Clever ways the ancients made food last centuries

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach world history. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.

Food Preservation

Yesterday’s word of the day was dessicate, and lately I’ve been trying to write daily microfiction in response to word-of-the-day prompts. Inspired, I tried to learn more about obscure food preservation techniques I could use to deepen the worldbuilding of my fantasy universe, Verraine.

Fun Facts

  • Tea eggs, which are boiled in water, then cracked and boiled again in spiced tea, were developed as an East Asian food preservation method.
  • Food gels formed of gelatin, maize flour, arrowroot flour, and a couple of others can be used to preserve meat in what is essentially a pot of homemade bone broth. An example would be the jellied eels traditional in China and London.
  • One batch of French beef stew (pot-au-feu) was maintained as a perpetual stew in Perpignan from the 15th century until World War II.
  • Ritual burning of surplus foodstuffs is more common and extravagant in times of plenty than in times of privation; it’s a useful way to get rid of things a community can’t store.
  • During the Akkadian Empire, people cured and smoked meat, dried apples, and preserved fruit in honey.

War Canning

Canning exists because Napoleon offered a cash prize for someone to invent a better way to preserve food and keep the French army fed. It took Nicolas François Appert 15 years to invent the modern method of heating, boiling and sealing food into glass jars. [Read More]

Powdered Cow

Mongolians freeze-dry meat jerky-style and then break it into small pieces. They powder it and add it to boiling water to create a nutritious broth. Processed using this method, the meat of an entire cow can fit inside of the stomach of the same cow. Check out a recipe.

Black and Yellow

Traditional Chinese egg preservation practices include creating “century eggs” by soaking eggs in clay, ash, salt, quicklime, rolling them in rice hulls (to prevent sticking), and then letting them sit in a dark dry place for a month or two. Modern recipes use lye and beeswax instead. The end result tastes pretty similar to cheese with a hint of ammonia. Check out a Recipe.

Fermentation Pots

Korean fermentation pots predate porcelain and other famous Asian ceramics. Called onggi, they are glazed with soil mixed with pine leaf mold and ash. Historically, Koreans kept onggi jars filled with sauces, pastes, and other fermenting foods (like kimchi) in a special yard or terrace. Their porosity makes them unusually well-suited for fermentation. [Read more]

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my article edible entrails & self-fermenting wine.


Sign in or become a Eleanor's Iceberg member to join the conversation.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.

You've successfully subscribed to Eleanor's Iceberg
Great! Next, complete checkout to get full access to all premium content.
Error! Could not sign up. invalid link.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Error! Could not sign in. Please try again.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Error! Stripe checkout failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Error! Billing info update failed.