The world’s first cookbooks (2024)

The first recorded cookbook that is still in print today is Of Culinary Matters (originally, De Re Coquinaria), written by Apicius, in fourth century AD Rome. It contains more than 500 recipes, including many with Indian spices. Apicius squandered his wealth on eating and when he came down to his last few million sestertii, he hosted an epic banquet. During the last course, he poisoned himself.

Spices, actually, were my shoehorn into the fascinating world of ancient cookbooks. A research project into the history of spices and their uses was the rabbit hole that dropped me into the magical world of 14th and 15th century explorers—Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama all set sail in search of spices— adventurers, gastronomes, historians, religious leaders, sailors, soldiers, chefs and writers, as I spent countless hours in the British Library, accessing ancient manuscripts related to spice-ship logs, ancient medical prescriptions using spices and ancient cookbooks.

From Egypt and Rome, culinary instruction moved to the Middle East and Asia. In the 10th century, Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq produced a book called Kitab Al-Tablikh (The Book Of Dishes); a couple of centuries later, Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi wrote another book by the same name. In China, Hu Sihui wrote Yinshan Zhengyao (Important Principles Of Food And Drink) sometime in the 13th or 14th century. We also have the Manasollasa, a 12th century Sanskrit text composed by king Someshvara III of the Kalyani Chalukya dynasty covering many topics, including food. Ain-i-Akbari (16th century) talks about Mughlai food. A 16th century palm-leaf manuscript on dietetics, called Bhojana Kutuhala, has survived, in the Grantha and Devanagri scripts.

From the 12th century onwards, Europe saw an ever- increasing number of cookbooks covering everything from nutritional and dietary advice to table settings, manners, medicines, managing the home, agriculture, wine and beer, carving meats, preservations and baking. A 14th century book, The Forme of Cury (meaning cookery), the oldest cookbook in English, was written by the cooks of king Richard II of England and contains 196 recipes, including ways to cook whales and herons with spices such as cloves, mace, nutmeg and pepper.

Although anonymously, a significant number of books were written by royal cooks: Only the elite could afford to explore new cuisines, ingredients and methods. The first woman author of a cookbook was the countess of Kent (the cookbook was published in 1653, two years after her death). At the time, most of the women were uneducated, so cookbooks were written by men. Le Ménagier De Paris (The Goodman Of Paris), a popular French book on moral conduct, sexual advice, gardening tips, domestic management and cookery, was written by a gentleman to educate his young, inexperienced wife.

European cuisine in the Middle Ages was also driven by Christian beliefs. While game and farm meat was eaten on other days, the faithful stayed away from meat and ate fish as the main course on Christian Saint Feast days or during the 40 days of Lent. This paved the way for traditions such as lasagne at Christmas in Italy; eggs and cheese on Ascension Day in Germany; goose on All Saints’ Day and pork on the Feast of Saint Anthony in France and the UK; and lamb on Easter across Europe.

Books for urban households differed from those for country folk, where food supplies relied heavily on local produce. Historic recipes, unlike today, only summarize steps without mentioning quantity, weight or preparation guidelines.

How we eat has changed as well. Since the 19th century, we follow an order of starters, main course and dessert. Before this, the order was based upon the medical dietary advice of the time and served based on how the stomach would handle food. The first course was for “opening" the stomach with fruits, followed by salads, saucy meats and roasts. Next would come the “entertainment" of pies with live birds (remember “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie?"). To “close" the stomach, confectionery items would be served with cheese and candied fruits, followed by parlour spices (eg. candied coriander seeds/ginger) as a mouth freshener and to assist digestion. Sometimes all courses were served together, with elaborate rich dishes reserved for the upper classes.

Reading ancient cookbooks makes for a magical journey: One needs only to close the eyes to imagine the cooks and chefs at work, to envision the roaring fires and platters of game meat, and the pomp and ceremony of presenting complex meals with rich sauces. I have been surprised by the similarities across the ages and regions, but utterly fascinated by the differences. Cookbooks enchant and tantalize all the senses of human nature—and the heart and mind.

The author is applying to study for his PhD on the history and use of spices in the 15th-17th century in the UK.

