Monday, 25 March 2013

Parthian Chickpeas

And here we are with the second and final part of our Podcast History Parthian extravaganza.  Last week, whilst we dined on delicious Parthian Chicken, Rob regaled us with tales of Zoroastrianism, Cambyses, and cat-flinging.  This week we're serving the chicken with a helping of Parthian Chickpeas and a spoonful of some super-sweet date paste.  Hopefully you enjoyed this little taste of history - look out for more in the future!

The recipe allows for any type of pea or bean to be prepared in the Parthian manner, so feel free to experiment and let me know.  I've opted to use chickpeas as they have that Eastern feel to them.

Parthian Chickpeas
(Serves 2 or 3)

Boil and skim some peas or beans.  Flavour them with crushed Parthian laser, some liquamen, and some caroenum.  Pour a little olive oil over these, then serve.Apicius, 5.3.6



  • If, like me, you're using canned chickpeas, boil them in a pan for around 10 minutes - this is to heat them through and soften them up a little bit.
  • When done, drain and add the asafoetida, fish sauce, and grape syrup.  Pour over the olive oil and give everything a big old mix.
  • Serve with Parthian Chicken and some Date Paste.


Whereas the chicken was a sensational savoury affair, Parthian Chickpeas were pleasantly sweet, with just a hint of savoury coming from the asafoetida and liquamen.  As such they made the perfect accompaniment to the chicken.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Parthian Chicken

Parthian Chicken is the first of two recipes prepared in collaboration with The Podcast History of Our World.  These coincide with the Podcast's episodes on the Persians, providing a taste of life in the ancient Middle-East.  I'll leave it to Rob, the man behind the show, to tell you who the Persians and Parthians were and what they got up to in their free time. (Click here for the companion episode to this recipe)

It's worth noting that whilst this recipe parades itself as Parthian, it actually comes to us from the Late Roman Apicius collection of recipes.  As such, we cannot be certain whether this was the real deal, or just a Roman knock-off of Persian food.  What makes it 'Parthian' is the use of Asafoetida - when silphium was farmed to extinction in Libya, it was Persian asafoetida which took its place.  At the very least then the recipe does include ingredients native to ancient Persia.  Whilst we can never know how authentic the recipe truly is, we can still give it a go and decide whether 'Parthian' is the way to go.

Parthian Chicken
(Serves 2)

Prepare and dress some chicken.  Grind pepper, lovage, and caraway seeds, moisten them with fish sauce, and add wine to taste.  Put the chicken into an earthenware pot, pour the seasoning over, and add some wine and laser.  Braise the chicken, and when it is finished, sprinkle with some pepper and serve. - Apicius, 6.9.3


  • 4-5 Chicken Thighs
  • 1/2 Leek
  • 180 ml Red Wine
  • 2 tbsp Fish Sauce (Liquamen)
  • 1/2 tsp Asafoetida (Laser)
  • 1/2 tsp Ground Lovage Seed
  • Either 2 tsp Caraway Seeds or 1 tsp Cumin Seeds & 1 tsp Fennel Seeds 


  • Wash the chicken and place it into a casserole dish.  Sprinkle it quite liberally with black pepper.
  • Wash the leek and slice it into pieces as shown in the picture below.  Add these to the dish with the chicken.
  • Toast the caraway seeds (or the cumin and fennel) and grind them up with the lovage seeds using a mortar and pestle.
  • Mix the wine, fish sauce, asafoetida, and crushed spices together in a jug.  Pour this mixture over the chicken.
  • Cover the dish and put it in the oven for one hour at 180 Celsius.  For the last half hour, uncover the chicken to allow it to brown and crisp up.  Baste it with the sauce every 10 minutes or so.
  • To serve, remove the chicken and sprinkle it with some more black pepper.  Pour a tiny bit of the sauce over.  Serve with a spoonful or two of home-made date paste - the sweetness works perfectly with this dish.


  • I didn't have caraway seeds when I made this, but found that mixing cumin and fennel seeds was a pretty good approximation.


