Tarru-Bird Stew - The Oldest Recipe in the World

When I was researching my second cookbook, The Pharaoh's Feast (Avalon Books), part of the deal was that I had to research ancient recipes. The Pharaoh's Feast deals with the history of cooking throughout the ages, from day one to the present. I came across some really great gems, inclusive of the recipe noted below. It comes from three Akhadian clay table from the Yale Babylonian Collection. The tablets are a collection of recipes from the old Babylonian Empire, circa 1700 B.C.E. They are not a cookbook. They are more of a culinary record written for administrative purposes so that the recipes could be codified for the benefit of those who would enjoy them---the big whigs in the hierarchy. They show that ancient Mesopotamia had a vibrant and sophisticated cuisine for its time.

Tarru can translated to mean fowl. Thus this recipe could have been made with wild pigeons, quail or partridge---any small bird. For modern usage I recommend Cornish game hens or poussin (young chickens). The recipe is arcane, but using common sense, one can come up with something worthwhile. It's your basic stew; and it goes well with boiled potatoes or steamed rice.

Some words inscribed in the tablets have yet to be translated, such as samidu. The recipe contains onions, garlic, leek, milk and samidu (whatever the hell that is). It also calls for a broth made of mutton. I figure you could use any rich meat or beef broth. Also, one of the ingredients given is"hulled cake of malt." I've substituted malted milk powder---and it works.

So, make believe you're in Ancient Babylon, you just got home from a hard day in the fields, or from haggling in the marketplace over some horse or camel, and the Tarru-Bird Stew is just waiting for you.


2 Cornish game hens or poussin
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 whole leek, rinsed and finely chopped (green part only)
2 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons milk
4 cups beef broth or bouillon
1 tablespoon shortening or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt to taste
2 teaspoons malted milk powder

1. Rinse the Cornish hens under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Split hens in half.
2. Put the onion, leek, and garlic into a mortar and pound until everything is crushed together. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can place the ingredients in a heavy bowl or saucepan and crush with a potato masher or the back of a spatula or large spoon. Add the milk, and mix. Do not cheat by emulsifying in a food processor---it will come out too watery.
3. Place the Cornish hens in a large pot, casserole, or Dutch oven. Add the beef broth, shortening, salt, and malted milk powder. bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for ten minutes.
4. Add the onion mixture. Cover and continue simmering until the hens are tender (10 to 15 minutes).
5. Place the hens on a serving platter as is. Or you can carve them into small pieces, if desired, with the broth served over them.
Yield: 4 servings

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