Culinary History Mystery #6: Tomato Eggs

Chinese Eggs with Tomatoes
Chinese Tomato Eggs

Tomato Eggs is a home-cooked Chinese dish that reminds students, travelers, and those living abroad of home.  Just a whiff of this cooking and folks will tell tales of sitting in or near the kitchen as a kid as a parent made this dish – and how good it tasted!  it is simple, elegant, and savory, and less than 10 – 15 minutes from wok to table.  Chopped green onions are almost always used. Sometimes garlic or onion is added, and often there is a blast of shaoxing, rice vinegar, or even oyster sauce to add flavor.  Some recipes also add sugar to counter the acidity of the tomatoes, but the memorable taste of the dish usually just comes from the combined flavors of the fresh ingredients.

The form of the dish can be dry, like in the picture above, or is can be moist with a thin tomato sauce, or even soupy. It is often served over or with rice or fresh noodles. My travels tend to make me think that presentation varies mostly by individual preference and not by geography, because I have had both dry and wet forms in a number of different places.

I’ve enjoyed this dish all over China, from Beijing and Xian to places much further west and south.  Although the Chinese regard this as a quintessential Chinese dish, my favorite thing about tomato eggs (蕃茄炒蛋/西红柿炒蛋) is that it is probably Arab in origin.

Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshouka
Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshuka

The Arab dish that Tomato Eggs most resembles is Shakshuka. This dish is eaten all over the Saudi Peninsula, North Africa, and the Levant. Turkey even has its own version called Menemen. Although the form varies a great deal, from the dry, Saudi version pictured here, to poached eggs over a spiced tomato sauce as in Egypt and Israel, to a complex ragout of vegetables (with lots of tomatoes) and sometimes bits of meat or sausage bound together by eggs.   It is almost always served with pita bread or naan.  Onions are almost always used and sometimes garlic is as well.  Spicing can be just salt and pepper with a little bit of chopped parsley or cilantro as in Oman to a dish flavored with cumin, or dishes with oregano and other herbs.  Chili peppers or ground chilies are often added, but I have never had a Shakshuka that I could call hot.  These days, cheese is sometimes added, but that is a modern addition and not found in traditional recipes for the dish in any of the cultures that now enjoy it.

A comparison of the Saudi and Chinese recipes show that the recipes are nearly identical, although the Chinese use a two-step cooking process:

2 tablespoons olive oil 3 tablespoons cooking oil
2 medium tomatoes, diced 4 large eggs
2 garlic cloves, minced 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 small white onion, minced 1 teaspoon shaoxing wine (optional)
½ teaspoon salt 3 dashes white pepper powder
½ teaspoon black pepper 8 oz. fresh tomato (cut into thin wedges)
1 teaspoon cumin 1 teaspoon sugar
4 eggs 2 tablespoons water
Some chopped green onions
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil (garnish, optional)
Break eggs over mixture and cook for another 3-5 minutes or until done. Stir with a spatula to mix or slide onto a plate and serve. Heat up a wok with 2 tablespoons cooking oil. Add the egg mixture into the wok, and use your spatula to spread the eggs. Keep stirring until the eggs form lumps. Gently break the lumps into smaller pieces. As soon as the eggs are cooked, dish out and set aside. Clean the wok and heat it up again with 1 tablespoon cooking oil. Drop the tomato wedges into the wok and do a few quick stirs. Add sugar and water into the tomatoes. Cover it with the lid and let it cook for about 30 seconds. Transfer the eggs and chopped scallions into the tomatoes, stir-fry for 30 seconds or so, dish out and serve immediately.

The main reasons why this is probably another west-to-east spread of a recipe is the commonality and variations of the dish in the Muslim Mediterranean, Suez and Persian Gulf,and the unusual nature of the dish in China’s litany of egg recipes. Another reason why it is likely a dish with an “Arab” origin is that Muslim people took to the tomato very early on in its introduction in the Old World. While the Europeans were generally skittish about eating this member of the nightshade family, and raised them as curiosities or ornamental garden plants, the Muslims dove right in and cultivated them as food early on in their arrival in the Eastern Hemisphere. The Spanish were the only Europeans who generally took to eating the tomato in the 16th Century. This is probably because they saw them being cultivated and eaten in the New World and knew that they were not harmful.

Apples of Love (Tomatoes), Gerarde, 1597
Apples of Love (Tomatoes), Gerarde, 1597

The Spanish were said to particularly enjoy them with cooked with oil, salt, and pepper as a sort of stew, and also to make a sauce out of them with vinegar added to the ingredients above and to use that sauce on their meats (Gerarde, History of Plants, 1597). Gerarde also notes that tomatoes or “Love Apples” grow well in warm climates like Spain and italy. Of interest, perhaps, is that Gerarde describes both red and yellow tomatoes.

Although there is mention that the Italians also ate tomatoes in 17th Century botanicals, this is repetition of incorrect information. The original citation says that the Italians ate, “Eggplants”. This, even in historical documents became misreported as, “tomatoes”, and the error continues to proliferate today.

Evidence for the early Arab love of eating tomatoes can be found in John Parkinson’s 1629 Earthly Paradise, in which he reports that tomato plants grow well in hot climates like those in, “Barbary and Ethiopia”. Parkinson’s 1640 Theatrum Botanicum expands this range of growth in the Old World to, “easterly countries such as Egypt, Syria and Arabia.” His 1629 work notes that tomatoes are much eaten in the hot countries where they grow well.

Lancelot Addison’s 1671 work, An Account of West Barbary, notes that tomatoes are eaten raw with oil along with other, “salads.” In 1710, Dr. William Salmon’s Herbal notes that the Spanish ate tomatoes boiled in vinegar with pepper and salt, and served up with oil and lemon juice (possibly a poached tomato); and that they also eat tomatoes raw with oil, vinegar, and pepper.

Red Tomato
Red Tomato

By comparison, the earliest European mention of tomatoes growing in Asia (Malaysia) can be found in Georg Rumphius’s 1747 work Herbarium Amboinense. Rumphius notes that the natives cultivate two varieties and that both are used in cooking. In 1790, a brief mention of tomatoes growing well in the fields and gardens of Cochin, China is found in Louriero’s Flora Cochinchinensis.

So, from all this information, we can infer that the Arabs were eating tomatoes in the 16th century – at least the Morisco’s in Spain were – and possibly so were people across a broad swath of the Muslim World from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and into the Levant. More evidence for Tomato Eggs having Arab roots. Tomatoes may have been eaten in Ming China, but the earliest evidence I can find in a language I can read comes from well into the period of Qing rule. That said, however, we know that the Chinese were trading with the pre-Islamic Arabs and that trade between the peoples only flourished after the adoption of Islam, with the influence of foreign Muslim peoples in China reaching its peak probably in the Yuan Dynasty.

What I love most about Culinary History Mysteries like that is that hundreds of years later, the history of the interaction between the Chinese and the “Arabs” lives on in the foods people eat. Another enduring testament to the power of the Silk Road in the lives of the people.

(Words and recipe analysis by Laura Kelley. Photo of Chinese Eggs with Tomatoes by; Photo of Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshuka by Noor AlQahtani. Recipe for Saudi Shakshuka from Noor’s site, Ya Salam; Recipe for Chinese Tomato Eggs from Rasa Malaysia)

The Origins of Curry Powder

Where did curry powder come from? There is no real equivalent in authentic subcontinental cuisines for a ready-made powder. The closest thing to a curry powder is a masala, and that is almost always more of a paste than a powder because of the addition of wet and dry ingredients to the mix. On the subcontinent, seeds and roots, etc. are roasted, ground and mixed in varying proportions according to the needs of the recipe. Although the origins of curry powder are unclear, the advertisement below gives us a firm data point of the mid 1780s for a commercial curry powder for sale in London.

