Food has evolved a lot. It’s easy to take the complexity of the recipes and technology we enjoy today for granted—but it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when things weren’t so sophisticated and took quite a lot longer.
If you’ve ever wondered what food tasted like back then, you’re in luck. We have the answer. We’ve managed to preserve and recover recipes from the time of Richard II all the way back to the Sumerian empire, and you can still try them today.
10. The Forme Of Cury
The Forme of Cury is England’s oldest surviving cookbook. When you serve one of the recipes you can find in it, you’re tasting the same food somebody ate in the 14th century. What’s more, you’re tasting the same food King Richard II ate.
The book was compiled by King Richard II’s personal chefs, and it’s full of dishes that were served to the king of England himself. There are over 190 recipes compiled in there altogether, ranging from the simple to the exotic. Some recipes are as simple as throwing peeled garlic in a pot of water and oil and then sprinkling saffron on top, while others call for porpoise or whale meat.
One place you can try the dishes is at the Cafe at the Rylands, which tested out several of them with their customers back in 2009 and kept a few of the more popular choices on hand. Otherwise, you can just cook them yourself. The full cookbook in its original Middle English can be downloaded here, while several simplified recipes can be found here.
9. Annals Of The Caliphs’s Kitchens
AD 1000 AD
The Annals of Caliphs’ Kitchens, an ancient book by a man named Al-Warraq, is the oldest Arabic cookbook still in existence. The book is filled with over 600 different recipes you can try, some of which are incredibly different from the things you’ve tasted today. Some of these gives really unique insights into how food used to be prepared. One sauce, for example, calls for the cook to leave milk out in the sun for 50 days—a majorly different process from how most people do it today.
The book also has comments on culture, proper behavior, and health—including how to avoid a hangover. The book recommends eating cabbage before going out drinking and then making a stew called “Kkishkiyya” in the morning, which is meant to calm down your headache and your stomach pain.
(c. AD 500)
If you want to find out what kind of decadent feasts a Roman emperor would gorge himself on, you’ll want to read Apicius. This cookbook is believed to have been written by Marcus Gavius Apicius, a successful Roman chef. Nobody knows for sure exactly when it was written, but it’s at least 1,500 years old.
The food in it was apparently revolutionary in its time and had some unique discoveries on how to treat meat, most of which sound completely mouthwatering. One, for example, suggests stuffing a pig’s mouth full of dried figs and feeding it honeyed wine before killing it. The book has over 500 recipes, and more than 400 of them are served dripping in sauce.
You can read the original cookbook here—although there is a bit of a challenge in recreating these. The book was intended to be used by experienced Roman cooks, so most of the recipes don’t give quantities of ingredients or cooking times. For the most part, you’d have to go by taste and instinct.
A recipe for pork with apples, however, has been recreated by The Silk Road Gourmet with modern, specific instructions, so you could try one taste of the Roman Empire today.
7. The Life Of Luxury
The first three entries on the list are from after the death of Christ, and so they’re full cookbooks that aren’t too different from what we use today. With “The Life of Luxury,” though, we’re going farther back—and things start getting a bit different.
The Life of Luxury is meant to be funny. Rather than just telling you how to cook food, it’s written as a parody of overblown epics, complete in full verse. It’s hilarious—at least, the academics who research it assure us it is, anyway. For most people, though, jokes like “a rather rough ox-tongue . . . is good in summer around Chalcis” might not exactly hold up 2,300 years later.
It’s believed that the book would be put on display during banquets so that people could glance in it and have a chuckle while eating, but the book itself didn’t actually survive. The only reason we know anything about it is because another writer named Athaneaues quoted it in a book called Philosophers at Dinner, written in AD 200.
You can read the parts that survived, though, online here—and you can try recipes that were written before the birth of Christ.
Garum is a salty fish dish—incredibly salty. This is a dish that, in some recipes, calls for as much salt as fish, so if you fry it up with a one-pound fish, you’re supposed to throw an entire pound of salt into the bucket.
This recipe wasn’t written down as neatly as the first few were, but a writer named Laura Kelley who specializes in ancient food has done her best to figure it out. She’s managed to track down records from as far back as 600–800 BC that describe it as a “Carthaginian sauce,” and so we know it was being prepared at least that long ago.
Kelley has also gone to a lot of work trying to recreate it. She mixed together instructions from the oldest documents she could find with a few instincts on what tasted well and then put it together. You can find her instructions here and do it yourself—but you’re going to need a bit of patience. This a recipe from a different era that used different technology, so it takes nine months of fermentation to get it ready.