A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A modern chef takes on the challenge of ancient cooking.
Like many Americans these days, I fancy myself a fairly adventurous cook. And I've produced some (overly) ambitious stuff in my cramped kitchen, like quail in rose-petal sauce and chicken livers and eggs in aspic. So when ARCHAEOLOGY asked me to fix up some ancient menus, I figured, no problem. I'll hit up the Greeks and the Romans and that will be that. But I had no idea what I was getting into. Because it turns out Apicius, first-century A.D., isn't the unchallenged king of the ancient culinary world, after all.
Why not give the Mongolian Empire's Hu Szu-hui a chance to strut his stuff? This court physician can be credited with showing us what in Xanadu did Kublai Khan dine on while decreeing his stately pleasure dome. In 1330, Hu presented the Mongol emperor Wenzong, the great-grandson of Kublai Khan, with an enormous dietary manual, Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor's Food and Drink, containing more than 200 recipes, and much advice concerning the medicinal values and health dangers of foods. (The full translation of this book, along with extensive commentary and the complete original text, can be found in A Soup for the Qan, by Paul Buell and Eugene Anderson.) In his dishes, from lamb-stuffed eggplant with basil-garlic yogurt sauce to deep-fried fish cakes flavored with mandarin orange and the bitter spice asafoetida, he was creatively combining flavors from the wide sphere of Mongolian influence, from Baghdad to Beijing, centuries before the words "fusion" and "cuisine" were ever used in the same sentence.
Or what about the nameless cooks who scribbled down their tips in cuneiform in seventeenth-century B.C. Mesopotamia? Millennia before "tall food" became all the rage in today's chic bistros, chefs in the cradle of civilization were, if the clues they left on clay tablets are to be believed, dismembering tiny game birds, roasting the legs, and braising the bodies before carefully reassembling them atop a round of flatbread and garnishing them with watercress.
The Maya were not lacking for culinary achievements either, as we know thanks to European observers, archaeological evidence from trash heaps, and a direct culinary heritage that can be traced forward to many of today's Latin American cooking traditions. They made good use of the many foodstuffs native to the New World, such as tomatoes, maize, turkey, and chile peppers, to create a complex and flavorful cuisine, and the tamales and salsas (not to mention chocolate!) they invented today grace tables the world over.
Long before superstar chefs started experimenting with trout ice cream or tomato foam, adventurous foodies from Mongolia to Mesopotamia to Mayapán were paving the way. I decided to retrace their culinary steps as best I could, and re-create some of their most appealing dishes for a group of brave guests.
The first difficulty a twenty-first-century home cook runs into when attempting to explore cuisines hundreds or thousands of years old is in establishing the ground rules. Does one make use of refrigeration? (The answer, after a brief but definitive analysis of logistics: an emphatic yes.) What about mutton, one of the most common meats throughout the Old World but now almost impossible for the common consumer to obtain in this country? Would I be cheating if I settled for lamb? (In America today, sheep are slaughtered almost exclusively before the end of their first year, making them technically lamb. Anything older is very, very tough--to buy, I mean, although I presume it also presents a challenge to the incisors.) And what about all those archaic food-preparation methods? I possess neither a horse under whose saddle I can shove meat for tenderizing, as the Mongols did, nor a yard into which I can dig a six-foot-deep hole to cook my turkey Maya-style. And then there are the Sumerian recipes that call for blood. Is it safe to cook with blood? Is it even legal?
Julie Powell received a 2004 James Beard Award for food journalism. Her book chronicling a year spent cooking out of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol.1) will be published in 2005 by Little, Brown.