First British Curry Advertisement
First British Curry Advertisement

The advertisement, which ran in the Morning Post (now incorporated into the Daily Telegraph) says that this curry powder was brought back from the East Indies by Solander. Now, Solander was the great Swedish naturalist who was botanist on Captain Cook’s Endeavour expedition to the Pacific. Despite the claim, this is probably just a marketing ploy – like Mrs. Pepperidge – because the closest the Endeavour ever got to India was actually Indonesia (Batavia/Jakarta) and it returned to Britain in 1771, some 13 years before the advertisement. Solander, on the other hand, did meet an untimely death in 1784, and was something of a celebrated figure at the time. So, it was good business sense by the maker of the curry powder to use Solander’s name to conjure images of exploration and the exotic cuisines of the east.

It isn’t completely clear which company manufactured this powder, but I have one data point that indicates that it was Crosse and Blackwell – S&B – still makers of chutneys, relishes, and sauces. The problem with this is that they weren’t incorporated until 1830 when the men behind the initials S&B bought the business from its proprietors West and Wyatt. West and Wyatt, on the other opened its doors for business in 1706, so it indeed could have been their curry powder for sale at Sorlie’s Perfumery Warehouse in 1784.

The advertisement claims that the curry powder will help you make sumptuous sauces for East-Indian dishes. It also says that the curry powder promotes good digestion, good circulation, a vigorous mind and . . . wait for it . . . a strong libido. Who doesn’t want more of all that? How could anyone resist?

Dean Mahomet
Sake Dean Mahomet

However, because our early data point shows commercial curry powder for sale in 18th Century England, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is an English invention. People from the subcontinent were already immigrating in the 17th Century, with the earliest baptism of an Indian-born Asian man in 1616, and by the 18th Century, Indian sailors were commonplace on East India Company ships, hired to replace men who had died on the voyage east. The passage for the Indian sailors was often one-way, from east to west, with the sailors attempting to start a life in a less-than-welcoming England. Usually, however, they wound up in transient, low-wage jobs or living by the good will of others. The cooks on the ships who fed these sailors, sometimes fared better than the sailors themselves, and wound up as tavern and pub cooks, slinging British food as well as the occasional curry to the hungry English populous.

In 1773 the Norris Street Coffee House in Haymarket started selling a prepared curry, and by 1810, Sake Dean Mahomet opened the first Indian-owned and operated Indian restaurant in Britain with the Hindustan Coffee House at 34 George Street, Portman Square. In Mahomet’s restaurant, British patrons could enjoy hookahs with ‘real Chilim tobacco’ as well as a wide selection of curries.

Fortunately, perhaps, or not, this article has no firm conclusions to offer about the definitive origins of curry powder, but it does place some good data on the table. Despite my wanting to keep the door open to the contributions of Anglo-Asians in the formulation of curry powders, my instinct tells me that commercial, prepared curry powder is probably not their contribution to world cuisine. If it were an Asian or an Anglo-Asian invention, I would think that the taste of curries made with curry powder would be a lot more authentically “Indian”. Still, I’ll keep digging to see there are further strands to pull, so stay tuned. (Words by Laura Kelley, Newspaper clipping of first British Curry Powder Ad from the British Library and Portrait of Sake Dean Mohamet from the Wellcome Archive.)

Curry Through Foreign Eyes #4: Dr. Kitchiner

Today’s exploration of Indian Curry through Foreign Eyes takes us back to early 19th Century England to The Cook’s Oracle by Dr. Kitchiner, which was first published in London by Samuel Bagster in 1817. The original title of the book is Apicius Redivivus, or Apicius Reborn, so it is clear that the publisher thought that this book was a masterpiece of gourmet dining. Either that, or he simply wanted to cash in on the image of Apicius’s legendary dining habits in the sales of Dr. Kitchiner’s book.

The Cook's Oracle, 1831 (American)
The Cook’s Oracle, 1830 (American)

The Kitchiner recipe for curry powder is an important one, and is cited as the basis of many recipes since then, including Mrs. Beeton’s and the curry powder used when the British introduced “Indian” curry to the Japanese in the late 19th Century.

To begin, the 1817 edition of The Cook’s Oracle has two recipes for curry powder (Nos. 454 and 455). These change and combine a great deal across editions of the book, with recipe No. 455 (with some variation) becoming the recipe that endures in later editions, including the American editions. In the 1817 edition of the book, Kitchiner observes that these recipes were given to him by a friend and he cannot vouch for their flavor or authenticity (imagine writing THAT in a cookbook today)! However in later editions of the book, he swears to the authenticity of recipe No. 455 for “Cheap Curry Powder”. So I chose to work with this recipe both for its terrific name as well as for its lasting quality.

In working with the Kitchiner recipes (No. 455 from both the 1817 and 1830 editions), I also think I have figured out why so many early curries and so many modern commercial curry powders have much more turmeric than any modern or historical Indian curry out there. The answer is simple: The confusion of grated, fresh turmeric root with dried and ground turmeric powder.

I have never seen an authentic Indian curry with more than a fraction of turmeric relative to the amounts of coriander and cumin. For example, if the recipe calls for 2-3 teaspoons of ground cumin and/or coriander, it will usually only call for about ¼-to- ½ -teaspoon of turmeric. Most Indian recipes use turmeric judiciously, almost in the way a bit of saffron is used to take the sharp edges off of the flavor of the other spices. On the other hand, try to find a mainstream, commercial curry powder that isn’t bright yellow or orange from the amount to turmeric in the mix. I have long wondered about this, and now think that adhearance to “traditional” historical recipes may be the reason for this.

Turmeric, Two Forms
Turmeric, Two Forms

To try to prove this hypothesis, I cooked the Kitchiner curries with three ounces of fresh, grated turmeric root and found them to taste much more like and Indian curry than curries cooked with ground turmeric. This is not simply the difference between fresh and dried spice – a difference we all are aware of – but also of the relative proportion of the wet, grated root to the baked and dried powder in the recipe as a whole. An ounce of fresh root is much less turmeric than an ounce of ground turmeric, and the resulting flavor of the curry is radically different. It’s fascinating to me how a likely mistake in the 18th and 19th Centuries can still resonate today. Try it sometime with a favorite historical recipe and see if you agree about the turmeric issue. On to the recipes.

The 1817 Recipe for “Cheap Curry Powder” calls for four ounces of coriander seed, three ounces of turmeric, one ounce each of black pepper, ginger, and lesser cardamoms, and one-quarter ounce of cinnamon and cayenne. This recipe becomes a little gentler as time goes on, with later editions calling for three ounces of coriander seed and turmeric, one ounce of black pepper, mustard (an addition) and ginger, and half an ounce of lesser cardamoms, and a quarter ounce of cumin seed. Later American editions call for the addition of a half-ounce of allspice as well. Dr. Kitchiner observes in the later editions that the omission of the cayenne pepper from the recipe is to allow for cooks to add more curry powder according to taste without making the dish too hot. Written in modern form the recipes looks like this:

Dr. Kitchiner’s Curry Powder No. 455 (1817)
8 tablespoons coriander seed
6 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons ginger
2 tablespoons green cardamom seeds
1.5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1.5 teaspoons cayenne pepper


Dr. Kitchiner’s Curry Powder No. 455 (1830)
6 tablespoons coriander seed
6 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons mustard (an addition)
2 tablespoons ginger
1 tablespoon green cardamom
1 tablespoon allspice
1.5 teaspoons cumin seed.

