Monday, 14 January 2013

Ofellae (with added Laser)

Adding lasers to anything automatically makes it better, but how does adding laser, or rather asafoetida, compare?  Today we'll be adding asafoetida to the ever so ambiguous Roman ofellae.  Ofellae have variously been translated as 'meatballs', 'meat burgers', and 'cutlets', which means that this recipe has been complicated from the start. My inspiration for, and interpretation of this recipe comes from several different sources, but the two main ones are as follows:

Crush laser, ginger, and cardamom.  Mix this with some fish sauce, and cook the ofellae within. - Vinidarius, Excerpts from Apicius, 6.1.

To prepare the meat, clean it of bones and sinew.  Scrape the meat as thin as skin, and shape it. - Apicius, 7.4.1

Vinidarius is somebody we haven't encountered yet, so it is only polite to introduce him, albeit briefly.  He was a Goth (The East-Germanic tribe who invaded Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries) who compiled recipes.  His Apician excerpts actually contain very little from Apicius, but the dishes are Apician, and Roman, in style.  The trouble with his ofellae recipe is that we don't actually find out what ofellae are, or how to make them; this is why I've had to turn to Apicius for help.

Not Vinidarius

Apicius, as ever, is ambiguous - how exactly do we 'shape it', when it comes to the meat?  Grainger believes that ofellae are chunks of highly seasoned meat, but this doesn't seem to match up with the instruction to 'scrape the meat as thin as skin, and shape it'.  However, when it comes to other recipes, she does appear to be correct.  I would also hesitate to call them meatballs as some translations do, as they didn't hold their shape very well when I tried.  Ultimately, I think that the best translation for ofellae is 'tidbits' - tidbits are small, tasty morsels of food, and ofellae are small, tasty pieces of meat, regardless of how they look.  Because we have to scrape the meat thin and shape it, I've decided to base my ofellae on Kofta, which can be ball shaped or burger shaped.  The key is that they are shaped meat.

I've also made the maverick decision to cook both beef and pork ofellae.  As we discovered before, the Romans preferred to keep their cows in their fields rather than on their plates, and because they were work animals their meat was tough.  As such, I've chosen a tough beef 'frying steak'.  The pork is an ever-so-lovely pork fillet.  So, without further ado: 

Laser Ofellae


  • Meat
  • 1 tsp Asafoetida
  • 1 tsp Cardamom
  • 1 Piece of Ginger
  • 5 tbsp Fish Sauce


  • Trim the fat, bones, sinews, and yucky bits from the meat. If using pork I'd be tempted to keep some of the fat, as pork fat is divine.
  • We need to prepare the meat, which I did in two ways.  One method is to take a really sharp knife and slice super thin slices of meat.  The other method is the Apician one, and involves scraping the meat until it gets really thin.  Be warned though, this can blunt your knives fairly quickly, which is why I used an older, blunter one.  It can also prove tough when you have little meat left to play with.  What you're looking for is a board of meat as follows.  Yes, I know I've cross-contaminated the meat, but it made for an easier photo.
  • Shape the meat into whatever squares, triangles, or circles you fancy.  I've opted for the squashed egg look.
  • Break open the cardamom pods to get at the seeds.  Add these to your mortar and pestle along with the ginger.  Grind these down, then add the asafoetida and the fish sauce.  Mix to bring it all together.
  • Pour this mixture over your ofellae and leave to marinate for a few hours.  The asafoetida is supposed to have tenderising properties.  I don't feel like there was enough 'sauce', but such was the recipe.

  • Stick the whole lot in the oven at around 180 Celsius for around half an hour, or until the meat is cooked.  Frying is another option.


  • If you really don't have enough marinade, instead of using straight fish sauce, use some hydrogarum.  To make hydrogarum, add fish sauce to cold water and bring to the boil, stirring every once in a while.  It is essentially diluted fish sauce.
  • If you read the results below, you'll see that I recommend trying this dish with sliced belly of pork, or with ground/minced pork or beef.


This recipe was tough, from start, with the ambiguous instructions, to finish, with the too-tough-to-enjoy meat.  Whilst this was partly down to my choice of meat, it was largely due to the way in which the meat was prepared.  Even with the thinnest of slices, the meat, once shaped and cooked, resembled overcooked diced meat.  This was true for both the pork and the beef.  Setting aside all problems with texture and toughness, the flavours were exactly what you might expect from Laser Ofellae - it tasted of asafoetida.  This savoury seasoning tastes like the love-child of onion and garlic - it is intense, unusual, and pungent enough to make you brush your teeth after eating it, but it is a great addition to a meal.  It was the dominant flavour, by far, but the ginger was just strong enough to make an appearance at the end of eating.  My recommendation is to try Laser Ofellae, but to slice pork belly, or use minced/ground pork or beef instead.  This is a recipe I will revisit in the future, with a brand new post; the flavours alone make it worthwhile, but it is the challenge of perfecting ofellae which tempts me.


  1. I think I'd chop the meat finely enough to be 'minced', and blend the seasoning into the meat before shaping and frying. Excellent starting point though.

    1. Agreed with you on that point. Asafoetida is renowned for making meat more tender, so who knows what wonders blending it with the meat would work?

  2. You might also try combining the beef and pork.

  3. I wonder if the business of scraping the meat might have been done in the same way the Chinese shred duck meat - in other words, after it's pre-cooked?
    You don't have to break open cardamom pods to get at the little black seeds inside; you can buy the black seeds in Indian shops, in the spice section.
    Sounds like a nice recipe, though I'd dial back the fish sauce *considerably*!

    1. You know, this sounds quite feasible. I'm not in any hurry to remake this recipe, but next time I do, I'll try it this way.