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.
You could file this luxurious dairy recipe under the nomad section, but the Persians carried it with them into civilized life, and called it Kaymak. Pure, heavy cream is cooked low and slow overnight to separate the milk fat. The resulting product is like a cousin to butter, only creamier and a deeper, toastier flavor from the oven.
The technique takes some time, but is ridiculously simple and easy. Clotted cream is most famously put on Biscuits, scones, and bread but why stop there? Use this spreadable, dairy delight in anything you butter on or in! Continue reading “Kaymak (Clotted Cream)”
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.
Before rice came to dominate Persian cuisine around the Middle Ages, all those classic Persian soups, stews, and kebabs were paired with bread, the ancient Iranian’s favorite mode of carb delivery by far.
It might even be mine! This technique is not too different from my MODERN ASH BREAD recipe, but this dough has a little less moisture, some vibrant toppings, and is of course shaped differently in that classic Persian flatbread grooved shape. It’s like pitas and breadsticks had a baby, and covered it in pungent spices.
So without much more fluff, here’s the recipe.
400g AP Flour 100g whole wheat flour 2 1/4 teaspoons dry yeast (or one packet) 1 3/4 cup warm water 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 tablespoon salt Middle Eastern spices of your choice (pictured: sumac, mustard seeds, sesame seeds)
2 teaspoons AP flour 1/3 cup water 1/2 teaspoon honey 1/2 teaspoon olive oil
For the spices, tradition calls for a zatar spice blend, which above all must contain sesame seeds and citrusy sumac, but after that is basically a choose your own adventure. Thyme, oregeno, cumin, and coriander are good choices, but I just went with some mustard seeds, lightly (lightly!) pounded with the sesame and sumac.
To start, activate the yeast by sprinkling it on top of the warm water. When foamy, stir in salt, olive oil, and then a third of the flour. Stir until combined, then stir in another third, and finally the last third, until what’s called a shaggy dough has formed. That just refers to a dough whose water has collected and started to combine with all the flour in the bowl, but is still very loose, unformed and… well, shaggy!
Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes until smooth and springy. You know the drill. Lightly oil a bowl and let the dough proof, or rise. Many recipes for Persian flatbread are relatively quick, and call for just one hour of leavening time. I like to push it a little further for flavor and texture, a minimum of 4 hours, covered in a warmish place.
Whether for just one hour or four, after you’ve proofed the dough, turn it back out onto the floured surface and divide in two. Shape each half into a rough log, a little less than a foot in diameter. Cover lightly with plastic right on the same surface, and let rise one more hour.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven AS HOT AS YOU CAN GET IT. Traditionally, this bread should be baked in a blazing hot wood oven, almost like pizza. But you can still make it at home by cranking the oven.
Also meanwhile, make your glaze. A glaze?? For bread?? (you might say). This is an ancient technique to generate a little steam and also accelerate the heat transfer in the oven, giving the bread a beautiful, crispy sheen. It’s worth the little bit of trouble!
To make it, simply stir all the ingredients together in a small pot over medium heat, moving and scraping constantly until the mixture thickens into a loose paste. Should only take 2 minutes. When ready, take off the heat and set aside.
After the two not-yet-flatbreads have finished their final rise, dust two baking sheets with semolina flour or cornmeal. Then, lightly press and stretch the logs of dough into long rectangles, about an inch thick. Use your fingers to make 3 grooves longways down the flatbread.
Now brush the dough with the glaze all over and have a great time sprinkling that delicious spice mixture all over the surface. Gently transfer to semolina coated baking sheets by hand, and bake for 18-20 minutes, until golden brown.
Let cool, and slice into desired sizes. It’s also kind of fun to just leave it whole.
You can pair this with just about anything, but it really should be some kind of Persian stew or meat skewer. Here it is with some Ghormeh Sabzi , a fragrant herb and goat stew.
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.
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”.
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 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.