Food fit for a Shah!  Parthian Chicken was very different from typical Roman recipes in that it contained no sweetener whatsoever.  The lack of sweetener, and the use of leeks, fish sauce, and asafoetida, resulted in a savoury dish, with a hint of bitterness from the lovage, and a touch of heat from the spices.  When I picture the East I picture vivid colours and complex flavours, so this beautifully simple meal came as a surprise.  The chicken was cooked to perfection - wonderfully crisp on the outside, and juicy and succulent on the inside.  The recipe's simplicity make this the perfect introduction to ancient Persian cuisine.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Announcement: Podcast Recipes of Our World

Today is the Ides of March; it is the day on which Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., the day on which Rome celebrated the Feast of Anna Peranna, and the day on which I reveal some top-secret Pass the Garum plans.  For the next two weeks I'll be working in conjunction with The Podcast History of Our World, a witty and informative run through of mankind's top moments.  I'll be cooking up some companion foods for episodes on the Persians, providing a taste of the past for those who wish to try them out.

I cannot recommend this podcast enough, so if you get the chance, make sure to have a listen.  Last week's episode on Cyrus the Great is the perfect place to start if you're after some background information on the Persian people.

Garum/Liquamen (Fish Sauce)

Nothing is so synonymous with Roman cuisine as garum, and nothing is as misunderstood.  It will surely surprise you to learn that garum does not actually appear on its own in Apicius - rather, it is liquamen which we use when we cook Roman food.  Whilst both are sauces made from fermented fish, they are actually rather different in nature.


Garum is a condiment made from the fermented blood and innards of selected fish.  Being a condiment, it was something which was added to food after cooking, much as we might use soy sauce or tomato ketchup - it was the diner who used it, not the cook.

Garum, described by Pliny the Elder as "that exquisite liquor" (Natural History, 31.43), could be very expensive indeed.  Garum sociorum, a prized garum from New Carthage, sold for 1000 sestertii per 2 congii.  A congius was about 3 litres, and 1000 sestertii was a legionary's yearly wage.  Needless to say, not all garum was so expensive, but it could be a luxury item for those with a few sestertii to spare.


Liquamen on the other hand is a sauce made by fermenting the whole fish, rather than just its blood and innards.  This is exactly the same as modern day Asian fish sauces, such as nam pla and nuoc nam.

It saddens me to say, that despite being called Pass the Garum, garum won't actually feature in anything we cook.  It is liquamen, or our own approximation of it, that we will be using.  As the topic is immensely interesting, I have included a select bibliography at the end for those who wish to read more about Roman fish sauces.


Few ingredients make people feign illness or roll their eyes as much as fish sauce - for those of us not living in South East Asia at least.  People expect it to smell horrible and taste worse, and the idea of adding it to any meal is enough to make stomachs turn.  Fish sauce is, however, not very fishy at all.  Rather it is salty, with hints of cheese and meat.  Its purpose in a recipe is not to stand out on its own, but rather to bring the other flavours together in harmony, something which it does exceedingly well.

Finding It

Walk into the Asian food section of any large supermarket and you're sure to find a bottle of fish sauce.  If you live near an Asian supermarket then you'll do even better.  Failing that, it is possible to order online:

For an idea of which brands are best, check out this guide for more information.  Whilst it's ok to use these fish sauces straight out of the bottle, generally they are much saltier than liquamen would have been.  We can easily adjust the fish sauce for our own purposes however.  To do this:

  • Make up some Caroenum.
  • Mix the fish sauce and caroenum in the ratio 1:3, but adjust as necessary.  You want the cheesy elements of the fish sauce, without the overpowering salt.
  • Bottle it up for future use.

So, for example, I mixed 50ml of Blue Dragon fish sauce with 150ml of caroenum and found that it made a perfect mixture.  It's not pleasant, but taste it as you go along to ensure that you achieve the right balance.


Really there is no alternative to liquamen - it is quite unique.  However, having spent the last few hours slurping various sauces in the kitchen, I would say that if you are stuck, your best bet is to use dark soy sauce in its place.  If you can sweeten this a little, then even better.  I've often heard it said that Worcester Sauce is only three ingredients away from garum/liquamen - if this is true, then unfortunately those three ingredients have made Worcester Sauce unsuitable as an alternative - it is too spicy.


