The Archaeologists and Chefs Recreating the World's Oldest Recipes

In Byzantine times, parrotfish was considered was considered a great delicacy from Constantinople to the Negev. Scholars and chefs are trying to learn why

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The tail of a parrotfish.
The tail of a parrotfish. Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Archaeologist Dr. Yitzchak Jaffe conducts research on millet gruel. To be more precise, he studies the vessels in which the gruel was cooked in China 3,000 years ago. “This period in Chinese history parallels the period of King David and King Solomon here,” says Jaffe, “and it also has a similar historical narrative: The golden age in which a local kingdom spreads across a region, consolidates a clear cultural identity and bequeaths it to neighboring nations with which it comes into contact. The next stage is the collapse of the united kingdom, which breaks up into separate kingdoms, with the hoped-for unification taking place only much later.”

Jaffe, who was born in 1982, studied for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, continued his specialization in Chinese archaeology in China, and received a doctorate from Harvard University. “The principal grain in China during that period was millet rather than rice,” he continues. “And the most common food was either a gruel or a stew of grains, to which they sometimes added a few vegetables or a bit of meat. This dish was cooked in simple vessels, large ceramic pots, which were discovered at various archaeological sites in China.”

In classical archaeology they used to examine the shape of ancient cooking vessels and the patterns that decorated them. But in the past two decades – thanks to the advance of technology and research methods, among other things – the emphases have been changing. “What interested me in my research wasn’t the shape of the vessels, but how they were used,” says Jaffe. “Even in areas where the style of the cooking vessels seems to be homogeneous – in other words, where they used similar vessels – they cooked different varieties of local and regional food. I hope, for example, that if excavations are conducted in Israel 200 years from now, and Ikea housewares are discovered in the digs, they won’t conclude that there was a Swedish culture here.”

In the ancient cooking vessels, a thin layer of deposits was absorbed and preserved, which provides information, for example, about the height of the liquid in which the dish was cooked, and sometimes even about a dish that burned in the pot. “This layer can teach us about the intensity of the fire and the cooking technique, and if you drill into the vessel and find some deposits, you can also understand which raw ingredients were used. I can’t get an exact recipe, but with the help of archaeobotanical and archaeozoological findings, and the assistance of additional experts – historians, anthropologists and chefs – we can try to create a more comprehensive picture.

“Based on archaeological findings from the world of food, my doctorate tried in effect to examine whether there was a period of a unified China. In effect, I tried to understand the identity of the people who consumed the food that was cooked in those vessels. What we eat is strongly connected to our social, ethnic and gender identity.”

Prof. Guy Bar-Oz, and a parrotfish jaw discovered during excavations in Shivta. Credit: Dan Perez

The oldest cookbook

In the past two years Jaffe has been a visiting assistant professor at New York University. The study he conducted in China inspired an interesting conference that took place recently at the initiative of the university’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The conference, entitled “An Appetite for the Past,” presented studies in which archaeologists and other scholars, chefs and food experts cooperated.

“We’re not the first to recreate ancient recipes,” adds Jaffe, in a telephone interview from New York. “That’s already been done in the past, and has been gathering momentum in recent years. But what makes the conference special is that the chefs didn’t join the process at the last moment and receive a completed recipe to prepare. They were actively involved in the research work.”

The first day of the conference was devoted to lectures, and the second day to the cooking and tasting of the recipes and the ancient foods. A delegation from Yale University – which included the curator of the university museum, an expert on hieroglyphics, a chemist and a culinary historian – looked for the origin of the cooking techniques that have been preserved to this day in an ancient Babylonian codex of recipes, which is considered the oldest cookbook in the world.

A group of British, Spanish and American scholars examined garum sauce – a fermented fish sauce that was one of the most important cooking ingredients of the ancient world – was served. Someone studied the origin and evolution of blancmange, a dairy dessert based on almonds and spices, in medieval Europe. The Israeli delegation from the University of Haifa presented the story of the parrotfish, the caviar of the Byzantine era, in the ancient cities of the Negev.

Chef Uri Yirmias.Credit: Dan Perez

The Israeli group from Haifa included four members: Prof. Guy Bar-Oz, the head of the Archaeology Institute; Prof. Ephraim Lev of the Land of Israel Studies Department; Dr. Gil Gambash, head of the Maritime Civilizations Department; and chef Uri Yirmias of the Uri Buri Restaurant in Acre.

When camel meets ship

The story begins with excavations done in recent years in ancient cities of the Negev – Nitzana, Halutza and Shivta – to examine why the flourishing settlements were abandoned in the seventh century CE. In order to learn about the lives and identity of the inhabitants of the abandoned cities, the researchers examined the mounds of garbage they left behind. One of the most interesting findings was hundreds of parrotfish bones.

“It’s not a matter of course to find such quantities of parrotfish in the Negev, at a distance of 200 kilometers from the Red Sea,” says Bar-Oz. “The origin of the parrotfish is in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This fish, which has about 25 known subspecies, is of unparalleled importance for the ecological balance, because it eats corals, then excretes them as sand and helps the process of renewing the reef. The fact that the remains were found so far from the area of origin attests to the importance of the fish in the eyes of the inhabitants at the time.”

The archaeologists found the bones and dated them. Historians who specialize in the Byzantine-Muslim period joined the team in order to understand not only how the parrotfish arrived in the Negev, but also why it was eaten and why it was considered a status symbol. “The parrotfish was highly rated on the food pyramid of the Roman empire, the Byzantine Empire and parallel cultures in the Mediterranean,” explains Gambash. “That probably happened not only because of its nutritional value and the relative ease with which it can be preserved, but also because of its exotic nature, the varied colors and the strange parrot-like head that gave it its name.

“Writers of the classical period mention it as the most prestigious food for feasts, like caviar in the modern world. And what is served in Rome and Constantinople is also served in Shivta and Halutza. It’s a nice story about the network of ties formed by the Mediterranean Sea, and about the trade routes and cultural knowledge in this region that also connected it to other parts of the ancient world.

“The cities of the Negev were located at a junction of overland commercial routes, ‘where a camel meets a ship,’ and in that way the desert is transformed from a remote and marginal region to a significant player in a high-class consumer culture. The cities of the Negev sold wine to London and France, and used marble that was brought from there, as well as parrotfish from the Red Sea.”

Chef Uri Yirmias joined the group to try to understand the culinary advantages of the parrotfish, and to implement ancient cooking techniques and recipes. “In the past two years, under the guidance of historians and archaeologists, I’ve been working on recreating recipes from the Byzantine period,” says the silver-bearded chef. Some people compare the white, low-fat flesh of the parrotfish (the low percentages of fat help in long-term preservation by drying and salting) to the flesh of codfish, and the dozens of ways in which it was cooked and consumed after being dried are compared to Portuguese bacalhau, a dish of dried and salted cod.

“The parrotfish, which is almost extinct in its region of origin, is a protected fish in the Red Sea, but since the year 2000 fishermen have been finding it in the Mediterranean, too. Because in the Mediterranean it’s considered an invasive species, fishing it is permitted there, even if at the moment it has no price, no market and no demand.

“Only the fishermen of Acre have learned that there are some crazy people from the University of Haifa who want parrotfish, so they charge 30 shekels a kilo for it,” laugh the members of the delegation.

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