Which ancient civilization made the most flavorful cuisine?
Perhaps you could make a case for any of the cuisines and civilizations we’ve covered thus far, and no doubt each one has been best at something. But when it comes to pure, impact of flavor? Nobody beats India.
Thanks to its geography, history, and available ingredients, as well as some impressively advanced cooking techniques we’ll cover in depth, the story of South Asian civilization is the story of spice, rice, and flavor. Oh, and of vegetarians too!
WARNING: side effects of this episode may include getting very, very hungry!
Music for this episode sampled from the late, great Ravi Shankar
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Many great moments in civilization happened when cultures of the Far East, interacted with those in the West. Through all those moments, there was one region which sat between them, one which was always happy to be in the middle, mediating and facilitating exchange of culture, goods, and cusine. That region is Iran!
Persia, Parthia, Elam. It has gone by many other names through its history, but the Iranian Plateau has always been the great nexus between East and West.
Come for the flatbreads, stay (a couple thousands years) for the rice!
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!
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.
Baklava is another one of those Mediterranean foods that every country touching the sea claims to have invented in some form or another. While the sweet nut and filo pastry in its exact form is a more modern creation, the basic ingredients go back much further, to the ancient days of those same lands.
I thought it would be fun to make a more “primitive”baklava, forgoing all the fussing around with store-bought filo, using nuts indigenous to the ancient near east, and just honey for sweetening. Sugar doesn’t amount to more than a rare luxury good for many thousands of years.
Well. . . Unless of course you buy Sabra, or already happen to know the two simple secrets to making the best hummus (revealed below).
Hummus is one of those pan-regional foods that every Mediterranean country today seems to have as a staple, and also claims to have invented. Its roots go back further into history than we can trace.
There is no direct historical evidence for ancient humans consuming literal hummus. HOWEVER, the record shows that chickpeas were a significant part of farmers’ crop and diets throughout the Near East, beginning way back in the prehistoric Neolithic. For people that ate mostly grain, legumes like the chickpea were a critical source of protein. While simple consumption was probably most common, I have no doubt that ancient culinary minds were also occasionally mashing their chickpeas into dips, spreads, and pastes.
With that established, we also know that onions and garlic were beloved by populations all over the region, and that by the time of the later Bronze Age after 2,000BC, the vast trade networks between the Near Eastern powers of the day ensured that olive oil and sesame seeds were widespread throughout the land.
Which means we have all the ingredients we need to make a classic hummus. All we’re missing is lemons, which had not yet spread to the region by the Bronze Age. So this recipe substitutes vinegar, but is otherwise no different from a modern hummus today.