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Simon Whalley: Three Ancient Dishes That Are Still Popular Today

Simon Whalley is an accomplished composer and music lecturer who has taught and directed choirs across England, as well as working as an organist for the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in New York. He directed Jubilate!, one of the leading chamber choirs in Oxford, as well as spending 15 years as Kebel College Chapel Choir’s director of music at Oxford University, leading the choir through CD releases and international tours.

An avid reader, Simon Whalley takes a keen interest in arts and culture. This article will explore three of the oldest recipes in the world – dishes that are still celebrated to this day.


Dating back to circa 6000 BC, the humble stew remains a popular dish to this day, with a multitude of regional varieties. Consisting of vegetables, poultry or meat, and a myriad of other ingredients, the dish is cooked very slowly over a gentle heat.

Although traditional stews were commonly cooked with water, some regional variations call for wine or even beer. Stews tend to be mildly flavoured, relying only on basic seasoning.

In ancient times, the practice of slow-cooking meat in liquid grew popular all over the world as a way of cooking tough cuts of meat. Archaeologists have unearthed cooking utensils used to make stews by ancient Amazonian tribes, while the Greek philosopher Herodotus wrote about a similar Scythian dish in ancient texts.

During the recent lockdown, Cambridge (UK) social media user Bill Sutherland decided to cook an ancient Babylonian meal, using the “oldest existing” recipes from an inscribed tablet believed to date back to 1750 BC. Describing the ancient lamb, leek, and garlic stew as “delicious”, Sutherland admitted it was the best Mesopotamian meal he had ever eaten.


Believed to have first been prepared by Mesoamericans sometime between 8000 and 5000 BC, these soft doughy parcels are traditionally stuffed with meats, vegetables, fruits, and a variety of other fillings.

Originating from an ancient Nahuati word, tamales are typically made with meat, processed corn, and a variety of other ingredients which are wrapped in a leaf or other wrapper before being cooked.

Today, tamales are eaten for common holidays, but in olden times they were regarded as the food of the gods, with different kinds prepared for different deities by the Mayans, Olmecs, Toltecs and Aztecs.

Although dismissed as peasant food by Christian missionaries arriving in the Americas in the 19th century, preparation of the dish is actually quite elaborate, comprising as many as 120 steps when prepared from scratch. In Mexico City today, classic tamales are filled with either pork, chicken, beef, onion fillings, jalapenos, chili sauce or garlic.

Pilaf Rice

Although bread is the oldest known human staple food, dating back almost 30,000 years, until relatively recently it was prepared only in a very primitive form. Rice, on the other hand, has been incorporated into intricate, flavoursome dishes for thousands of years.

Rice was first cultivated by the Chinese more than 13,000 years ago, before being introduced to India. Pilaf rice became an immensely popular dish throughout Central Asia and the Middle East, with the recipe brought back to Macedonia by Alexander the Great after he conquered Samarkand in 328 BC.

Originating in Persia, having spread to the Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Uzbeks, Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Afghans, pilaf rice is the perfect way to use up leftover food. The dish is not just an exceptional method of cooking fluffy, non-sticky rice, but an effective way of incorporating anything that needs using up.

To make the dish fluffy, cooks wash it first, inserting a cloth under the saucepan lid throughout the cooking process to absorb condensation from the steam and prevent it from dropping back down onto the rice.

A much sought after highlight of the dish is the ‘tahdig’, a golden rice crust that forms on the bottom of the pot which is sometimes layered with yogurt, orange zest, saffron, and butter for the ultimate indulgence.

Steeped in aromatic herbs and spices, including cardamon, saffron and cinnamon, common components of pilaf rice include mutton, lamb, beef or chicken, and chopped nuts such as almonds, pistachios or walnuts, with carrots and raisins commonly added in Saudi Arabia. In Armenia, pilaf rice is sometimes made with cracked wheat instead of rice, and flavoured with parsley, mint and allspice.