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Published: 01 Apr 2016, 10:14 PM IST

The world’s first cookbooks (2024)


What is the oldest cookbook still in print? ›

The first recorded cookbook that is still in print today is Of Culinary Matters (originally, De Re Coquinaria), written by Apicius, in fourth century AD Rome. It contains more than 500 recipes, including many with Indian spices.

Who wrote the worlds first cookbook? ›

The earliest collection of recipes that has survived in Europe is De re coquinaria, written in Latin. An early version was first compiled sometime in the 1st century and has often been attributed to the Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, though this has been cast in doubt by modern research.

What is the oldest surviving recipe? ›

Mesopotamian Stew, circa 2140 B.C., and bone broth, circa 400 B.C. One of the world's other old stew recipes, the Babylonian lamb stew, was decoded from the Sumerian tablets in 2140 B.C. The tablets were written in Akkadian and are considered the oldest known written recipe.

What is the oldest culinary book? ›

From 1700 BC to 1390 AD, here are some of the world's oldest cookbooks.
  • Yale Culinary Tablets (1700 BC)
  • De re coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) (4th-5th century)
  • Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ (10th century)
  • Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ (13th century)
  • Le Viandier (c. ...
  • Llibre de Sent Sovi (1324)
  • Yinshan Zhengyao (1330)
Nov 28, 2016

What is the oldest surviving printed book in the world? ›

A Buddhist holy text, the Diamond Sūtra is considered to be the oldest surviving dated printed book in the world. Found in a walled up cave in China along with other printed materials, the book is made up of Chinese characters printed on a scroll of grey printed paper, wrapped along a wooden pole.

Who wrote the first cookbook in America? ›

American Cookery, the very first American cookbook, was written by Amelia Simmons (more on this mysterious woman later). In it, she promised local food and a kind of socioculinary equality. The title page stated that the recipes were "adapted to this country and all grades of life."

What is the oldest food in the world still edible? ›

First found in a tomb in Ancient Egypt, honey is about 5,500 years old. Revered in ancient Egypt, honey remains edible over long periods. In 2015, while excavating tombs in Egypt, the archaeologists found about 3000-year-old honey that was fully edible.

What the oldest people eat every day? ›

Follow a mostly plant-based diet – Blue Zone centenarians follow a predominantly plant-based diet, eating 95-100% plant-based. They primarily eat a variety of in-season fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains and beans.

What was the first meal ever made? ›

A recent study found what could be the earliest known evidence of ancient cooking: the leftovers of a fish dinner from 780,000 years ago. Cooking helped change our ancestors. It helped fuel our evolution and gave us bigger brains.

What was the first black cookbook? ›

Malinda Russell
Occupation(s)cook, pastry chef
Years active1840–66
Known forwriting the first cookbook penned by an African-American woman in the U.S.
Notable workDomestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (1866)
3 more rows

What is the oldest cooked food? ›

Scientists have found the earliest known evidence of cooking at an archaeological site in Israel. The shift from eating raw to cooked food was a dramatic turning point in human evolution, and the discovery has suggested prehistoric humans were able to deliberately make fires to cook food at least 780,000 years ago.

Who was the youngest person to publish a cookbook? ›

Justin Miller (USA, b. 10 Janurary 1990) was aged seven when his cookbook "Cooking with Justin: Recipes for Kids (And Parents)" was published in 1997.

What is the oldest books still in print? ›

The oldest extant printed book is a work of the Diamond Sutra and dates back to 868 CE, during the Tang Dynasty.

What is the worlds earliest surviving printed book? ›

Book overview

The Buddhist text known as the Diamond Sutra is believed to be the oldest surviving printed book in the world. Made in 868 AD and written in Chinese, the text contains a significant dialogue on perception, and is one of the most important sacred works of the Buddhist faith.

What is the oldest surviving book of recipes? ›

The oldest cookbook in the world is the Yale Culinary Tablets. These three stone slabs dating back to Mesopotamia circa 1700 B.C. represent the oldest known recipe-making in world history.

Is there a market for old cookbooks? ›

Investment value: Old cookbooks are sometimes collected as a "financial investment," Sawyer said. The value of a cookbook can go up over time, especially if it's considered rare, has historical significance and is in good condition.

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