The direction is to place all ingredients in a cool oven overnight, then to grind in a granite mortar and pass through a silk sieve. The sieving makes this a fine powder as opposed to a coarser, rustic grind.

Another reason for working with recipe No. 455 is that there is no specific recipe for a curry in the 1817 version of Dr. Kitchiner. Rather he suggests making curry sauces by adding curry powder a bit at a time to gravy or butter until a sauce pleasing to taste unfolds. There are recipes for deviled eggs, a bare-bones mulligitawny and a couple of curry-flavored forcemeats as well a a calf’s-head broth, but no meat stewed in liquid as the British had come to interpret as curry. I had to turn to a later edition if I wanted the Kitchiner curry recipe, and used the recipe from the 1830 edition instead.

Here is the original recipe for curries in the 1830 edition of Dr. Kitchiner’s The Cooks Oracle:

Curries (No. 497)
Cut fowls or rabbits into joints, and wash them clean: put two ounces of butter into a stew-pan; when it is melted, put in the meat, and two middling-sized onions sliced, let them be over a smart fire till they are of a light brown, then put in half a pint of broth; let it simmer twenty minutes.

Put in a basin one or two table-spoonfuls of curry powder (No. 455), a tea-spoonful of flour, and a tea-spoonful of salt; mix it smooth with a little cold water, put it into the stew-pan, and shake it well about till it boils: let it simmer twenty minutes longer; then take out the meat, and rub the sauce through a tamis or sieve: add to it two table spoonfuls of cream or milk; give it a boil up; then pour it into a dish, lay the meat over it: send up the rice in a separate dish.

Written in a more modern form, the ingredients looks like this:

Dr. Kitchiner’s Curries (1830)
1 – 1.5 pounds boneless fowl or rabbit (more if using meat on the bone)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large yellow onions
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons curry powder (No. 455)
1 teaspoon flour
1 teaspoon salt
water to make a thin paste of the above three ingredients
2 tablespoons of whole milk or cream

The method from the original recipe is fairly straightforward. I made a couple of changes, searing the meat and removing it from the pan before adding the onions to the remaining butter, I added a bit more curry powder than called for, didn’t really boil the curry after adding the dairy, and I didn’t sieve the sauce before serving.

Dr. Kitchiner's Chicken Curry, 1830
Dr. Kitchiner’s Chicken Curry, 1830

Note that the “cowboy roux” or “white wash” used at the end is a mix of flour, water, curry powder and salt and is used to thicken the sauce before finishing it with a bit of whole milk or cream. Because the Kitchiner recipe is so influential in the development of other western recipes for curry, I suspect that this recipe is probably where East Asian curries adopted their “curry roux” from, because the British introduced their version of Indian curry to Japan in the late 19th Century. More about that in future posts.

So what do these curries taste like? To me, the Kitchiner curry using the 1830 curry powder tastes like a more robust version of the Hannah Glasse curry (1774) which used only turmeric, ginger and black pepper (with a little lemon juice) for spice. It’s good, but it’s very turmeric heavy and almost completely lacks any cumin flavor, which is understandable given the proportionally miniscule amount in the curry powder. It also has none of the nutmeg and mace that Mary Randolph wrote about in 1824. The 1817 version of the powder that has the extra 2 tablespoons of coriander seeds, the two tablespoons of green cardamom seeds, and 1.5 teaspoons each of cinnamon and cayenne has a nice kick to it that is lacking in the 1830 curry powder. The overwhelming flavor of turmeric is less overwhelming in the earlier version. Its a pity that this earlier version of the curry powder didn’t endure.

Both recipes also taste more authentically “Indian” with the use of three ounces fresh turmeric instead of three ounces of dried powder. (Words and historical recipe development by Laura Kelley; Photo of The Cook’s Oracle from Gunsight Antiques; Photo of Turmeric, Two Forms from Wikipedia and merged by Laura Kelley; Photo of Dr. Kitchiner’s Chicken Curry by Joseph

Culinary History Mystery # 5: A Loaf of Leavened Mesopotamian Bread

Something wonderful and unexpected happened yesterday. After a long day of tromping around historical archaeology sites in St. Mary’s City with the family, I arrived home to find a long-expected, but immediately unanticipated e-mail from a fellow food lover in England. Cid is a purveyor of fine foods and an expert breadmaker. Some time ago, I asked her to help me solve a historical food puzzle that has been vexing me for some time. Namely, did the Mesopotamians enjoy leavened as well as unleavened bread?

Because we are lacking explicit evidence for the use of yeast to leaven bread in Mesopotamia and many other ancient cultures, modern cooks reconstructing the cuisines of these cultures have assumed that all of the bread in these cultures was flat and dense like hardtack. An unfortunate assumption.

What Cid has beautifully demonstrated is that spelt, which is not too dissimilar to the emmer wheat used by Mesopotamians, makes a great big loaf of sourdough bread using a starter based only on wild yeast from the environment.

For those of you new to the “starter” concept, it is simply that a grain providing a carbohydrate source is mixed with water and allowed to attract microorganisms from the environment.  As the microorganisms consume the food given them by the flour (carbohydrate and sugar) they reproduce and must be “fed” with the addition of new flour (and sometimes water).  Sometimes an additional sugar source is added by soaking macerated fruit in the water to be mixed with the flour to start the starter culture more rapidly.  This process continues until a stable community of yeast and bacteria is established in the liquid or semi-solid “starter”.  This starter is added to flour, water and other ingredients, kneaded, folded, proofed and baked and sourdough bread results.

The importance of Cid’s demonstration is that even if the ancients didin’t explicitly know and write about yeast as an ingredient, they might have known how to use the wild type organism.  Cid’s talents as a baker show that wild-yeast leavened breads were possible in the ancient world.  She writes:

“For the past few weeks I’ve been feeding a spelt ferment starter with organic spelt flour every day. Next to my other ‘white’ ferments the spelt had a different smell and didn’t bubble up as quickly.

Wild Yeast Spelt Starter

It’s not clear whether the ancient bakers used a ‘poolish’ method for their bread, which is basically an amount of starter ferment mixed with water and flour left to further ferment over night before adding more flour the next day. It seemed like a reasonable idea so that’s what I did. It bubbled well enough to make me believe it would produce a good loaf. So at breakfast the following day I mixed in enough spelt flour and two teaspoons of salt and about a tablespoon of olive oil.

The feel of the dough was very different to the normal sourdoughs I make on a weekly basis. Despite kneading and resting, the dough never felt elastic and rose only slightly. You see, the gluten in modern wheat flour produces stretchy dough that rises well and if ‘folded’ at regular intervals rather than kneaded, will give the crumb its familiar large holes and crackling crust.

Unbaked Spelt Sourdough

As I got the dough properly formed up into a loaf, I fired up my oven to 240°C with baking stone in place.

As you can see the baked loaf is rather flat and dark looking. It’s consistency is much more like a scone than modern day brown bread and it has a sour tang. The texture is too heavy for my taste and the ferment too sour. A portion of this type of bread would be very filling and full of natural fibre.

A lighter texture could possibly have been achieved by mixing the spelt with other grains known to Mesopotamians, such as rye, oats or the numerous wild grasses they incorporated into their diets. Sieving the milled grain would have given a whiter, presumably lighter weight end result as well.”

