Which ancient civilization made the most flavorful cuisine?
Perhaps you could make a case for any of the cuisines and civilizations we’ve covered thus far, and no doubt each one has been best at something. But when it comes to pure, impact of flavor? Nobody beats India.
Thanks to its geography, history, and available ingredients, as well as some impressively advanced cooking techniques we’ll cover in depth, the story of South Asian civilization is the story of spice, rice, and flavor. Oh, and of vegetarians too!
WARNING: side effects of this episode may include getting very, very hungry!
Music for this episode sampled from the late, great Ravi Shankar
AVAILABLE ON SPOTIFY, ITUNES and GOOGLE PLAY. Please leave a review to help spread the word!
The answer is a whole lot! A little over two thousand years ago, the way people thought about themselves and the Universe was beginning to change. Ancient gods, pagan rituals, and beliefs were going out of style, no longer compatible with new, more modern ways of thinking. These beliefs would transform into new religions that would create, and last into the modern world.
And of course, nothing reflected this era of Spiritual transition more than what people ate, or in this case how much of it. Listen today for the origin stories of Christianity, Islam, and their parent religion Judaism, the three new monotheist faiths and their “one true god”, known colloquially at the time as “people of the book”.
AVAILABLE ON SPOTIFY, ITUNES and GOOGLE PLAY. Please leave a review to help spread the word!
This one was a real treat to prepare and to eat: a classic spread of Persian inspired dishes for a late breakfast that will also satisfy you through lunch and beyond.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s a literal translation in Farsi or any ancient Iranian language for “brunch”, but the classic early meal of an egg dish with lots of bread, and an assortment of spreads, jams, and garnishes to graze and pick over certainly fits any interpretation of the concept.
We’ve got a home cook’s version of classic SANGAK bread, cooked on hot pebbles to give it a grooved surface perfect for some sour plum and pomegranate jam, stewed figs and spices, and some freshly made KAYMAK, or what the English call clotted cream. To balance those sweet flavors, we’ve got some salty and briny garnishes on the side, as well as a a dish called NARGESI, a sort of frittata made from fried greens and onions.
You could file this luxurious dairy recipe under the nomad section, but the Persians carried it with them into civilized life, and called it Kaymak. Pure, heavy cream is cooked low and slow overnight to separate the milk fat. The resulting product is like a cousin to butter, only creamier and a deeper, toastier flavor from the oven.
The technique takes some time, but is ridiculously simple and easy. Clotted cream is most famously put on Biscuits, scones, and bread but why stop there? Use this spreadable, dairy delight in anything you butter on or in! Continue reading “Kaymak (Clotted Cream)”
The cucumber used to be more than it is today. Oh, there are still cucumber lovers out there (myself among them), but in the ancient world, this was more than just a favorite salad topping. The cucumber was considered the pinnacle of refreshment, its crisp, crunchy, watery bite being the ultimate tasty oasis in the hot climates of the near east, the way we might think of a cold glass of lemonade today. No wonder cucumbers were used to flavor water and combined with yogurt, two other pillars of refreshment
Here is an original recipe that celebrates the cucumber as its feature. I came up with it using ancient Persian ingredients and trying to imagine ancient Persian tastes. Quick and simple, the resulting dish is sweet and peppery, with its combination of pomegranates, dates, and black mustard seeds. And of course, it wouldn’t be right if this cucumber salad was not also packed with fresh herbs.
Here is a modern Persian recipe, for one of the national dishes of Iran, that could have been and surely was also cooked in ancient times. Ghormeh Sabzi is a flavorful stew of LOTS of cooked herbs, with meat and a legume. The final texture resembles an Indian Saag or cooked greens dish, but this Persian version made entirely of herbs is a bit more tangy and pungent.
My version of Ghormeh Sabzi combines lots of parsley, coriander (cilantro), mint, and green onions, Goat meat, and chickpeas, to substitute for red beans which are usually found in the modern version, but were unavailable in the Old World. A stew fit for a King of kings!
Before rice came to dominate Persian cuisine around the Middle Ages, all those classic Persian soups, stews, and kebabs were paired with bread, the ancient Iranian’s favorite mode of carb delivery by far.
It might even be mine! This technique is not too different from my MODERN ASH BREAD recipe, but this dough has a little less moisture, some vibrant toppings, and is of course shaped differently in that classic Persian flatbread grooved shape. It’s like pitas and breadsticks had a baby, and covered it in pungent spices.
So without much more fluff, here’s the recipe.
