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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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!
It’s Christmas time! The true meaning of the holiday is complicated, and always has been, thanks to its mix and match ancient origins (yes, before the birth of Jesus).
Even though that famous nativity scene is the official reason for the holiday, many of the activities and traditions we practice at Christmastime come from much older customs celebrating the winter solstice. Decorated trees, gift giving, holly, mistletoe, caroling, and much more all have ancient, B.C. origins, and were later folded into the Christian celebration.
No ancient holiday influenced Christmas more than the Roman Saturnalia. The actual date of Jesus’s birth is unknown, but in the 4th Century A.D., Pope Julius I declared it to officially be December 25th. Many speculate that this was to Christianize Saturnalia, a holiday that many in Medieval Europe still celebrated despite the fading out of Rome.
Saturnalia was known for gift giving, charity, and above all, feasting and merriment! So to celebrate, I dug into Apicius for some dulcia, or sweets recipes, to make a dessert plate worthy of both a festive Roman noble, and a chef and amateur historian thousands of years later.
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.
Of all the food discoveries made across the ancient world, few are more impressive than the domestication and then nixtamlization of maize (corn) in the lands that would one day be called Mexico and Central America.
Mesoamerica is one of just three places where urban civilization evolved from scratch. Come listen, and be amazed how it happened.
It wasn’t known for sure until recently, but archaeological evidence has confirmed that the noodle was invented in Ancient China. The oldest ever found were made out of millet, which is hard for me to imagine. This recipe is much easier than that prehistoric version, following the later Northern Chinese tradition of cooking with wheat.
With refined wheat flour, making hand made noodles and an amazing soup to go with them (in this case a pork bone broth with greens) is really very simple. It just takes time, time to build a flavorful broth, and time for the gluten to develop in the pasta dough to make it elastic and stretchable.
The invention of the dumpling might be as early as the invention of dough and boiled water. Dumplings may have been around before breads or even porridge, perhaps the first, simplest way humans figured out how to cook wild grains.
Hand ground millet may not produce the most beautiful dumplings, but these boiled lumps of dough and “filling” are meant to be a more primitive style proto-dumpling, the kind of early processes that would eventually lead to the later artistry of dumpling making in Ancient all the way to modern China.
As for fermented vegetables, while we feature them for our early Chinese dumplings recipe, Ancient China was by no means the only group of peoples to ferment vegetables. The simple process of brining food in salt water for several days to induce natural preservation and robust pickly flavor (unknown at the time to be microbial life and fermentation) was practiced all over the Ancient world, on all kinds of foods.
You can ferment any vegetable and use any spices you want. Really. Anything. Be like a true ancient and never be afraid to experiment. Here is a mix of in season veggies from my garden: carrots, green and wax beans, and rhubarb, with fresh coriander seeds and a couple cloves of garlic. All of which, though maybe in more primitive forms, would have been available in Europe and Asia long ago.
What does it mean to be a raw (barbarian) person vs. a cooked (civilized) person? To find out, our culinary and historical journey heads east. Far East, to the lands of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. Ancient China.
The specific dish Falafel was officially invented barely a thousand years ago, probably either in the Levant or in Egypt. Some food historians, however, believe that the concept of ground chickpea balls, deep fried, goes back to more ancient times.
The same goes for babaganoush In its official conception? A more recent invention. But eggplants were grown since neolithic times. Are you telling me no one ever roasted and mashed one over all those thousands of years? Whose to say they didn’t add onions, garlic, and sesame paste for flavor.
The point is, I think you can make an argument for these dishes in some form go back much further than their official, modern incarnations. Especially in the Bronze Age near east, when trade networks enabled ingredients to spread, and improved metallurgy enabled deep frying to go widespread, even to poorer people, who could now get their daily chickpeas and lentils in delicious fritter form, possibly as a street food.