Wild Yeast Spelt Loaf

Wonderful work, Cid! Your demonstration is not only proof of concept that these ancients could have enjoyed leavened wild-yeast sourdough breads, but it is also significant for understanding ancient beermaking and winemaking as well. Many of the people and companies who have tried to reconstruct these recipes have been left wondering how to ferment the grain and malt mixtures that have been described on the ancient tablets. Your wild yeast spelt starter gives them an excellent way to introduce yeast into the alcohol mixture. The ancients may not have known what yeast was, but I’m betting they knew how to cultivate and use it for bread and alcohol production. (To beer makers out there – lets talk about that aromatic “wort” a bit – I may have some ideas on that score as well.)

Another thing that is important to the flavor of bread, beer and wine is that wild yeast starters are complex cultures of local yeasts not the uniform commercial cultures of Sacccharomyces cerviseae one can buy in the market. Additionally, these starters all have complex communities of local bacteria in them. The difference between species and community diversity in commercial versus wild starters affects proofing time, texture and flavor of the products made.

If any of you start experimenting with spelt (or farro which is emmer wheat used by the Mesopotamians), I suggest you consider flavoring your loaves with spices to balance the strong flavor of the spelt or farro. Some spices that are authentic to Mesopotamian bread can be found in the Ninda-gal recipe (JCS Vol. 29, No. 3) are onion seeds, sumac and saffron. You could also troll some of the Mesopotamian recipes on Silk Road Gourmet for some other spice combinations as well. (Words by Laura Kelley and Cid, and Photographs of Wild Yeast Spelt Starter, Unbaked Sourdough and Leavened Spelt Loaf by Cid).

Umami in a Bottle: Homemade Garum

Homemade Garum

Here it is, the real deal! Amber-colored culinary gold! The first results from last summer’s backyard garum making!  As some of you may remember, back in June of last year I started making garum in my backyard with fresh mackerel and lots of sea salt.  I also wrote the “garum diaries” until mid-September which described the first 90 days or so of the initial enzymatic digestion of the fish.  I noted the surprising lack of odor despite the process of digestion and blow by blow described the changes in color and consistency in the garum-making vessel.

For the uninitiated, garum is the substance that was produced by the Carthaginians (and likely before by the same people in the Phoenician homelands of the Eastern Mediterranean) It was made from fish and salt and used to add a savory flavor to many foods that was otherwise lacking.  it was used on everything from meat and vegetables to desserts and wine depending on how it was prepared and mixed.  The Romans took over the lucrative garum production facilities from Carthage after conquest, and much of what we now about garum production comes from them.

Basket of Fish for Garum Making

I’ve learned a lot over the months and frankly found that a great deal of what is available on the internet on the production of garum is packed with contradictions.  Part of this is because scholarly work on garum is still in progress and people who study this issue for a living are still making up their minds about what garum is and isnt.

The most recent understanding of the terminology (provided to me by Sally Grainger) is that:  Liquamen refers to the whole-fish sauce made with all the viscera intact and sometimes extra viscera [presumably to speed the digestion process].  The enzymes in the viscera dissolve the fish into a thick sauce which yields a translucent, highly nutritious sauce when it is filtered or diluted.  It can be gathered by skimming the top of the ferment, or by letting it drip out of the paste that has been put in a colander.  It is extremely fishy, oily, and salty and packs a wallop of flavor.   Allec is the solid paste that is left after the liquamen is removed.  The Romans would pick this clean of bones, skin, fins and other fishy solids and use it as a paste on bread or as a condiment.  Given the taste of the allec I produced, I think it would have probably been mixed with olive oil, butter or animal fat to make it more palatable.  By personal choice, I would use butter.  I think then it would taste like country caviar – fresh sweet butter on a hunk of brown bread spread with fresh caviar – or allec. The Romans, however, might have used olive oil.

Muria is the sauce made when the fish are gutted and headed and the liquor that emerges is weak in protein and pale in colour. This probably corresponds best with the modern colatura di alici.  Lastly, there is haimation which is the liquid that is produced from just from blood and viscera.  This is garon haimation in Greek and garum or garum sociorum in Latin. It is black and bloody according to Galen.  .

Garum amphora

Another thing that my experience making garum taught me that varied from much of the historical information available was the quantity of garum produced and the speed at which it can be harvested.  Many of the early writings about garum speak of a basket being dipped into the ferment and the garum flowing into the basket.  Or if a barrel or container were used, directions are to puncture the barrel near the base and let the garum flow off.  This may be true for large-scale production such as those in vats, but it is not true for the casual backyard producer of garum.  With 15 pounds of mackerel and almost nine pounds of salt to start, nothing flows or gushes, it is harvested drip by excruciating drip and then filtered multiple times at the same glacial rate.  It takes patience and persistence – but it is worth it.

The slow speed of my garum harvest may be because of the rather high quantity of salt to fish I wound up using as well.  Its difficult to say with n=1 production experience.

After having produced garum, I am convinced that the few so-called quick recipes for “garum” in the ether cannot possibly produce the product that took nine months to create in my backyard.  These recipes call for the fish and salt to be cooked on the stove top or in a yogurt maker.  I’m not sure what these recipes produce – I suspect it is ordinary fish oil – but do I know that a few hours of heat cannot replace nine months of digestion. Because these authors describe the taste as, “not very fishy”, I know it cannot be garum.  The garum produced by digestion is fishy, salty, and quite oily and only a few drops (vice teaspoons or tablespoons) would be needed to flavor a dish. Even if adapted from historical (usually Byzantine) sources, these quick recipes produce a product that looks like garum, but doesn’t taste like it.  You can’t rush perfection.

Although the production of garum is not smelly, harvesting garum can be, unless steps are taken to minimize the smell.  You must cover containers that are used to harvest and filter the garum, wear old clothes and be prepared to do lots of dishes.  For the sensitive, I suggest surgical gloves – the odor permeates everything and is very hard to get rid of.  Lastly if you share your home with four-legged creatures, you will want to put them out or at least keep them away from the garum – they will be curious, and noisy.

So, what does it look like?  Interestingly, my garum is roughly the same color as its last living relative in the west – colatura di alici – the modern Italian fish sauce made from anchovies.  The garum is a bit more amber in color (as opposed to the colatura’s reddish brown color) even after five filtrations, but the color is much more similar than that of nuoc mam which comes in a variety of shades of dark brown.  The garum is also a bit more viscous than either of the two modern sauces – possibly due to the introduction of water in the modern production process, or possibly due to the different species of fish used.  If you are curious about the possible west-to-east flow of fish-sauce production technology in the ancient world, please see this essay.

So, what does it taste like?  It is saltier, way more fishy and a bit oiler than either the colatura di alici or the nuoc mam.  Garum from mackerel is more powerful as it hits the tongue, has a longer crest of flavor and remains stronger for a longer period of time as it fades. One can taste it in more places in the mouth than the colatura or nuoc mam as well. No matter where you place the garum – the flavor explodes in your mouth.  There is also a slight bitterness to the garum that is absent from the colatura or the nuoc mam.  Interestingly, the nuoc mam has fructose and hydrolyzed vegetable protein listed as ingredients.  These certainly affect the flavor of the sauce – especially the fructose. In short, the colatura and the nuoc mam taste more like each other than like the garum.  The nuoc mam has a more complex flavor than the colatura, but since both are made from anchovies, that probably is because of the added ingredients listed above.  The colatura claims only anchovies and salt as ingredients.  Garum is, without a doubt, umami in a bottle.