  • Curtis, R., 'In Defense of Garum', The Classical Journal 78 (1983), pp. 232-240 (JSTOR Link)
  • Grainger, S., Cooking Apicius, (Totnes, 2006)
  • Grainger, S., 'Towards an Authentic Roman Sauce' in Hosking, R. (ed.) Authenticity in the Kitchen: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2005, (Totnes, 2006) pp. 206-210 (Google Books Link)

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Date Paste

Dates are regularly used as a sweetener in Roman meals, alongside the likes of honey and grape syrup.  If Pliny the Elder's list is anything to go by, they had a lot of varieties to choose from - some juicy and fruity and sweet, others not so much.

Dates are usually listed with the liquids of the recipe, which has led some to conclude that it must be a date paste or syrup which is used, rather than the whole fruit.  I am inclined to agree with this; in my own experience you get more flavour from the paste than from just the fruit.  It is also easier to use, which helps speed up the cooking process.

You can choose between shop-bought Date Syrup, or home-made Date Paste.


Date paste is sweet, flavoured like the fruit it is made from.  However, because water is added when the paste is made, the taste of dates is more subtle than might be expected.  Date syrup on the other hand has a very strong flavour.  It is also much darker than the paste.

Finding It

Date syrup can generally be found in health-food stores.  If, like me, you don't have a local health-food shop then online is your answer.
Date paste, which I prefer, can be made at home very easily.  The great thing about making it for yourself is that you can make as much or as little as you want.   You'll need:

  • A handful of dates (pits removed)
  • Enough boiling water to cover them

  • Soak the dates in boiling water for half an hour.
  • Pour away most of the water so that only 2 or 3 tbsps are left.
  • Blend (or mortar and pestle) it all together!
  • Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a week or so.  If you want to freeze it, put it into a sandwich bag and spread it quite thinly.  This means that you can break off as much as you need, when you need it.


If your blender is broken, your mortar and pestle is on the fritz, and the postman keeps eating all your date syrup before it gets to you, then you can just use dried dates.  It might be a good idea to chop them up so that the flavour has a chance to shine. If you cannot find any dates, then use some honey instead!



Caroenum is barely mentioned in ancient texts, which makes identifying its true nature particularly difficult.  We know that it is a grape syrup, made by reducing grape juice/must.  According to Grainger and Dalby, it is reduced by 1/3 to 1/2.  They also believe that it was made from white grape juice, and that its purpose was to add 'bulk' to a meal, rather than to flavour it; this task falls to passum and defrutum instead.  Caroenum is also used to make 'oenogarum', a 'vinaigrette' made by mixing fish sauce, oil, wine, and spices.


Caroenum is sweet, but not sickeningly so.  It is a touch thicker than standard white grape juice.

Finding It

This is something you make at home rather than buy in the shops; as long as you can find a carton of white grape juice, you're set.  To make it, pour as much grape juice as you need into a pan and boil until it has reduced by 1/3 to 1/2. Using a pan with a wide base is recommended, as this will speed up the process of evaporation.  Once it has cooled, bottle it up for future use.


If needs be you can just use white grape juice - this will provide sweetness and 'bulk', albeit not as pronounced as with caroenum.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Punic Wars and Porridge (Part 6 of 6)

As you might well have noticed, this recipe is not a porridge recipe.  It is chicken - Numidian Chicken in fact - a delicious meal made of the finest of figs and most exciting of herbs and spices.  You see, with the end of the Punic Wars, there is no longer any need for porridge (unless of course you belong to the 99% of people who could not afford anything else).

I love this recipe for three reasons:
  1. It uses figs, the fruit which Cato used to illustrate the dangers of Carthage to the Roman senate.  Rome went and destroyed Carthage, seizing those very same figs for itself.
  2. This is Numidian chicken - Numidian raids on Carthage were the reason they raised the army that ultimately led to their downfall.
  3. I got bored of eating just porridge for the last two weeks.
There is no better dish to mark the end of the Punic Wars than this!

