The earliest cookbooks on record seem to be mainly lists of recipes for what would now be called haute cuisine, and were often written primarily to either provide a record of the author’s favorite dishes or to train professional cooks for banquets and upper-class, private homes. Many of these cookbooks, therefore, provide only limited sociological or culinary value, as they leave out significant sections of ancient cuisine such as peasant food, breads, and preparations such as vegetable dishes too simple to warrant a recipe.
The earliest collection of recipes that has survived in Europe is De re coquinaria, written in Latin. An early version was first compiled sometime in the 1st century and has often been attributed to the Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, though this has been cast in doubt by modern research. An Apicius came to designate a book of recipes. The current text appears to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century; the first print edition is from 1483. It records a mix of ancient Greek and Roman cuisine, but with few details on preparation and cooking.
An abbreviated epitome entitled Apici Excerpta a Vinidario, a “pocket Apicius” by Vinidarius, “an illustrious man”, was made in the Carolingian era. In spite of its late date it represents the last manifestation of the cuisine of Antiquity.
The earliest cookbooks known in Arabic are those of al-Warraq (an early 10th-century compendium of recipes from the 9th and 10th centuries) and al-Baghdadi (13th century).
Chinese recipe books are known from the Tang Dynasty, but most were lost. One of the earliest surviving Chinese-language cookbooks is Hu Sihui’s “Yinshan Zhengyao” (Important Principles of Food and Drink), believed to be from 1330. Hu Sihui, Buyantu Khan’s dietitian and therapist, recorded a Chinese-inflected Central Asian cuisine as eaten by the Yuan court; his recipes were adapted from foods eaten all over the Mongol Empire.
After a long interval, the first recipe books to be compiled in Europe since Late Antiquity started to appear in the late thirteenth century. About a hundred are known to have survived, some fragmentary, from the age before printing. The earliest genuinely medieval recipes have been found in a Danish manuscript dating from around 1300, which in turn are copies of older texts that date back to the early 13th century or perhaps earlier.
Low and High German manuscripts are among the most numerous. Among them is Daz buch von guter spise (“The Book of Good Food”) written c. 1350 in Würzberg and Kuchenmeysterey (“Kitchen Mastery”), the first printed German cookbook from 1485. Two French collections are probably the most famous: Le Viandier (“The Provisioner”) was compiled in the late 14th century by Guillaume Tirel, master chef for two French kings; and Le Menagier de Paris (“The Householder of Paris”), a household book written by an anonymous middle class Parisian in the 1390s.
From Southern Europe there is the 14th century Valencian manuscript Llibre de Sent Soví(1324), the Catalan Llibre de totes maneres de potatges de menjar (“The book of all recipes of dishes) and several Italian collections, notably the Venetian mid-14th century Libro per Cuoco, with its 135 recipes alphabetically arranged. The printed De honesta voluptate (“On honourable pleasure”), first published in 1475, is one of the first cookbooks based on Renaissance ideals, and, though it is as much a series of moral essays as a cookbook, has been described as “the anthology that closed the book on medieval Italian cooking”.
Recipes originating in England include the earliest recorded recipe for ravioli (1390s) and Forme of Cury, a late 14th-century manuscript written by chefs of Richard II of England.