Ancient Foods from Around the World We Still Eat Today

food, ancient foods from around the world we still eat today

Foods that stood the test of time

The modern food industry is nothing if not innovative, with new-fangled foodie products seemingly popping up on supermarket shelves every week. But many foods we couldn’t live without – from cheese to chocolate – have their roots in ancient civilizations. We peer back through time to discover the ancient foods we still love in the modern day.

a close up of a glass of orange juice


Whether you like it drizzled on your porridge or stirred into tea, honey probably makes an appearance on your breakfast table from time to time. And the glorious gold liquid has been used as a sweetener since ancient times. Mentions of the sweet stuff have been found in scripts from Mesopotamia (encompassing modern day Iraq and other parts of the Middle East) and ancient Egypt that hark back as far as 2,100 BC.

a person holding a bowl of food


Like many ancient foodstuffs, the origin of noodles – a stalwart of Asian cuisine today – is disputed. Theories linking noodles to ancient Italian, Arab and Chinese cultures abound, but a discovery made back in 2005 may have solved the mystery. Archeologists uncovered what they perceived to be 4,000-year-old noodles at the Lajia archeological site in northwest China. Early mentions of the ingredient also appear in literature from China’s Eastern Han Dynasty (dating to between AD 25 and 220).

food, ancient foods from around the world we still eat today


Often tipped as the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, mead conjures images of medieval banquet halls and royal feasts. But its history stretches back even further still. Evidence of the fermented honey drink has been found on Chinese pottery as early as 7,000 BC and it was popular with everyone from the ancient Greeks to the Mayans. The ancient drink is making something of a comeback in the modern age too.

a close up of food on a table

Bone broth

Today, bone broth is revered by health food fanatics and paleo dieters, but it has a very long history indeed. The nutrient-packed broth is made by simmering leftover bones in water, often with vinegar and/or herbs and spices. Despite its modern popularity, it’s thought to have originated with hunter-gatherer tribes in the late Stone Age.

a cup of coffee and a spoon on a table


A mainstay in modern Indian cooking, ghee is a thick, clarified butter known for its deliciously nutty flavor. In recent years, it’s also become favored by followers of the typically grain-free, paleo diet, who wax lyrical about its role as a nutritious fat source. But its roots go much deeper. It originated in ancient India, with millennia-old Sanskrit texts hailing it as fit for the divine. It’s also bound up with the Hindu religion, which says that deity Prajapati conjured the foodstuff himself.

a cup of coffee sitting on top of a wooden cutting board

Soy sauce

A pillar of Chinese and other East Asian cuisines, soy sauce is favored for its rich umami taste and has been used for thousands of years. It’s thought that soy sauce was born from the ancient Chinese paste named “jiang”, made of fermented vegetables, grains and legumes like soy beans. Over the centuries, the Chinese brought the ingredient to other countries such as Japan, where it remains a staple.

a glass of beer on a table


When considering the history of beer, many might point to Belgium or Germany – two countries renowned for their rich beer-brewing traditions. But, while the exact origins of beer are unknown, it’s generally agreed that they lie further east. Unearthed ceramic vessels dating back around 5,000 years suggest that the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia (in the Middle East) were among the first to sip some suds. Relics have connected the much-loved drink to the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians too.

a bowl of soup sitting on top of a wooden table

Fish sauce

Typically made from fermented fish like anchovies, fish sauce is a key ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking. Although its exact origins are hard to pin down, experts agree that it dates back to antiquity. It’s thought that the sauce has its roots with ancient Greeks residing along the Black Sea coast as far back as the 7th century BC. The Roman sauce garum, originally made from fish blood, is another ancestor of modern-day fish sauce.

food, ancient foods from around the world we still eat today


The fermented cabbage dish sauerkraut is most readily associated with Eastern Europe today – but did you know its origin story begins in ancient China? It’s said that the builders of the Great Wall of China began fermenting cabbage in rice wine to make it last for longer as they toiled away. Now it’s often served as an accompaniment to things like schnitzel and bratwurst.

a close up of a vase on a table


Whether it’s humble malt or apple cider, vinegar is a base ingredient in many a kitchen. And, as it happens, it has been for millennia. Over the centuries, vinegar has been made with fruits, alcohol, rice and more, and though its exact roots are unknown, traces of it have been found in both ancient Egyptian and Chinese vessels. Babylonian writings from 5,000 BC mention date vinegar too.

a piece of cake covered in cheese


Whether you like a grating of Parmesan over your pasta or a deliciously creamy wedge of brie on your crackers, cheese forms a regular part of many diets. It has many guises, of course, and each cheesy variety has its own unique origin story. But where did it all begin? Nobody knows for sure, but legend has it an Arabian merchant invented cheese by accident, when he used a satchel made from a sheep’s stomach to transport milk on a journey. The naturally occurring rennet in the pouch caused the milk to curdle, and a delicious early cheese was born.

a cup of coffee on a table

Soy milk

You might think that soy milk – a popular substitute for dairy milk – is an uber-modern health food, but it actually has ancient origins. It’s said that the cows’ milk alternative originated with the ancient Chinese, with cultures here consuming the beverage as early as AD 25–220.

a close up of a wooden cutting board

Beef jerky

Beef jerky may seem like a pretty modern snack, but its roots go back much further than you might think. A type of mummified beef jerky was found in ancient Egyptian pyramids in recent decades and, before that, its origins were pinned to the Incas. It’s thought that the word “jerky” comes from the Quechuan (a language spoken in the Andes) word “ch’arki”, which means “dried meat”.

