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.
(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!
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.
There are many recipes in Apicius’s On Cookery which, while intriguing, I have little desire to taste. The sardine and gelatin omelette for instance, or the fried pork livers and brain sausages that were usually paired with the dish I’m making today.
But that so named “Dish of Scallops” is a recipe that caught my eye long ago when I started reading this stuff. It’s something I’ve always wanted to make and taste ever since. Given its mastery of the Mediterranean, Roman love of shellfish was… well, a given! Herem Apicius presents a delicious, exceedingly refined way to cook some.
Lightly cook scallops or the firm part of oysters. Remove the hard and objectionable parts, and mince the meat very fine. Mix this with cooked spelt, eggs, and season with pepper. Shape into croquettes and wrap in caul. Fry, and underlay a rich fish sauce and serve as a delicious entree.
We’re going to modify the instructions just a bit.
Rome. Probably what most people think of when they think “Ancient World”. In this episode, however, we discover that in terms of the culinary, the Roman Republic and then Empire was most distinguishable as a lens into the diets and cooking of the wider ancient World before it.
Come listen to find out more.
Music for this episode performed by Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. His albums An Ancient Lyre, The Ancient Greek Tortoise Shell Lyre, andThe Ancient Egyptian Harp are available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.
It may have been the Olmec or one of the other mother cultures of Mesoamerica who first learned to ferment cacao beans into chocolate and turn it into a drink. It was the Maya who took a particular love to it, and it was the Triple Alliance, or Aztec Empire, which carried on the tradition.
Ancient Mesoamericans didn’t add sugar to their chocolate. They loved the bitter taste, though they did like to flavor it with other things, like vanilla and most famously chili peppers. This frothing draught was a blast of intense flavors.
Modern Mexican hot chocolate, or champurrado, is made by combining sweetened chocolate with tamalified corn, or masa. This recipe is a combination of the ancient drink and the modern treat, made from pure raw ingredients: corn, cacao beans, and chili pepper. Continue reading “Mayan Hot Chocolate”