400g AP Flour 100g whole wheat flour 2 1/4 teaspoons dry yeast (or one packet) 1 3/4 cup warm water 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 tablespoon salt Middle Eastern spices of your choice (pictured: sumac, mustard seeds, sesame seeds)
2 teaspoons AP flour 1/3 cup water 1/2 teaspoon honey 1/2 teaspoon olive oil
For the spices, tradition calls for a zatar spice blend, which above all must contain sesame seeds and citrusy sumac, but after that is basically a choose your own adventure. Thyme, oregeno, cumin, and coriander are good choices, but I just went with some mustard seeds, lightly (lightly!) pounded with the sesame and sumac.
To start, activate the yeast by sprinkling it on top of the warm water. When foamy, stir in salt, olive oil, and then a third of the flour. Stir until combined, then stir in another third, and finally the last third, until what’s called a shaggy dough has formed. That just refers to a dough whose water has collected and started to combine with all the flour in the bowl, but is still very loose, unformed and… well, shaggy!
Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes until smooth and springy. You know the drill. Lightly oil a bowl and let the dough proof, or rise. Many recipes for Persian flatbread are relatively quick, and call for just one hour of leavening time. I like to push it a little further for flavor and texture, a minimum of 4 hours, covered in a warmish place.
Whether for just one hour or four, after you’ve proofed the dough, turn it back out onto the floured surface and divide in two. Shape each half into a rough log, a little less than a foot in diameter. Cover lightly with plastic right on the same surface, and let rise one more hour.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven AS HOT AS YOU CAN GET IT. Traditionally, this bread should be baked in a blazing hot wood oven, almost like pizza. But you can still make it at home by cranking the oven.
Also meanwhile, make your glaze. A glaze?? For bread?? (you might say). This is an ancient technique to generate a little steam and also accelerate the heat transfer in the oven, giving the bread a beautiful, crispy sheen. It’s worth the little bit of trouble!
To make it, simply stir all the ingredients together in a small pot over medium heat, moving and scraping constantly until the mixture thickens into a loose paste. Should only take 2 minutes. When ready, take off the heat and set aside.
After the two not-yet-flatbreads have finished their final rise, dust two baking sheets with semolina flour or cornmeal. Then, lightly press and stretch the logs of dough into long rectangles, about an inch thick. Use your fingers to make 3 grooves longways down the flatbread.
Now brush the dough with the glaze all over and have a great time sprinkling that delicious spice mixture all over the surface. Gently transfer to semolina coated baking sheets by hand, and bake for 18-20 minutes, until golden brown.
Let cool, and slice into desired sizes. It’s also kind of fun to just leave it whole.
You can pair this with just about anything, but it really should be some kind of Persian stew or meat skewer. Here it is with some Ghormeh Sabzi , a fragrant herb and goat stew.
Many great moments in civilization happened when cultures of the Far East, interacted with those in the West. Through all those moments, there was one region which sat between them, one which was always happy to be in the middle, mediating and facilitating exchange of culture, goods, and cusine. That region is Iran!
Persia, Parthia, Elam. It has gone by many other names through its history, but the Iranian Plateau has always been the great nexus between East and West.
Come for the flatbreads, stay (a couple thousands years) for the rice!
We started a batch of what the Romans called Garum, a delicacy across Ancient cultures: fish sauce! The gross way to say it? Fermented fish guts.
(NOTE: In a couple weeks, I will merge this post with part 1 into one post)
It’s been almost 8 weeks. My layers of salted, chopped sardines have been fermenting in the fridge, their essence dissolving in salt, for 8 weeks. This could go for much longer, but I think it’s ready to strain and try!
I made Liquid Gold:
Line a mesh strainer with two double layers (yes, a lot) of cheese cloth, pouring in the fish mixture. It will take a long time to strain this way, but you will be rewarded with a cleaner sauce. Feel free to stir to help the process along.
I HIGHLY suggest doing this outside!
And that’s it! The end result is a sauce that’s similar, but also distinct from fish sauce bought in the store. It’s actually less fishy, with more of a delicious, meaty, umami blast of saltiness. It’s great in stirfries, mixed with other things into dipping sauces, or added just a couple drops at a time to nearly anything to give great depth of flavor. It’s no wonder civilizations across history and geography have all enjoyed their own versions of garum.
Welcome to the second Season of the History of Food!
To kick things off, we’ll be walking ground we’ve tread before. The history of pastoral nomadism, that is the animal herders in Europe, Asia, and Africa, has frequently come up in our studies of urban civilizations, but until now, we’ve always looked at them from inside the city walls.
Well, not today. Today, we do our best to head out on the open road, to study the herders and the wanderers, the cheesemakers and the yogurt drinkers, and the monumental effect they had on human history, from their own perspective. Come listen!