a piece of cake sitting on top of a wooden cutting board


There are few things more gratifying than a generous coating of butter on hot toast and, happily for our ancestors, the indulgent dairy product has been around for centuries. According to the American Butter Institute, the first written records of the ingredient date back 4,500 years and take the form of a limestone tablet detailing the early butter-making process. It’s thought that production began even earlier, though, with butter being enjoyed by the ancient Greeks, Romans and more.

a close up of a bottle and a glass of wine


Wine is enjoyed in almost every corner of the planet today, so it’s little surprise that its early origins are hazy. Wine traces have been found in vessels from ancient China, but it was in the Mediterranean that the boozy drink truly flourished in antiquity. The millennia-old drink appears in Greek mythology, was used in both ancient Greek and Roman religious ceremonies, and was also supped at informal get-togethers known as symposiums. It soon gained popularity in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia too.

a cup of coffee sitting on top of a wooden table


Tea is so synonymous with Britain that’s it’s easy to forget that the aromatic leaves are barely grown in the UK at all. China is the world’s largest tea producer (along with other Asian countries like India and Sri Lanka) and the origins of tea are rooted in Chinese legend. The story goes, a Chinese emperor was sat beneath a camellia sinensis tree (or tea plant) in 2,737 BC when a few tea leaves blew into the boiling water he was drinking. The ruler was impressed by the flavor of the drink, and so tea was born. Whether the story has clout or not, ancient China is still credited as one of the earliest tea producers in the world.

a glass bottle on a table

Olive oil

Olive oil is so important to Greece that there’s a whole museum dedicated to the stuff: the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil in Sparti. It’s thought that production of the delicately flavored oil began in ancient Israel, where Neolithic-era olive pits, pulp and tools have been found. By the late Bronze Age, Greece began pressing its own olives, building up a booming industry and spreading the tradition across the Mediterranean.

a piece of food


There’s nothing quite like a steaming bowl of fresh pasta, slick with butter and black pepper, or doused in a rich tomato sauce. Some 16 million tons of pasta were produced in 2019 and our modern obsession with the food is undoubtable, but its origin story is woolly. Most experts agree that pasta is a descendant of the noodles consumed in ancient China, and archeologists also discovered a relief appearing to depict the process of pasta making in an Etruscan tomb dating to the 4th century BC.

a piece of cake sitting on top of a wooden table


The perfect vessel for a hunk of Cheddar cheese and chutney, delightfully moreish oatcakes are made with oatmeal, fat and often some sugar, and baked or griddled for delicious results. It’s thought that, in Scotland, these savory biscuity snacks were consumed even before the Roman invasion (in AD 43). They were a mainstay of Scottish soldiers’ diets in medieval times too.

a glass of orange juice next to a cup of beer on a table


Revered by health-conscious millennials, kombucha, a fermented tea drink that’s celebrated for its gut-friendly properties, has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. But folks have been celebrating the merits of this trendy beverage long before the modern day. Most people pin its origins to Northeast China, or ancient Manchuria, where it’s thought that the drink was first brewed as early as 220 BC, before being brought to other parts of Asia and eventually Europe too.

a plate of food sitting on top of a wooden table


In the UK and US, tofu was once eschewed as something for hippies and health-food nuts – but this versatile ingredient, made from soy milk curds, has soared in popularity in recent years. Many Asian cultures have long recognized its virtues though. Its exact origins are unclear but one story pins it to a Chinese cook who lived some 2,000 years ago – legend has it, the chef produced tofu when he accidentally curdled soy milk by adding seaweed to it.

food, ancient foods from around the world we still eat today


Fresh, plain yogurt is a favorite topped with fresh berries and eaten for breakfast, or dolloped on the side of a hearty stew – and people have long recognized its virtues and versatility. As is often the case, the roots of this ancient food are hazy, but it’s generally linked to ancient Mesopotamia, around 5,000 BC. Much like cheese, it’s thought that yogurt was probably invented by accident when transporting milk in the heat.

a close up of a knife


It’s hard to imagine life without chocolate and, as it turns out, its history stretches back for many millennia. The beloved food stuff is thought to have roots in Mesoamerican civilization, and the Olmecs in southern Mexico may have used cacao beans to create ceremonial chocolate drinks as early as 1,500 BC. The Mayans and Aztecs also indulged in and celebrated chocolate, and even used it as a form of currency. Today’s chocolate and cocoa industry is worth more than $40 billion.

a piece of bread


Bread, in its many forms, is a staple food for populations around the globe, and many countries cherish bread-making techniques and traditions that go back centuries. But who baked the very first loaf of doughy goodness? For years, experts believed that humankind began making bread around 10,000 years ago – a practice that coincided with a move to a more permanent, less nomadic way of life that centered on farming. However, more recent evidence suggests that bread making has its roots with the Natufian, a hunter-gatherer culture who lived in the Levant around 14,000 years ago.

a close up of popcorn


Popcorn may be a favored movie snack but these sweet or salty bites existed way before the silver screen. Experts believe that corn was cultivated in the Americas as far back as 9,000 years ago, with the earliest traces of popcorn dated to some 6,700 years ago – archeologists found evidence of an old version of the puffed kernel snack in Peru in 2012. Ancient popcorn has been left behind by indigenous American tribes in the states of New Mexico and Utah too.

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