Numidian Chicken
(Serves 2)

Prepare the chicken, clean it, and parboil it.  Season it with pepper and asafoetida before frying it in a pan.  Next, grind pepper, cumin, coriander seed, asafoetida, rue, fig dates, and pine nuts.  Moisten these with vinegar, honey, fish sauce, and oil to taste.  When boiling this sauce, thicken it, strain it, and pour it over the chicken.  To serve, sprinkle with pepper. - Apicius, 6.9.5


  • 2 Chicken Breasts
  • 1/2 tsp Black Peppercorns
  • 1/2 tsp Cumin Seeds
  • 1/2 tsp Coriander Seeds
  • 1 tsp Asafoetida
  • 1/2 tsp Rue (see notes)
  • 2 tbsp Pine Nuts
  • 50ml White Wine Vinegar
  • 1 tbsp Honey
  • 2 tbsp Fish Sauce
  • 1 tbsp Olive Oil
  • Handful of Dried Figs


  • Start off by washing the chicken breasts, cutting off the fat and the yucky bits.  Dice the chicken breasts into bite-size chunks.
  • Bring water to the boil in a saucepan, and add the chicken chunks for about five minutes.  Remove the chicken without pouring away the water - we need this!
  • Sprinkle half of the asafoetida and ground pepper over the diced chicken, tossing them together to cover.  Leave this whilst you prepare the other ingredients.
  • To make the sauce, toast the cumin and coriander seeds in a dry pan.  Grind these up with the pepper, pine nuts, rue, and the rest of the asafoetida.
  • Chop the handful of figs into little tiny bits and pieces.
  • Heat the olive oil in a frying pan before adding the parboiled chicken chunks.
  • Once these start to brown, add the fish sauce, vinegar, honey, and a tiny bit of the water you boiled the chicken in.  Pour in your ground up herbs and spices, and add the chopped up figs.  Cover if you can and leave to stew for half an hour.  Add more seasoning according to taste.
  • After removing the chicken, you can either strain the sauce through a sieve and thicken it with cornflour/tracta, or if, like me, you want a rich sauce, just blend the whole mixture.
  • If you made the thinner sauce, pour it over the chicken.  The thicker sauce works well for dipping, so serve it separate from the chicken.  Sprinkle with pepper.


  • Really, I found that Rue added little to the flavour.  Feel free to leave it out if you cannot find it.
  • This can be cooked in a casserole dish just as easily.  I actually used an earthenware pot on a gas hob, but make sure to do your research if you choose this option.


Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.  Maybe it's because we've had porridge for the last two weeks, but this dish tasted exceptionally good.  It was juicy and figgy and sweet, with just a hint of savoury from the asafoetida and fish sauce, and spice from the cumin and pepper.  It is also exceptionally rich, thanks to both the figs and the pine nuts.  What better way to celebrate victory than with a meal such as this?  If I were to make it again I would use one or two fewer figs, to give the other ingredients a chance to shine, and I would add a bit more vinegar to cut through the sweetness.  But, as it stands, this is one of the best dishes to date.

Punic Wars and Porridge (Part 5 of 6)

Although reduced to rations of grain, Rome was on the rise once again.  New armies quickly replaced those lost at the battles of Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae, and were used to see to any Italians who did decide to join the Carthaginians.  To feed his army, Hannibal, cut off from supplies, had to start raiding the farms of the very same people he hoped would join his fight against Rome.  Things were not looking good for the Carthaginian general.

Now able to keep Hannibal in check in Italy, the Romans could commit more resources to their armies in Spain.  These armies had been neglected whilst things were looking bleak in Italy, but now they were ready for action.  Led by Scipio Africanus, the Roman forces quickly captured the centres of Carthaginian power in Spain.  By 206 B.C. Carthage had been pushed out of Spain and back to Africa.  Scipio followed, and in 203 B.C., after 15 years of fighting in Italy, Hannibal was recalled to defend his homeland.

The decisive Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. saw Carthage defeated.  Italy, Spain, and North Africa - all were now Roman.  Besides losing all its territory, Carthage was once more forced to pay several hundred tonnes of silver to Rome.  Carthage's navy, once its pride and joy, was reduced to a mere ten ships - enough to fight off pirates, but no more.  As for Hannibal, his best days were behind him.  In 183/182 B.C., after two decades of leading armies for foreign kings, he took his own life.

