny-side up].

Put the pan as it is
on a reed tray
and insert a sprig of rue
in the midst of the yolk
of each egg.

Drape the pan with a big thin bread
making a hole in the middle
as big as the circumference
of the pan.

This is to hide the blackness
of the outside
of the pan when
it is presented
at the table.


Image: The Mānasollāsa. From the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences.

This Sanskrit text, written by King Someshvara III of Southern India sometime around 1130 CE, is more encyclopedia than cookbook. It contains treatises on government, architecture, musical instruments, and, of course, food. The text below was translated by Nalini Sadhale and Y. L. Nene in a paper they wrote on recreational fishing in the twelfth century. While it perhaps pertains more to fishmongering than cooking, it still makes for a poignant quatrain.


Heads of fishes must be cut
away (like the tail-part of birds).
Intestines should be removed
after cutting open the belly.

Yinshan Zhengyao (Important Principles of Food and Drink)

Image: Chinese woodcut. From Wikimedia Commons.

It is widely agreed that Hu Sihui’s treatise on Chinese cuisine was not the first of its kind. The court dietician wrote this food safety, nutrition manual, and impressive recipe book around 1330 CE, during the Yuan Dynasty. The recipes below were excerpted from Paul D. Buell and Eugene N. Anderson’s translation of the text entitled Soup for the Qan (BRILL, 2010). In these recipes, the parentheticals provide a second, more rational voice that seems to come in conversation with the first until each takes on the flavor of the other to form a cogent whole at the poem’s end.

Roast Wolf Soup

Wolf meat
     (leg; bone and cut up),
tsaoko cardamoms
black pepper
     (five ch’ien),
     (one ch’ien),
     (two ch’ien),
     (one ch’ien).

Boil ingredients together into
a soup.

Adjust flavors of everything
using onions, sauce,
salt, and vinegar.

Deboned Chicken Morsels

Fat chickens
     (ten; pluck; cook and cut up.
     Debone as morsels),
juice of sprouting ginger
     (one ho),
     (two liang; cut up),
finely ground ginger
     (half a chin),
finely ground Chinese flower pepper
     (four liang),
[wheat] flour
     (two liang;
make into vermicelli).

Le Ménagier de Paris

Image: From Le Ménagier de Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

This medieval French text was written in 1393 by an anonymous author as a manners book for housewives. The following excerpt was taken by Eileen Power’s 1928 translation entitled The Goodman of Paris. The original manuscript was written as a direct address from the narrator, an older husband, to his new bride—a budding young homemaker. Whether the instructive male voice carries through to this recipe-made-poem, reader, is perhaps up to you.

Comminee for a Fish Day

Fry your fish,
then peel almonds
and bray them
and dilute with purée
or fish broth
and make milk of almonds;
but cows’ milk
is more appetising,
though not so healthy
for the sick.

Published May 12, 2017   Copyright 2017 Susannah Greenblatt

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