Recipe: Philosopher’s Stew with Lentils, Honey and Pepper

soup campfire

Russia has borscht, France has bouillabaisse, America has Campbell’s and… the Ancient Greeks had Philosopher’s Stew.

Whatever your choice, there’s no denying just how tasty and satisfying soup is to sup. In fact, it’s a pleasure that’s so ingrained that I’d assumed we’d been doing it since we learned to make fire.

So when I came across an ancient Greek recipe and started reading about just how much they loved soup, it made me wonder: how long have we actually been making soup? Surely for as long as we’ve been boiling water? Jokes about primordial soup aside, the question is, just how long has that actually been? The answer is somewhat surprising…

The World’s Oldest Soup

The first thing you need to make soup (other than heat and water) is a heatproof, waterproof container. Most sources say they appeared around 9,000 years ago, but that’s probably wrong by at least 10,000 years.

Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef and colleagues found a 20,000-year-old clay pot in a cave in China – what could be the world’s oldest known cookware to date.

But a heatproof, waterproof container doesn’t necessarily have to be clay pot. It’s also possible to boil water inside an animal skin, using hot rocks, which crack as steam forms – something that starts to show up in the archaeological record of Western Europe around 25,000 years ago.

And it’s possible that boiling food goes back even further. Archaeologists like James Speth argue that we could have been doing it for at least 40,000 years. Boiling meat to render fat from the bone would not only have made a tasty broth, but would have been essential to ensuring our ancestors got more out of their meat than protein. And it’s entirely possible the Neanderthals were doing it too.

Either way, putting a date on the world’s very first bowl of soup is probably impossible. But at the very least, what we do know is that archaeologists found the 2,400 year-old remnants of an animal bone soup (still in liquid form) in a bronze container in a grave in China and have deciphered Babylonian recipes from cuneiform tablets.

In Ancient Greece, Aristophanes described Lentil Soup as the sweetest of delicacies, while Zeno of Citium (founder of the stoic school of philosophy) was somewhat ironically fed lentil soup by his teacher in an attempt to cure him of his modesty.

All soup and no spoon

By medieval times, soup had changed. Broth for commoners. For the wealthy, only the solids were considered part of the actual meal – soup was just for flavouring and to keep the chunks of meat and vegetable warm.

By then, it was no longer the solo superstar on the starter menu either; it was accompanied by bread or toast. This addition was vital to the dish, which was now called sop (the bread was used to sop up the soup to eat, like a rudimentary spoon). Spoons weren’t actually used to eat soup until the 1300s, where it gradually became the preferred method of dining.

Food for thought 

In the 18th century, eating establishments started springing up that specialised in making soups made from meat and eggs. These soups were called restaurants because of their restorative properties!

Speaking of a “restaurant”, I could do with one myself. It’s no primordial soup, but it does come straight out of the pages of history!

Recipe: Philosopher’s Stew with lentils, honey and pepper

Soup 1

Lentil-lovers get ready! This week’s ancient recipe comes from Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece. It’s specially chosen for its unusual flavour, broth base and healthy dose of lentils. Let’s see if it’s as powerful as Zeno’s teacher believed!

You will need:

450g lentils, 2 litres vegetable broth, a large minced leek, a sliced carrot, a sliced stalk of celery, a sliced small onion, 2 tablespoons of vinegar, at least one teaspoon of honey, olive oil, 12 coriander seeds and salt and pepper to taste

How to make it:

1) First of all, if you want to make your own vegetable broth, that’s easily done. Just put some veg like sliced onions, carrots and celery  in a few litres of boiling water with garlic, bay leaves and peppercorns. Bring it to the boil, simmer for two hours, then strain and discard the solids.

2) Now to make the soup! Rinse the lentils thoroughly, and put them into a pan with your broth and bring back to the boil, before reducing the heat and simmering for another hour

3) Once the hour is up, skim the top and add the vegetables. If you don’t skim the top, a bit of wind might also relieve you of your modesty… a la Zeno. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!

4) Leave it to simmer again until thoroughly cooked… it took me about another 30 minutes. It should be nice and thick.

5) Now add the vinegar and honey (I added an extra spoon or two of honey… well worth it!)

6) Pour into bowls and add just a drizzle of olive oil to each serving

7) Add the coriander seeds, and then salt and plenty of pepper to taste

The result is a sweet, herby, peppery stew… Aristophanes was right, when cooked like this, lentils really are the sweetest of delicacies. But no promises it helping you found your own school of philosophy though!

Chef’s tip: Why not try this soup with DigVentures’ Beer and Barley Bread?


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Written by Jamie Skuse

Jamie is a recent(ish) archaeology graduate from the University of Manchester. He loves playing with new gadgets (old and new) and one day wants to have his own archaeo-drone and be known as the flying archaeologist. Twitter: @supertrowel

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