Glutamic Acid Formula

A word about umami.  Most of us were raised on the ancient Greek notion of four tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter.  I vividly remember “mapping” these tastes on our tongues in elementary school but placing different substances on different areas of the tongue with a cotton swab.  A combination of modern science and some talented tongues have turned this notion on its head, and research conducted largely in the 20th Century has explained umami for us.  Sort of like a sixth sense, umami is the “fifth taste” and represents savoriness. It is carried in a number of molecules – most notably in glutamic acid that most of us experience in the form of sodium glutamate.  Many foods are rich in glutamic acid – notably ripe tomatoes, celery, cheese, asparagus, meat, fish, and shellfish etc.  Of course, cooks and chefs have been combining these ingredients for years to create savory dishes.  Most notably the renowned western chef Escoffier used an instinctive knowledge of these ingredients for many of his dishes.

Kombu (kelp)

Kikunae Ikeda, the Japanese chemist who “discovered” umami worked with kombu a type of seaweed that Japanese cuisine uses in many dishes either as a vegetable or dried and dissolved in broth form with bonito fish flakes as dashi.  Ikeda coined the word “umami” from the Japanese “umai” which means delicious, nice or palatable as well as brothy, meaty or savory.  Both sets of meanings, as you can see, represent important aspects of umami taste perception.

What I find fascinating about umami is how little we truly understand it.  We know it has a flavor of its own – which changes depending how the molecule of glutamic acid is charged – but we suspect that it also changes other flavors to enhance them in a synergistic way.  Additionally, it also add a “mouthfullness” to food that adds to the positive perception of food flavor in the mouth.


Getting back to production, we digested the mackerel in salt in the backyard for nine months.  In the initial stages, we stirred the batch at least once a week, but as the fall and winter passed, the stirring decreased to only a couple of times a month.  To harvest the garum, first skim off any that rests on the top of the vat.  I did this with a teaspoon with the same technique as which I use to clarify butter or remove excess fat from the top of a stew or curry.

Next, fill a small colander with ferment pick out the large solids like bones and fins etc.  Wipe the outside surface of the colander and place above a receiving vessel.  Cover the colander with a plate to reduce odor and set in a place where it will not be disturbed.  I suggest placing in a garage or cellar, if left out of doors, local animals will easily remove the plate and make a mess of the ferment.

Every day a little more liquamen will drip out of the ferment.  Collect this and set aside.  There is no need to refrigerate – garum is so salty it will keep at room temperature nearly indefinitely.  However, it may be better to harvest and filter only what you need for short-term purposes as the biochemistry of the liquamen may change over time after it is exposed to light (which is why the Romans stored it in opaque amphorae.

Next comes the filtration.  The first filtration I did with commercial grade cheesecloth that was folded over into four layers.  This will remove the crude solids.  Then I switched to a funnel and commercial coffee filter and filtered the mixture four more times, each time after a period of rest to allow the solids to collect on the surface of the garum.

A word about garum being “clear”.  On the internet, the quick recipes for “garum” all mention that the product should be “clear”.  This concern is based on the concept of turbidity and is a caution against growing microorganisms instead of facilitating the enzymatic digestion of fish.  With the quick production method, this may be an issue, but it is not if you go about it over a series of months.  Garum isn’t clear and will never be clear with manual filtration.  Even after four passes with coffee filters, if the garum is allowed to sit, a thin layer of scum forms on the top of it.  If this is disturbed, the whole solution will become cloudy, only to settle out when left to rest for several hours or overnight.  The best that garum will ever be is a beautifully translucent amber.  Greater clarity could be achieved with a centrifuge, but that is out of reach for most people, and certainly never occurred to the Carthaginians, Greeks or Romans.

Where do we go from here?  We keep on harvesting the garum.  First by letting the liquid drip out of the raw ferment and then by performing dilutions with water of the allec that remains from the first harvest.  Then comes the fun part.  We start making the various mixtures that have been handed down to us from the Romans – using sweet and dry wine must, water, honey and olive oil and a variety of different spices.  Then, well then, comes the cooking.  So stay tuned.  There will be much more to learn about garum in coming months.  (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Homemade Garum by Laura Kelley; Other images from Wikimedia).


Additional:  I will be hosting an ancient Roman cookoff during the month of April to explore the many uses of garum.  In this effort, I will be joined by Charles Perry, Ken Albala, Sally Grainger, Napa winemaker David Mahaffey, Roman Restaranteur Paolo Magnanimi and the lovely polymath, Deana Sidney from Lost Past Remembered.

Amphorae for Sage, Rosemary and Thyme – Not Wine!

Greek Amphora – 3rd Century BCE

With the help of DNA analysis, scientists are getting a present-day look at centuries-old trade in the Mediterranean. Such studies may help debunk some long-held assumptions, namely that the bulk of Greek commerce revolved around wine.

During the fifth through third centuries B.C., the Mediterranean and Black seas were major thoroughfares for ships loaded with thousands of amphorae, thought from their shape to contain wine. But only recently have researchers peered through the lens of 21st century genetics to identify the actual remnants of the jars’ long-disappeared cargo.

Analyses of DNA fragments from the interior of nine jars from Mediterranean shipwrecks now reveal various combinations of olive, grape, Lamiaceae herbs (mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage), juniper, and terebinth/mastic (genus Pistacia). General DNA targeting analyses also reveal the presence of pine (Pinus), and DNA from Fabaceae (Legume family); Zingiberaceae (Ginger family); and Juglandaceae (Walnut family).

The findings, reported in an upcoming Journal of Archaeological Science (Volume 39, Issue 2, February 2012, Pages 389-398), suggest that the ancient Greeks produced and traded a wide range of foods. The economy of the time was much more sophisticated than previously thought, says Brendan Foley, an archaeologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who coauthored the work with biologist Maria Hansson of Lund University in Sweden and colleagues at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism.  Some samples already await analysis and further studies are planned.

With this new information, scientists could reconstruct a more accurate picture of the crops being grown and the products changing hands when the world’s first complex economies were getting under way, possibly gaining clues to the agriculture, technologies, art and geopolitics that played into daily life. (Words by Laura kelley; Photo borrowed from

Cookoff Challenge #1 – Ancient Mesopotamian Cuisine

Calling all historians, linguists, anthropologists, foodies and anyone curious about the food of the Ancient Near East!  Come to the Ancient Mesopotamian Cuisine Cookoff Challenge!  Think of it like Iron Chef – Mesopotamian Style!  But instead of a theme ingredient, you have a list of ingredients without amounts or directions attached to them.  The only thing between you and a finished dish is your own culinary creativity.

There are two goals to the challenge: 1). Create dishes that could have been eaten in the ancient Near East or, 2.) create dishes for today that are inspired by ancient dishes.

Since amounts and specific types of ingredients are not specified, all but the mersu recipe (recipe 1) could produce soups, stews, braised dishes or roasts or other manner of culinary creation – you decide.

Based on the lists of ingredients posted below, which derive from the Yale Babylonian Culinary Tablets or from a couple of other sources, make a dish, photograph and describe it and give us the recipe and directions you used to create your dish.  The challenge runs from August 1st through September 30th and is open to any cook, amateur or professional who wants to try their hand at interpreting ancient food.  I will post all complete entries with full credit to the authors and cooks on a rolling basis. Multiple entries across the two month period are allowed and encouraged.

If you have questions about ingredients or recipes, please e-mail me at laurakelley AT silkroadgourmet DOT com.

