The Song Dynasty of Medieval China was a turning point in food history. As farming productivity exploded, cities rose to dominance, and populations dramatically increased, so too did the quality of life and the quality of cuisine follow.
To put it another way, people had access to not only more food, but better food. Even poorer commoners tended to eat 3 meals a day and occasionally some snacks. Most remarkable though, was that for one of the first times in history, meat was being consumed across social classes. With prices low, and restaurants and street stalls serving conveniently sized and priced portions, everyone could afford some animal protein now and then.
And the most popular of all the meats? Then and perhaps now as well… Pork. So. . . we’re havin’ ribs.
I’ll admit, this recipe is inspired by the style of ribs you can get with Chinese take out in America. But taking all historical factors into account, that is the rise of meat and pork, the authentic black soy bean sauce, the dry rub spices made possible by recently opened trade routes, as well as the popularity of grills and barbecues for street food in Song cities, I see no reason to call this recipe inauthentic! I’ll stand by the assertion that these ribs could totally have been served from a stall on the Imperial Way, centuries ago.
The charcoal grill is of course the best way to go, but these ribs are delicious in an oven as well. To get started, we’ll need to whip up a couple things first: Some homemade Chinese Five Spice for a dry rub, and some Hoisin style, black bean sauce for a marinade. After that, all we need is ribs and fire.
Indian food, both ancient and modern, has always been about those sauces and condiments. Contrary to the jarred preserved stuff westerners think of as “chutney”, the real stuff in India is almost always made with fresh ingredients.
There will be one more classic chutney in the next Indian recipe, but here are three to get us going: cilantro, mango, and tamarind.
All very simple, very basic, very DELICIOUS recipes.
Clarified butter, known in Hindi as “ghee”, will be our foundation, the base from which all the coming Indian delights will spring. Especially when we temper spices in the ghee when its hot and make “chonk”, it’s almost like magic is being performed. Flavor magic.
What does it mean to clarify butter? We’re going to separate and remove the milk solids from regular butter, leaving behind pure golden butter fat that preserves longer, and can handle sauteing at high temperatures.
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”.
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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!
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.
It’s been almost 8 weeks. My layers of salted, chopped sardines have been fermenting in the fridge, their essence dissolving in salt. 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!
If I had to name just one ingredient that was key to the ancient world’s cuisine, it might be fish sauce.
All you need are fish and a lot of salt. An ingenious method of food preservation, its invention too deep in the past to ever know, alongside other legendary foods of yore like bread, beer, and cheese.
From Sumer onwards, almost all civilizations seem to have made the stuff. But it was the Romans who called it “garum” and recorded it into history. Fish sauce could be made at home by poor fishermen families, but there was also a highly expensive market for the very finest vintages of garum. Whatever quality, you can’t make Roman cuisine without it.
We know by now that vegetables made up a huge part of the ancient diet. Across civilizations, the majority of people got most of their calories from grain and veggies alone, and even those few wealthier foils who could afford meat supplemented extensively with plant food.
Food historians know all about the ingredients the ancients ate, but as for exactly how they were prepared, we’re often left in the dark. With the Roman Apicius’s book “On Cookery”, we finally have some recipes that give a little insight. Out of them, I’ve prepared BEETS TWO WAYS, LEEKS AND BEANS, ROAST CABBAGE WITH PORK BELLY, and a GREENS AND FIELD HERBS SALAD.
To a modern cook, these recipes might seem basic. But I would argue they only appear that way. These preparations are simple, yet elegant ways to maximize and feature the flavors of individual plants and ingredients. Old world vegetables and spices, prepared at their finest.