Carthago delenda est

A weakened Carthage was not enough - at least not for Cato the Elder. "Carthage must be destroyed" was Cato's call. (1)  No matter how weak they were, Carthage had the potential to rise again, and the potential to threaten Rome once more.  It is said that to illustrate this point, Cato, whilst addressing the senate, shook some fresh figs from the folds of his toga.  These figs were plump and fresh, and could be found just three days sail from Rome.  These were Carthaginian figs, and if they could reach Rome in three days, then why not an army?

The pretext for war came when Carthage raised an army to fend off attacks from its Numidian neighbours.  Rome, not wanting to be seen as the aggressor, made a series of demands so outlandish that Carthage had no choice but to refuse; they went so far as to demand that the Carthaginians demolish their city and rebuild it elsewhere.  With their refusal, Rome's armies arrived in Africa and laid siege to the city.  So wholesale was the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. that it is said that Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman commander, "looked upon the city... in the last throes of its complete destruction... and wept for his enemies." (2)  Rome did not bury the city in salt, as we are so often told; what they did do was sell its population into slavery, and burn it to the ground.  Although he did not live to see it happen, Cato got his wish - Carthage was destroyed.


Before the Punic Wars Rome's reach had not extended much beyond mainland Italy, but after, Rome emerged as the dominant power in the Mediterranean, with overseas territories in Greece, Spain, and North Africa.  What is the significance of all this for Pass the Garum?  Well, this expansion brought Rome into contact with new luxuries which undoubtedly shaped the course of Roman wining and dining.

I started this series with a porridge recipe reflecting the wealth of Carthage, master of trade in the Mediterranean.  The second recipe is a taste the hardships experienced during the Second Punic War, as both sides struggled to find the food they needed to go on; it was a simple recipe, symbolising hard times.  My final recipe reflects Roman victory, and the changes that brought with it.


1) Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder, 27
2) Polybius, 38.22

Monday, 4 March 2013

Punic Wars and Porridge (Part 4 of 6)

With Hannibal marching around Italy raiding farms for food, the Romans were stuck behind their walls living off grain shipped in from Sicily.  These were hard times for both armies, something which I think is reflected in this porridge recipe; gone is the luxury of the honey, cheese, and eggs of last week's Punic Porridge.  Of course, we must remember that many Romans never even had that luxury in the first place.  In fact, this 'semolina' based porridge was probably something that most Romans could only ever dream of.  A new study has revealed that the majority of people in the Roman world lived on a diet of millet - commonly used today as bird seed.

If it's that authentic Roman peasant or Punic War experience you're after, then replace the semolina with millet and eat this meal every day for 17 years.  Otherwise, whilst you're wolfing down this rather plain porridge, be grateful that you only have to do it the once!

Roman Porridge
(serves 1)

Pour groats into a clean pot with fresh water and bring to the boil.  When cooked, slowly add enough milk that it turns into a thick cream. - Cato, de agricultura, 86


  • 40g Semolina
  • 75ml Water
  • 25ml Milk


  • Add the semolina and water to a saucepan, and bring to the boil.  You don't want too much water, so add just what you need.
  • When it starts to thicken up (5 or 10 minutes), add the milk bit by bit and let it simmer for a while.  If it's too watery, or if you like your porridge thicker, add more semolina.


This porridge looks and tastes like a bowl of hot semolina, which is unsurprising because that is exactly what it is.  It is certainly filling, and not at all unpleasant to eat, but just a bit boring and utilitarian.  Needless to say I feel a bit more sympathy for the everyday Roman whose entire eating life was spent alternating between this porridge and heavy bread.

Punic Wars and Porridge (Part 3 of 6)

Last week we left Hannibal looking up at the Alps, preparing to cross into Italy and crush the Romans.  Unfortunately for him, the crossing was not a smooth one.  Perhaps because he didn't give them any Punic Porridge (or rather because he turned up on their lands with thousands of soldiers), some of the Gallic tribes to the north of the Alps decided to raise arms against the Carthaginian general.  These tribes were soon subdued, and Hannibal started off into the mountains.  By the time he arrived on the other side, however, the cold and the snow had claimed almost all of his elephants and roughly half of his men. (1)

