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.
Unlike many ancient foods we recreate here, tortillas survive as a popular staple to this day, beyond their birth place and all around the world. Sure, there are other foods of the ancient world that are still part of modern diets, unspecific generalities like”soup” or “bread”. But corn tortillas, made of nothing but nixtamalified maíz, salt and water and cooked in seconds on a hot griddle, come down to us as is.
Tortillas were of course a staple of all the famous societies of Ancient Mexico, including the Olmec, the Maya, and the Aztecs. Both wealthy and poor people ate them regularly across history. Only tamales surpass them as the aboriginal food of Mesoamerica.
Then, as is still the case now, you don’t need more than a little salsa to top it off. This was usually some kind of pure chili paste, but avocados could be involved as well. For generations, Mesoamericans rightly associated tomatoes with nightshade but wrongly believed that tomatoes were poisonous. Eventually though, they caught on, and must have incorporated them into their “tacos”.
There’s nothing quite like a hot, spicy spoonful of posole. This tamalified corn and chili pepper soup, a classic Mexican comfort food, has deeply ancient origins, maybe even as far back as the invention of agriculture in Mesoamerica, when the barely edible grass teosinte was miraculously domesticated into maíz.
The original posole was more like a corn porridge than the modern soup. Grains of maíz were soaked in a lime solution, then cooked into hominy. The mash was then left to ferment into a kind of sourdough, to make a tangy gruel that was filling and had a long shelf life. Nutritionally sound, flavored with anything (but most often chilis), this was the standard breakfast in many ancient Mesoamerican cultures, for both rich and poor.
This recipe is a sort of combination of that ancient sourdough porridge, and a modern posole. Tamalified corn is left to ferment just a bit before being cooked through and turned into soup. While your average Mesoamerican commoner had to make do with corn and chilis alone for the base flavor, wealthy elites would have had access to some wild meats like deer or turkey, so we’re using the latter to make this rich man’s posole. Continue reading “Red Posole with Turkey”
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”
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.
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.