Additions to recipes are allowed, but ought to be common ingredients – like salt or honey, or items that might have been available in the ancient Near East.  It is fine and encouraged to draw connections between ancient food and the food of related modern cuisines.  Please keep additions to the recipes to a minimum (not more than 4 or 5, less if possible).

The directions or methods for recipes are usually brief or absent in most Mesopotamian recipes, so feel free to improvise.

Recipe 1.  Mersu: ingredients – dates and pistachio nuts.  See this post for ideas or let your creativity run wild. Update: Additional ingredients from other “recipes” from Nippur to be used in a mix-and-match fashion include flour (nut, wheat or other) figs, raisins, minced apples, minced garlic, oil or butter, cheese (soft or hard), and wine (must syrup or pomace)

Recipe 2. Meat with Wild Licorice: ingredients – wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), asafoetida, garden cress (but possibly watercress), cumin, zest of citron, and water.  The recipe states to boil six liters of water with wild licorice and cook for a long time. Then it reads that the citron zest should be added and cooked until it is reduced to 1 liter. Then the liquid is strained and meat is added and cooked. (Notes 1 & 2)

Recipe 3. (Yale Babylonian Collection (YBC) 4464 – recipe XIX). Meat with Carob: Ingredients and method – Prepare water with fat, salt, shallots and semolina.  Mash garlic and leeks with yogurt or sour cream. Crush carob seeds.  Assemble ingredients in a pot. (Notes 3 – 5).

Recipe 4. (YBC 4464 – recipe XX). Mutton with Wild Licorice and Juniper: Ingredients and methods – Prepare water, fat and licorice root.  Add salt, juniper berries, shallots, semolina, cumin and coriander.  Mash the garlic and leeks with yogurt or sour cream. (Note 3)

Recipe 5. (YBC 4464 – recipe XXII). Lamb with Rye or Wheatberries: Ingredients and method – Prepare water and fat. Add salt, beer, shallots, arugula, coriander, semolina, cumin and cracked rye or wheatberries. Add mashed leeks and garlic. Finish with coriander and carrot or parsnip. (Note 6).

Recipe 6. (YBC 4464 – recipe XXIII). Lamb with Wheat (Couscous) and Mint: Ingredients and method:  Prepare water, add fat and couscous. Add semolina, coriander, cumin and yogurt or sour cream.  Assemble in the cooking vessel and sprinkle with crushed garlic.  Then blend in carrots or parsnips and mint.

Recipe 7. (YBC 4464 – recipe XXV). Turnips (or Roasted Barley) with herbs Ingredients and method: Prepare water, add fat, turnips (or roasted barley). Add a chopped mix of shallots, arugula, and coriander that have been mixed with semolina or other flour and moistened with blood. Cook until done. Add mashed leeks and garlic. (Notes 7-8)

Recipe 8. (YBC 8958 – recipe 1) Wild-Fowl Pie: Ingredients and method: Wild-fowl,
water, milk, salt fat, cinnamon, mustard greens, shallots, semolina, leeks, garlic, rye flour (or a mix), brine, roasted dill seeds, mint, wild tulip bulbs. (Method is for a store-bought bird. If a whole fresh or wild bird is used, see notes.) Salt birds inside and out and place in pot where water and milk has been warmed. When it comes to a boil add a mash of shallots, semolina, leeks, garlic and enough water to moisten the mash. Cook until the meat is soft enough to easily debone. When meat is done, remove from pot and let cool enough to handle. Lightly pan or oven roast some dill seeds. When done, remove from flame and set aside.

As bird is cooking, soak rye flour in enough milk to moisten and form into a ball. After the flour is formed into a ball, add some brine and knead dough until pliant. Divide dough in two and add roasted dill seed to one half and set aside. Take the part without the dill seed and form a lower crust that is several inches larger than the plate. Oil a pie plate or shallow casserole dish and line it with the lower crust. Add a layer of mint leaves.

Tear or shred meat from bones and add it over the layer of mint, mounding it towards the center. Add more mashed leek, garlic and wild tulip in a layer over the fowl. Add some more mint and roasted dill seed. Use top crust to cover meat and greens and seal tightly. (There are no instructions to prick the top crust, but I might do this). Butter or oil the top crust and cook in oven till done. Serve with bowls of broth the wild fowl cooked in. (Notes 9-12)

Recipe 9: (YBC 8958 – recipe 2) Pigeon with Herbs. Ingredients and method: Pigeon, salt, water, fat, vinegar, semolina, leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, yogurt or sour cream (see note 3), and “greens”. (Method is for a store-bought bird. If a whole fresh or wild bird is used, see note 6.) Salt the birds inside and out and place in a pot where water has been warmed along with some fat. Pound together leek, garlic, shallots, tulip bulb, semolina and yogurt or sour cream and as the water cooks down, add the pounded mixture to the pot.

When the bird is nearly cooked, remove from the pot and set aside.  When it is cool enough to touch outside and in, brush or sprinkle more vinegar on the bird, then rub it with garlic and greens.  Roast the bird over a very hot flame until done.  Carve birds and serve with sauce from the pot. (Notes 13 & 14)

Recipe 10: (YBC 8958 – recipe 7) Francolin Pot-Pie  Ingredients and method: Francolin or other wild fowl, vinegar, salt, mint, water, fat, cinnamon soaked in beer, mustard leaves, shallots, leeks, garlic, semolina, lightly drained yogurt or sour cream (see Note 3), rye flour, brine (optional ingredient to mix with the flour include ground pistachios) butter, kishk, beer (used to soak cinnamon from above), and honey (Method is for a store-bought bird. If a whole fresh or wild bird is used, see note 6.)  Sprinkle or brush the fowl liberally with vinegar. Then rub thoroughly inside and out with mixture of chopped mint and salt. Heat water in a pot and add salt and vinegar.  After it heats, add cinnamon and mustard leaves and prepared fowl. Cook until fowl is soft enough to be deboned easily.  Pound together the shallots, leeks, garlic semolina and lightly drained yogurt or sour cream.  As water cooks down, add the pounded vegetable and yogurt mixture.

As the francolin cooks, moisten the rye flour (and pistachios if using) with water and after it comes together into a ball add a little brine and knead until pliant.  Divide dough into two pieces. Make a thin layer of one piece of dough and line a bowl (asallu) with  it.  Bake in the oven until the dough bowl is cooked.  Shred meat from the bones of the francolin and set aside.

Mix kishk and beer that cinnamon had been soaked in.  Add francolin meat and leeks and garlic and mix well. Pour into the baked-dough bowl (still lining asallu). Top with butter and honey.  Make thin top crust and seal.  Cook in oven until done. (Notes 15 – 17)

Recipe 11: (JCS Vol. 29, No. 3): Ninda-gal, Bread with Onion Seeds, Sumac and Saffron:
Ingredients and method: Spelt flour; semolina, a coarse mixture of onion seeds, sumac and saffron and salt. No directions for water or milk are included, but obviously moisture is needed. Many different shapes of bread are possible.  If it were a flatbread, it could be a large, injera-type bread on which other food items are placed. Sigrist does specify that it is a “large bread”. Alternatively, it could be a cured sourdough, allowed to rise, akin to a large modern loaf.  (Notes 18 & 19)


Regular visitors to this site know that I disagree with many of the published translations and analyses of the food represented in the culinary tablets and have done some research on the issue myself to suggest alternatives to the endless lists of broth and onion dishes offered by langauge scholars (like Bottero) and their derivatives (like Kaufman and others).