Not one to let the problem of half an army get in the way of his conquests, Hannibal set off into Italy. In the Battle of the Trebia, the outnumbered Carthaginians convinced the Romans to seek battle before they'd even had their breakfast.  The Carthaginian forces were well-rested and well-fed, unlike the Romans, who proved little match.  Eager to get revenge, Gaius Flaminius marched north with another army.  What followed was arguably one of the greatest ambushes in military history - the Battle of Lake Trasimene.  Hannibal lured the Romans onto a road, with forested hills to their left and Lake Trasimene to their right.  Hidden in these hills, masked by fog, were the Carthaginian soldiers, who quickly descended on Flaminius' legions, forcing them into the lake.  The destruction of this second army led the Romans to adopt a policy of attrition, avoiding pitched battles and hoping to wear the enemy down through other means.  This left Hannibal free to walk his way around Italy, sowing discord and discontent.  Hannibal soon tired of this, and was desperate to face Rome in the field once again.  To make this happen, he captured the Roman supply depot at Cannae.  The ensuing Battle of Cannae resulted in one of the largest losses of life of any battle in the ancient world.  According to Livy:

There was no longer any Roman camp, any general, any single soldier in existence. - Livy 22.54

This was not entirely true, but to the Romans it must surely have felt that way.  How then did the Romans claw their way back from the apparent jaws of defeat, push Hannibal back to Africa, and give him a right walloping? Rather conveniently for the purposes of this blog, I think that the answer lies in food.

Food vs Force

In 209 B.C. Rome fought hard to capture the city of New Carthage in Spain, but "amidst such an enormous supply of military and naval stores, the actual city itself was regarded as the least important capture of all." (2)  This quote is great because it shows that Carthage had wealth enough to fund, feed, and support countless armies.  The problem was that this wealth was in Spain, and not in Italy with Hannibal.  Furthermore, to make good time when crossing the Alps, Hannibal had his soldiers leave whatever food, weapons, and wives they did not need behind in France. (3)  The several tribes of angry Gauls he fought and left behind before made sure that these supplies could not reach Italy.  So, here we have Hannibal stuck in Italy, separated from the very supplies he needs to wage war - what gives?

Hannibal left his brother Hasdrubal and his general Hanno the ships and soldiers necessary to control the Mediterranean coastline, meaning that he could be resupplied by sea. (4)  This was only part of the plan however.  Hannibal's overarching strategy was not to crush Rome militarily (which he did with great gusto), but to convince the rest of Italy to turn against their Roman overlords.  The Roman world was not, at this stage, as unified as you might expect, and it was only recently that vast swathes of Italy had come under Roman control.  Hannibal hoped to undermine this control by showing the Italians that the Romans could be defeated.  He hoped that the Italians would join the cause and rush to his side, bringing with them the soldiers and sandwiches (Note:  This is ENTIRELY anachronistic, but it illustrates a point) needed to subdue the enemy.  This didn't happen.

As much as the Italians disliked Rome, at least the Romans shared the same gods, customs, and sense of dress as them.  The Carthaginians on the other hand had strange gods and liked to sacrifice children (or so says late Roman propaganda, so take this with a pinch of salt/ dash of garum). (5)  Hannibal's anticipated support never fully materialised, and his hopes of resupply from Spain by sea were dashed when Rome destroyed the Carthaginian navy.  Stranded in Italy with thousands of soldiers to feed and pay,  Hannibal had to start stealing food from the very same Italians he hoped would join his cause.  Things did not look good for Mr. Hannibal Barca.

Things didn't look particularly good for the Romans either.  Italy's farmers "had been carried off by the war, there was hardly any slave labour, the cattle had been driven off as plunder, and the farms and houses had been either stripped or burnt." (6)  Luckily, thanks to the First Punic War, Rome had found a friend in Hiero of Syracuse, who saw to it that Rome had the grain supplies necessary to get them through the war. (7)  Whilst it wasn't particularly tasty or exciting, Rome had food, and Carthage didn't - they could simply sit back and wait for Hannibal's army to starve.


1) Livy, 21.38
2) Livy, 26.47
3) Livy, 21.60
4) Polybius, 3.95 and Livy, 21.23
5) Plutarch, On Superstition, 13
6) Livy, 28.11
7) Livy, 23.21