Part of the Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture exhibition.

Cook: Section Overview
Cooking is one of humankind’s most distinctive traits. 
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Cooking has become a dynamic expression of human creativity: It’s where we transform ingredients, giving rise to a fantastic diversity of recipes, tools, techniques, scents, and cuisines. Every technique and every dish, from steaming tamales to frying paratha, represent the work of generations of cooks and long-standing traditions.

China: Enduring Traditions of the Han Dynasties

China, 2,000 years ago: emperors of the Han Dynasties ruled the country, and segments of the Great Wall had just been built. Yet the way many people cooked—using stoves and woks—and the foods they ate, from rice to soy sauce, are surprisingly familiar. And because of their popularity, the foods and cooking techniques of Han China have lasted for thousands of years and have been adopted the world over.

Korean Peninsula: Tradition and Change

For thousands of years, residents of the Korean peninsula have faced long, cold winters with no access to fresh vegetables. Their solution was to eat mainly rice and kimchi, a side dish made with salted and fermented vegetables, often bok choi. Today, there are hundreds of varieties of kimchi—which, over the centuries, has become Korea’s signature dish.

The Americas: Cooking with Maize

Crops of wheat and other grains helped the ancient civilizations of the Middle East thrive—but it was maize (also called corn) that nourished many of the indigenous peoples of North, Central, and South America. First domesticated perhaps 9,000 years ago, maize has been a staple food throughout much of the Americas—whether as popcorn or porridge, tamales or tortillas.

Morocco: A Mixing of Cultures

Located on the coast of northwest Africa, with access to both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Morocco has a long history of intermingling African, European, and Arabic cultures—and culinary traditions. The signature Moroccan dish is a tagine, a stew made by the region’s early inhabitants, the Berbers, and today richly flavored with mixtures of spices. 

Interactive Exhibit: Cooking Table

See it in Our Global Kitchen! Four visitors at a time can try their virtual hands at cooking four different international dishes. Video projected on the table's surface takes visitors through the recipes in five easy interactive steps. Click below for the recipes.

Cook: Table
Try your hand at "cooking" four dishes on an interactive table in Our Global Kitchen.
© AMNH/D. Finnin
  • Groundnut Soup, West Africa: Groundnut or peanut soup is one of the most common dishes in West Africa. This recipe explains the cooking techniques of browning meat, sautéing vegetables, and simmering soup.
  • Tamales, Mexico: Foods cooked in their own wrappers developed independently in different cultures around the world. The recipe for this popular Mexican holiday dish examines the preparation of the special masa flour, wrapping the fillings in corn husks, and steaming.
  • Poached Eggs with Hollandaise Sauce, France: Discover the science of the egg in the making of this classic French recipe, from the temperature sensitivity of the egg protein to the molecular chemistry of egg yolks, which allows for the creation of a creamy sauce.
  • Grilled Salmon and Peach Salad, U.S.: Humankind’s oldest cooking technique—grilling—is explored in this popular dish. This recipe explains how spice rubs provide a protective coating for meats, reducing the risk of overcooking, and how caramelizing fruits adds new flavors. 

What's the Recipe?

Visit Our Global Kitchen to see a selection of cookbooks from around the world, including images of the oldest known recipes, recorded on a Babylonian clay tablet.

While people have been cooking for hundreds of thousands of years, cookbooks are comparatively recent. Until the 1800s, widespread use of cookbooks was rare. Many people, including cooks, couldn’t read, and recipes were traditionally passed along by word of mouth, often from
mother to daughter. 

Cook: Cookbooks
See a selection of humorous, beautiful, once-trendy, or truly influential cookbooks from around the world. 
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Pei Mei’s Chinese Cook Book The three volumes of Pei Mei’s Chinese Cook Book, published in 1969, 1974, and 1979, provided some of the first written instructions about authentic regional Chinese cuisine.Volume I, shown here, offers an introduction to basic ingredients and distinct regional styles: Shanghai, Cantonese, Sichuan and Bejing.

Le guide culinaire Born in 1847, Auguste Escoffier was often called the “king of chefs and the chef of kings.” At London’s Ritz Carlton Hotel in the early 1900s, he did indeed serve monarchs as well as celebrities. His cookbook Le guide culinaire remains a bible of sorts for classic French restaurant cooking, with an emphasis on techniques such as making stock and butter-rich sauces.

The Joy of Cooking First published in 1931 by Irma S. Rombauer, a St. Louis housewife, and revised by her family over the years, the classic American cookbook The Joy of Cooking has sold about 18 million copies and is still going strong. A clearly written guide for both beginning and experienced cooks, Joy can be found on kitchen shelves across the United States and even the world.

Cooking without Heat

Making a yummy dish doesn’t always mean heating food.

Why cook food, anyway? Sometimes it’s simply to make things taste better. Heat also causes chemical reactions that make food easier to chew and digest—plus it kills germs. Bacteria, fungus, mold, and yeast need your food as much as you do, and a hot stove or oven generally kills these microbes. But there are other ways to prevent the growth of microbes. What’s more, some microbes are actually good for us: they can make food more nutritious, taste better, or last longer.

Keeping Food Fresh

No fridge? No problem! One familiar way to keep food fresh is to keep it cool: cold temperatures slow the growth of microbes that spoil food and cause disease. But even before refrigerators were invented, people had discovered other ways to preserve foods.

Salt: Salt keeps microbes from growing by drawing water out of their cells. Heavy salting can preserve many foods for a year or more

Sugar: Sugar, like salt, keeps bacteria from growing by drawing water from cells. When cooked in sugar, fruit becomes “preserves” such as jam, jelly, or marmalade. “Candied fruit,” which has been sugared and dried, can last for years.

Smoke: Smoke adds flavor—and when combined with other preservation methods, prevents meat from spoiling. Wood smoke contains several chemicals that prevent microbes from growing, including acids, antioxidants, and antimicrobial disinfectants. 

Or try…

Canning: Canning dates back to the early 1800s, when French chef Nicolas Appert invented the technique. The French military had offered a reward for anyone presenting an effective way to preserve food for soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars. Canning protects food from spoiling in two ways: sterilizing the food by heating it enough to kill all microbes and preventing new microbes from entering the sealed container once the food cools.

Pickling: Pickled foods are prepared by soaking them in an acid such as vinegar. Sometimes the acid is added, but sometimes it’s simply produced by live bacteria inside the food itself. Acids prevent many harmful microbes from growing, which is why pickling vegetables and other foods like hard-boiled eggs makes them last longer.

Drying: Drying food prevents spoiling because bacteria, yeast and mold cannot grow without water. People have been drying fruit, fish, meats, and other foods for thousands of years, using sunlight, fire, hot sand, and exposure to cold temperatures and low humidity.