For those of you new to this blog, a post on the two recipes known before the Yale Babylonian Tablets (mersu and “court boullion”) can be found here, and a more recent one looking at a few of the Yale recipes can be found over on the beautiful site, Lost Past Remembered.  A growing lexicon of words that either fill in the gaps left in the translations, or, I believe correct some of the linguistic and culinary errors made by earlier authors can be found here.

This challenge will be a lot of fun if a whole bunch of different types of people participate.  If I get time, I’ll post a few more recipes with my interpretations included – so stay tuned, warm up the stove and get the pans out for this cookoff challenge. (Words by Laura Kelley).


1.) A word about “meat”.  The Mesopotamians had all manner of domesticated and wild meat available to them.  Sheep and goats were consumed when older and their fat harvested, but they were primarily used as milk producers when young.  Other meat came from cattle, bison and oxen as well as from wild game. Wild and domesticated and fowl and fish of many sorts were also enjoyed.  The form or cut of meat is usually not specified in most recipes so, you decide whether it is a roast, a stew, a soup or a braised shank etc.

2.) The zest of citron is the best possibility for the ingredient ukus-hab. It makes descriptive, culinary, cultural and geographical sense and isn’t poisonous like the colocynth or too easily overwhelmed like cucumber – both of which were suggested by Bottero.  It is possible that it is colocynth seed – which is still commonly used in African foods today and is related to the watermelon seed enjoyed in Levantine cuisines.

3.) When yogurt or sour cream is used, it is lightly drained to remove excess water and concentrate the sour flavor of the yogurt – like an Afghan chaka.  One way to drain the yogurt is to filter it though a clean drip-type coffee filter (not an automatic coffee maker).

4.) The type of fat is unspecified but could be rendered animal fat, butter or any number of oils.  When cooking a Lamb and Carob Stew based on Recipe 3, for example I used a light sesame oil called gingelly now commonly used in Indian cuisine.  I like gingelly because of its high burn point, so its good for browning and braising dishes, and because it was known to Mesopotamians as well.

5.) The manner of semolina is not specified, but I used couscous in the Lamb and Carob Stew, and I cooked mine (soaked/steamed) separately.  Feel free to experiment with the type used and the manner or preparation.

6.) Yogurt or sour cream are not listed in this recipe, but are usually mashed with leeks and garlic. Try it with or without.

7.) There are two accepted meanings for laptu – either turnip as Bottero chose or roasted barley – depending upon the context. I wanted to bring the possibility of roasted barley into play because the dish could either be a vegetable or a barley pilaf, depending on which meaning of laptu one chose. I think it might be an interesting recipe with a wide variety of root vegetables known at the time.

8.) I don’t expect the amount of blood used to be very large. Many, modern cultures add the blood of a just slaughtered animal into a dish for “flavor”. it should be just enough to moisten the herbs and flour. Ancient Mesopotamians were omnivores, not vampires.

9.) If a fresh, whole fowl is used, it is plucked and singed. The head and feet are discarded. The innards (gizzard, intestines) are washed well, then cooked in a pot of water to further clean them. Then they are rinsed in cold water until fully clean. Once clean, these can be added to the pie for flavor.

10.) The type of wild fowl is not specified. Anything from quail to pigeon to game hen or anything in between would work. The recipe does specify that the birds are “small”.

11.) Cinnamon is a best choice for “aromatic bark”. Although native to Sri Lanka, it would have been known to the Mesopotamians through contact with Egypt which was major consumer of the spice. I will be continuing to do research on this to see if there are other alternatives, but for now, cinnamon is the best choice.

12.) Bottero called this ingredient “rue” which makes a little culinary sense, but when you research all the uses for sibburattu, mustard is a better fit. It lends a peppery flavor, it can be used to treat the ailments specified and its seed is also used in cooking. Rue seeds are generally not good for you and are mildly hallucinogenic. See lexicon form more info.

13.) The type of bird is specified as an amursanu-pigeon, but any fowl will do nicely.

14.) The type of greens is not specified, so you can experiment.  I might try, cilantro, mint, sage etc. Pick herb flavors that will complement not struggle against the other flavors in the dish.

15.) The recipe specifies a francolin, which now persist only in Africa.  I’ve seen quite a few of them in South Africa and they range in size from a pheasant to a female turkey.  A medium-size wild fowl of any type will do.

16.) Kishk is a powdery cereal of bulgur (cracked wheat) fermented with milk and (yoghurt). Milk, yogurt and bulgur are mixed well together and allowed to ferment for nine days. Each morning the mixture is thoroughly kneaded with the hands. When fermentation is complete the kishk is spread on a clean cloth to dry. Finally it is rubbed well between the hands until it is reduced to a powder and then stored in a dry place.  Kishk is commonly used throughout Western Asian, the Levant and Arabian Peninsula and is available at Persian and Levantine markets.

17.) Asallu is a bowl made of metal or stone.  It is deep, unlike the shallow, makaltu pie-plate used in the Pigeon-Pie recipe.  A casserole or similar vessel will do.

18.) Hisiltu has two meanings, coarsely ground flour and a coarsely ground spice mixture. With the use of spelt and semolina, It could be that the spelt is of a more coarse variety.  Alternatively, the word could refer to to the preparation of the spices for the bread.

19.) Kamaamtu is probably Rhus coriaria or sumac. It is a word borrowed from Sumerian. References In French, Russian and English all noted that this was a “vegetable”. An old German text equated it with Rhus coraria.

Making Garum – The Traditional Way

I said we were going to do it in the original post on garum. And so we have. Our attempt to make garum the traditional, slow way has officially begun. Fifteen pounds of fresh, whole Norwegian mackerel, and about nine pounds of sea salt have been combined in a clean, sturdy, sealable, 5-gallon painter’s bucket. And now we wait, and let the heat and humidity turn it into a delicious amber liquid to enhance the flavor of the savory dishes we eat.

Prepping it was a lot of fun. I caused a run on Norwegian mackerel at the East Asian Market, with two other customers buying large amounts of the same species after I did. I also caused a bit of confusion in the staff when I told them not to clean the fish for me. They smiled and nodded and asked me three more times how I wanted it processed and I reassured them that I needed the fish whole, head and tail on, lightly rinsed. When I explained that I was going to make fish sauce, the manager stared at me for a moment and politely reminded me of the many varieties of fish and shrimp sauces and pastes they had in aisle seven.

My son helped me prepare the fish, which included only a good wash down and cutting them in two with the biggest knife he had ever held. He thought the fish were beautiful with their blue striped iridescent backs, and was only a little put off if a bit of blood flowed out of the gills during washing. He’s excellent at salting as well, and made sure there was a flat white layer of sea salt in between each layer of fish.

Making Garum – The Traditional Way

It was really quite simple to do and not all that messy, because the fish was very fresh. I consulted a lot of historical sources for recipes and wound up going on instinct influenced by knowledge of modern production of colatura where opaque layers of salt separate the layers of fish.

The painter’s bucket is much more airtight than a wooden barrel or a terra cotta pot, so there is no need to coat the inside surface with anything.  I also chose to produce the garum without herbs – figuring that these can be introduced later after the garum is harvested.

So far, there is absolutely no odor around the bucket, but that may change as the digestive enzymes start to break down the rest of the fish. Then stirring becomes important. We have a lot of wild animals in our area and I am interested to see what they make of this as time – and fermentation – goes on.

