I love trying foods from different cultures.
It's been one of the most enjoyable parts of traveling for me, and despite the fact that "it's a delicacy" may sound like it's synonymous with "this is a food we give to stupid tourists to see if they'll actually eat it," most of what I've tried has been delicious. I even loved durian, the notoriously stinky fruit from southeast Asia that food writer Richard Sterling famously described as smelling like "pig shit, turpentine, and onions, garnished with a gym sock." Despite its smell, I thought it tasted like a combination of raspberry yogurt and almond paste.
So I thought it was pretty cool that a food historian named Andrew Coletti has specialized in finding ancient documents recording recipes from centuries ago -- and recreating them in the kitchen.
Coletti has made dishes from medieval Europe, eleventh-century Persia, twelfth-century Morocco, thirteenth-century Egypt, fourteenth-century Spain, and fifteenth century Turkey. But now he's turned his attention to further back in time -- to the Roman Empire.
Using a fourth-century cookbook called Apicius, Coletti has tried to recreate what the Romans of the time liked to eat. Some of it is similar enough to what we typically serve; baked scrambled eggs with asparagus, a dessert like a sponge cake soaked in honey, a poppyseed cheesecake, and about a dozen recipes involving oysters, which the Romans adored. There are fried ground meat patties that sound a great deal like hamburgers.
And of course, if you have hamburgers, what else is necessary?
Fries, of course.
Turns out the ancient Romans ate something very much like fries with ketchup. They didn't have potatoes -- despite the association of potatoes with Ireland, the potato is a Western Hemisphere native and wasn't widely grown in Europe until the seventeenth century -- but they did have other starchy root vegetables, like parsnips. And fried slivered parsnips were served with oenogarum, a ketchup-like condiment made from red wine, fish sauce, black pepper, lovage (an herb similar to celery), and honey.
So in Roman times, you might be asked, "Requirisne cum illo cibum frixum?" ("Do you want fries with that?") Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
If you were to time-travel back to ancient Rome, the oddest thing would probably be what they didn't have. Besides potatoes, such familiar culinary items as corn, tomatoes, squash, and green and red peppers were all introductions from the Western Hemisphere much later on (black pepper was used -- it was an exotic and expensive import -- and comes from an entirely different species of plant). The introductions went both ways, of course. Interestingly, given the "American as apple pie" cliché, apples are not native to North America, but were introduced by the French into Canada in the seventeenth century, and spread from there.
Anyhow, I find Coletti's work intriguing, and if you're on TikTok you should definitely follow him (@PassTheFlamingo). Given my fascination with the ancient world, I think I might try to create an authentic Roman dinner. I'd definitely like trying to make some oenogarum -- although I don't know where the hell I'll find lovage. Maybe if I boost the amount of red wine, no one will notice that I substituted celery.