To accompany the Mesoamerican section of episode 3 of the History of Food, we’re making authentic ancient tamales in the earth oven, just like would have been done in pre-urban Mexico and Guatemala.
These tamales are a little plain, and lack the fat and leavening agents that help make modern tamales so delicious. We’re making ours with only the ingredients the ancient Mesoamericans had, that is with corn, lime, and water.
But that’s okay, we’ve got some other authentic ingredients to help the flavor along. Black beans for filling, and chili sauce for garnish, and roasted squash as a side are going to give us flavor and depth, even if the tamale itself is bare bones.
Sweetcorn or Popcorn won’t work. You need plain field corn for this, which in some areas can be hard to come by. You can find it in many Mexican markets, almost any tortilleria, or if you’re truly lucky, a farmer.
For the tamales:
400g Plain Field corn (NOT sweet or popcorn)
6g Cal (pickling lime)
5 cups water
Dried corn husks for wrapping the tamales
For the Black bean filling:
3/4 cup dry black beans 5 cups water 1 fresh chile 1 medium onion
For the Chili sauce: 6-7 fresh chiles Seeds from 1 squash or pumpkin water
When people settle down out of forager lifestyles and into Neolithic lives, they always invent pottery technology to help it. This enables them to store surplus food, and it also enables them to take ovens out of the ground, and one step closer to those we are more familiar with today.
One of these ancient ovens, the Indian Tandoori or just Tandoor, is still popular today. It’s simple design and somewhat more portable form make it pretty similar to many similar ovens of the era. And today, we’re going to make our own for less than $100 (If you already own the tools)
Look, this is not at all how an ancient person would have made one of these. If you have any masonry or pottery skills, as Neolithic peoples did, you can shape and fire your own vessel with an open top out of clay and pure artisanship.
But I’m a cook. Not a potter. I’m going to use power tools. Hey, Neolithic people exploited every resource available to them. If they had power drills, they would have used them!
Sometimes eating authentically is not eating deliciously. At least not to our spoiled modern palates.
While still using modern milled flours, this recipe attempts to recreate something like ancient foragers in the Near East might have eaten. The Natufians were the first society we know of to switch from foraging to intense cultivation, and it changed the world forever. They were still dependent on hunting and gathering, but also began guarding and storing plots of wheat and barley, and it changed them dramatically.
This was the beginning of civilization as we know it today… it’s also unleavened and not exactly palatable…
But to the Natufians it was everything. Their new permanent villages had giant querns and grinding stones just for milling and shaping this hard to process cereal crop, and ritual houses for the necessary magic to make it work. Here’s a recipe that might be something like what they threw in the ashes of their fires.
FAIR WARNING: This bread is dense and chewy!! Good for croutons or toast but… not much else.
300g all purpose flour (about 2.5 cups) 200g whole wheat flour (about 1.5 cups)
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp dry active yeast 1 tbsp. honey
3 tbsp. olive oil
350ml warm beer or water (scant 1.5 cups)
This recipe takes the ancient cooking technique, and gives to it modern ingredients, making a stretchier dough with a lighter texture that’s more enjoyable to modern palates. All the smoky flavor of the ashes without the unleavened chewiness of the more authentic recipe. This is a great flatbread recipe even for a regular oven, but nothing tastes quite like the ash.
Activate the yeast in the water. After five minutes, whisk in the honey, olive oil, and salt. Add to flour and stir until a rough dough forms.
Just what it sounds like. Today I made bread in the ashes of the fire.
This has become known as kind of an Australian food. But that’s because European colonists copied the Aboriginal peoples who had been doing it for thousands of years.
Many modern people with nomadic traditions, such as the Berbers of North Africa, still cook bread this way, but the roots go deep back into prehistory. Evidence for this practice can be found in ancient cultures all over the world from the Americas, to aboriginal Australia, and most famously in the middle east.