SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We're not sure if they ever tested them on Babylonia's top chef, but a trio of 4,000-year-old recipes have been deciphered by a team of international scholars. Their cookbook are some Babylonian tablets that were first discovered in the 1920s and '30s but were not properly translated until the end of the century. Harvard's Assyriologist Gojko Barjamovic put together the cooking team. He joins us on the line. Dr. Barjamovic, thanks very much for being with us.
GOJKO BARJAMOVIC: My pleasure.
SIMON: What do you got in the oven for us?
BARJAMOVIC: Three stews at the moment - one is a beet stew. One is a vegetarian. And the final one has a lamb in it.
SIMON: Can you give us an idea of what's in these stews?
BARJAMOVIC: The area that is today Syria, Iraq and Turkey are ancestral to many of the ingredients that we use in our cooking today. And something - about 50% 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.
SIMON: Why have these recipes taking so long to come to light?
BARJAMOVIC: Well, people don't expect ancient texts to be food recipes. They were known since - yeah - the 1920s really but were thought to be, perhaps, medical texts and stuff like that. It was really only Mary Hussey, a scholar from Connecticut, who suggested that they might be recipes. And people really didn't believe her until a French author and scholar 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.
SIMON: (Laughter) So have you tasted any of the recipes?
BARJAMOVIC: Yes. I've cooked these many times now. And the big difference between our French colleague Monsieur (unintelligible) 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.
SIMON: Are they good?
BARJAMOVIC: Yes, they are. I would say some of them, which is interestingly a conclusion that is different from our French colleague.
BARJAMOVIC: He privately acknowledged that she didn't really like much of the food that he was cooking (laughter), whether that has 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 is, I guess, an open question.
It's 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 will remain the same.
SIMON: Any big-name chefs expressed an interest in making the recipes or putting them into restaurants?
BARJAMOVIC: 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.
SIMON: So red or white?
BARJAMOVIC: Oh, I get it. 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 were cooking is a red beet stew. And it has nice sour beer in it.
SIMON: Gojko Barjamovic, who's a Harvard Assyriologist, thanks so much for being with us. And bon appetit.
BARJAMOVIC: Thank you - and my pleasure.
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