Monday, 1 April 2013

Nodi Ollae

Have you ever found yourself walking past a restaurant or bakery or food stall, only to be waylaid by the most amazing of smells or delicious of sights?  We should count ourselves very lucky that so many Roman recipes have survived for us to recreate - there are quite literally hundreds!  But sometimes, those recipes which didn't survive, or those which we only hear about in passing, can waylay us like the sights and smells described above.

One food in particular has remained an enigma for centuries - nodi ollae - and it is this recipe which I hope to recreate today.  For a recipe which we know next to nothing about, nodi ollae is mentioned quite frequently in literature.  Here are the most illuminating passages:

Rations for farm-workers: four modii of wheat in winter, with which to make the nodi ollae.  The overseer, housekeeper, foreman and shepherd should receive three. - Cato, De Agri Cultura, 56

Here we learn that wheat is an important ingredient, and that nodi ollae was deemed an appropriate meal to keep farm-hands going throughout the winter!  This wasn't just a winter food - when we look at the medical writings of Celsus, we learn that it was seen as the next best thing to a full meal:

If you have eaten a full meal at midday, avoid extremes of hot and cold and tiredness - these are more damaging to a full stomach than an empty.  If you find you cannot eat, nodi ollae will preserve you until such times as you can. - Celsus, De Medicina, 1.2.8

I could go on, repeating passage after passage as evidence; Augustus prides himself on making it available to senators who attended the races; Frontinus loves that Rome's aqueducts made it easier to prepare; Pliny the Elder even goes so far as to rate different types of cumin and laser based upon how they taste in nodi ollae. So what actually was it?  After several weeks of detective work I have worked out what I believe to be the definitive recipe for that ever-so-Roman of recipes - nodi ollae.

Nodi Ollae
(serves 1)


  • 90g Spelt Flour
  • 30 ml Water
  • 2 tbsp Fish Sauce
  • 2 tbsp Asafoetida
  • 3 tbsp Cumin Seeds
  • 1 tbsp Black Pepper
  • 1 Clove Garlic
  • 1/2 Small Onion
  • 1 tsp Dried Peas or Chickpeas


  • Toast the cumin seeds and grind them up with the pepper and asafoetida.
  • With the spices prepared, chop the onion up into the smallest pieces you can manage.  Crush and chop the garlic clove, and mix this with the onions.
  • Nodi Ollae translates as 'knots of the pot' - we have to make the 'knots' now.  To do this, sieve the spelt flour into a bowl.  Add the water, just a few drops at a time, and make a dough which is not too dry or not too sticky.
  • Flour a work-surface (plain flour will do) and roll the dough out so that it is about a millimetre thick.  You want to chop this dough into lots of little strips before it dries.  As the dough dries, the strips curl up and turn into the 'knots' you see below.  This process can take several hours, so sit back with a copy of Plautus' latest comedy and relax.

  • When they are ready, mix these 'knots' with the spices, onion, garlic, and the peas/chickpeas.  Add them to a casserole dish, pour over boiling water, and put into a preheated oven (180 Celsius) for just a few minutes.  When it is done, it should look something like this:
  • Once the boiling water has done its trick, add a few splashes of fish sauce and tuck in - April Fools!


  • Nodi Ollae, I am sorry to say, did not actually exist.  I made it up.  Cato, Celsus, Caesar - the lot.  Who knows what Rome might have achieved (or not) if they had Pot Noodles?
  • I don't actually know what culinary masterpiece (or disaster) this recipe will lead to!


How did this recipe turn out?  You can tell me on Facebook or Twitter!


  1. Nice one! Great blog, by the way.

    1. Thanks Ben! Your support is much appreciated.

  2. You got me! I was thinking, "so Marco Polo didn't bring pasta back from China....."

    1. It's still quite amazing that pasta and tomatoes - two staples of Italian cuisine - were unknown to the Romans. This is a little glimpse of what might have been.

  3. You evil, evil, evil, man...

    I was looking at the photo thinking, looks like someone just smashed a package of instant noodles.

    1. Lucky I had the grand reveal then! Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Bravo on this one! I was shaking my head thinking, I don't recall this recipe at all, especially if it was so famous...

    1. Even with all those authentic quotes? :O

  5. Heh! But be careful recommending people to use tablespoonfuls of asafoetida; when I last bought it in my local Indian spicery, they were very determined in telling me that it was a good thing in small quantities, but could be quite dangerous if you used too much.