Experimental Archaeologists Role-Play the Past

By Anatole Sullivan

Have you ever tried to make a recipe that was 900 years old with no idea how it was supposed to taste? Well, that’s what we did in my Applied Food Studies class. We are studying how taste and smell so we can better understand our distant past. Given the limited evidence to work with, as “experimental archaeologists,” the purpose of this experiment is to design our interpretation of what ancient people ate. Attempting to recreate meals of the past was a great activity to acquaint us with an ancient culture and join it for a moment in the kitchen.

My group analyzed and designed our interpretation of Bagdadi recipes that were 819 years old. We were in charge of recreating two dishes: Jurjaniyya (a beef stew) and Lift Mukhallal Muhalla (pickled turnip).

Mukhallal Muhalla

The challenge—we were not provided with detailed instructions like what you see in cookbooks today. Instead, I read from a 10-sentence paragraph of steps without an ingredient list, amounts, or a yield. Further, these recipes were quite vague. For example, in the Lift Mukhallal Muhalla, the recipe said, “after peeling and cutting the turnips into small pieces, ‘sprinkle a little salt on them, and afterward sprinkle them with some mixed spices and the herbs, and run them together well into those turnips with the hand.” What herbs and spices? The rest of the recipe makes no mention of what herbs and spices to use, which made the interpreting process difficult.


Additionally, some of the ancient cooking methods were not only maddeningly vague but also counterintuitive. For instance, in the Jurjaniyya, the first step says, “The way to make it is to cut up meat medium and leave in the pot, and put water to cover on it with a little salt. Cut onions into dainty pieces, and when the pot boils…” The chronological steps in this recipe were particularly confusing because the source didn’t specify when to turn the heat on…just that it is “boiling.” I was hesitant because I was taught at the CIA to sear the meat to create fond at the bottom of the pan and to deglaze it with a flavorful liquid (like beef stock) so that the meat pieces can stew in the broth until tender. It was challenging because I did not know what to look for. I kept thinking to myself, “This is not how I would make this.” I was beginning to think these people were doing something wrong.

However, despite moments of confusion, the lesson that I got out of this hands-on experiment was learning to improvise and keep an open mind. Because the Bagdadi recipes were not very well detailed, we were forced to get creative, think critically, and problem-solve—which was the purpose of the experiment. Because so much was left unsaid in the recipes—like the quantities of ingredients; the cooking times and temperatures; the size, shape, preferred texture and color; and serving temperature—their idea of a recipe was merely a loose guide rather than a step-by-step instruction. And so the missing specifics such as what the spices and herbs were used in the turnips were common knowledge to the people of Bagdadi— leaving us to choose as we saw fit.

The beef stew, while pale in color and very watery, was pretty good though it could have used more salt. The turnips needed more time pickling, as we sliced them too thick, but the taste of the juice was refreshing. Considering everything, the taste was actually remarkably good.  It took us some imagination and trusting our palate, without doing too much.

The combination of “thinking” (in the classroom) and “doing” (performing hands-on activities) promoted a learning environment that made for rich conversations. These historical recipes were raised a multitude of questions among groups. Creating the end product was like solving a jigsaw puzzle and we did not have access to resources like the internet to help fill any missing pieces—not even Dr. Zhen could reveal any clues. However, the whole point of the project was not to create an exact replica of the food item, but rather redesign our interpretation of the recipe. In essence, this project allowed me, and my fellow classmates, to think while simultaneously doing.

Anatole Sullivan is studying for his bachelor’s degree in applied food studies at The Culinary Institute of America.