One thing I found most interesting was that I used as much salt as I found necessary to completely cover the layers of fish along with a final layer that has got to be about an inch thick.  Now, recipes of garum vary widely and call for a ratio of fish to salt ranging between 5:1 to 1:1.  Generally, I’m a bit salt phobic.  I never use as much salt as prescribed to make preserved lemons for North African and Andalusian cooking, and they always turn out just fine. Likewise, my Subcontinental vegetable and fruit pickles and my Kim Chee (and other Korean pickles) are also low on salt – and they turn out just fine as well. Much more tasty than store bought, without the high sodium and citric acid to burn one’s mouth. When making garum, on the other hand, I used quite a bit.  Its a bit unusual for me, but let’s hope that instinct sees me through on this.

The plan is, first, to compare slow garum with a “fast” method utilizing a yogurt maker or crock pot. Then if we get good product, I’m going to make a whole variety of garums like the Romans would have used – oenogarum – garum mixed with different wines, another preparation mixing garum with must; oxygarum – garum mixed with vinegar and meligarum – garum mixed primarily with honey. I also hope to try several different herbal recipes used to flavor the garum for different foods. So, stay tuned – updates will be posted as add-ons to this post. (Words and photos of garum making by Laura Kelley; garum by Laura Kelley and son.)


The Garum Diaries

June 28/Day 3:  There is a fishy odor when the container is unsealed, but the surface is still salty white.  We are happy that the odor is fishy and not a rotten smell – we take that to be a good sign.  The salt is damp to the touch.  A quick probe down into the bucket shows a lot of liquid about 3-4 inches down.  The fish are intact and show no sign of decay.  The liquid is tan to light brown in color.  Fish and salt are packed in tight and the container resealed for a few more days.

July 1/Day 7: The surface salt is wet and “mushy” in a couple of places. Clearly, the amount of liquid is increasing in the container. No bad smell even when unsealed, it just smells fishy like a fish counter in a market.

July 9/Day 15:  The surface of the salt is a little bit wet across the entire face of the bucket.  A couple of areas have an amber-colored stain on them – probably areas where I pressed the salt down to draw liquid on the last check.  Not stirrable, yet.  No bad smell even when unsealed, it just smells fishy like a fish counter in a market.  A number of toads congregating nearby – I wonder if the odor is drawing them near.

July 17/Day 23:  Clearish liquid up to an inch deep on one half of the container.  Salt is stained light amber almost across the whole surface.  Fish is still quite solid beneath the surface.  I think if I stopped the process now, rinsed and gutted the fish and dried it part way, it would be “salted fish” as in “salted fish with chicken and chive flowers”.  Not stirrable, though liquid is building on the surface.  Odor is mild as in previous posts.  No signs of wild beasties nearby.

July 24/Day 30:  Light amber liquid building up on surface of salt.  Salt is stirrable and beginning to dissolve to 3-4 inches down.  Fish feels harder than before as if the liquid is seeping out of it.  We stirred only the surface and then packed it down hard and resealed the bucket.  Odor is mild as in previous posts and cannot be detected at all until unsealed.  The recent high temperatures (over 100 F) have been helping the process along nicely.

July 30/Day 36:  What a difference a week makes!  The salt was moist and colored tan to amber and covered with a layer of clear and amber liquid a couple of inches deep.  I stirred the bucket from top to bottom and there was a lot of liquid down below that is now distributed more evenly throughout the bucket.  The smell is mild, again like a fish counter in a market.  This is because the fish isn’t rotting, it is digesting itself.  After stirring, the bucket was mostly liquid with fish in it – it is no longer hard packed in salt. We resealed the bucket and will wait another few days to a week.

Garum 8-7-2011

August 7/Day 44: Salt is largely dissolved into a tan to light brown liquid. Fish are soft and parts are dissolving as well. After breaking up residual salt on the bottom, bucket is roughly stirrable with a long broom handle. The odor is still mild. We try to get as much of the fish below the surface of the liquid as we can and reseal for another few days to a week. The plan is to play this out till the end of September and then see if the product is harvestable.

September 17/Day 85:  We’re still at it.  There is simply not a lot of change to report.  When it is still, it is quite liquid, and then after stirring, it is more of a mush as the fish and salt get broken up.  Still no severe smell.  Not sure now if we are going to stop it yet, or let it continue on for a few more months.

Culinary History Mystery #4: The Origins of Tea in Burma

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river . . .
And she feeds you tea and oranges
that come all the way from China . . .

I grew up hearing Leonard Cohen croon these words over and over. Telling perhaps about my age and background, but important as an introduction to the history of tea as well. As a global drink, that came out of Asia and is now enjoyed in different forms worldwide, the history of tea is important to the Silk Road, and to understanding the history of Old World trade in general. And everyone – including Leonard Cohen – knows it comes from China, right?

Well, it turns out that the answer to that last question is really a lot more complex than it seems.

There is so much scholarship on the history of tea. And yet, almost all of it omits an important part of the story, namely that wild tea, or the closest thing that we have to it today is native to Burma.

Tea Leaves – Freshly Picked

The common belief is that the Chinese invented tea brewing around 2700 BCE when leaves drifted on the wind into a cup of hot water near to where the legendary Emperor Shen Nung was sitting. He drank the liquid in the cup, took a liking to it, and tea-drinking began. This is a myth – the sort of exotic tale that traders used to tell about the dangers of the spice harvest to drive up the price of goods. There is little evidence to support this story as the origin of tea brewing, and lots of information to refute it. In 1200 BCE there is another reference to tea-drinking at the royal court of King Wen, but no information about what sort of leaf, flower or bark was used to brew the tea – at best, a shaky data point with more interpretation than information value associated with it.

Around 350 ACE we have two solid pieces of information to document the use of tea in China as a medicine. The first is in an update of an ancient Chinese dictionary known as the Erh ya revised by Kuo Po. In this the drinking of tea as a medicinal beverage is clearly described as are the details about the plant and leaves. Geographical information about where the plants grow is also offered and lovely touches like how many men’s armspans the tea-tree trunks are. Clearly, this is tea and not a brewed beverage made from some other sort of plant. Slightly later in that century, there is documentation about the transport and planting of large numbers of tea plants from Yunnan to Szechuan Provinces – the likely beginnings of mass cultivation. Tea drinking as a medicinal beverage and the use of its flavor for culinary use grew in popularity over the next few centuries in China until Lu Yu’s Tea Classic (Ch’a Ching) is published in 780 ACE. So, there is a solid, documented history of tea drinking in China for at least 1700 years.

I’ve always been the sort to peek behind doors and curtains when I walk into a room, and yes, I always surreptitiously opened my gifts before Christmas morning when I was a kid. So for me, the less documented part of the tea-use story is the most fascinating part. If there is a mystery, I love to get digging.

It turns out that indigenous peoples in Burma and Assam (northeast India) pick young tea leaves and brew them, and they have done this for as long as anyone can remember. In other words it is not a learned activity from the neighboring Chinese or from western colonists. On a small scale, before the colonials, these same indigenous people also engaged in cultivation of tea with each family group growing subsistence levels for personal consumption. Additionally, many of these peoples carry tea seeds with them when moving from one settlement to another – indicating the importance of the plant to them.

Pu’er Tea Brick Tang Horse

Burmese cuisine also claims six flavors: sour, bitter, salty, astringent, sweet and spicy. And yes, you guessed right if you knew that the principal “astringent” flavor was represented by tea.

In addition to drinking brewed tea leaves, the Burmese also eat the pickled leaves as a vegetable. Their Laphet Thote which some of you may have enjoyed is a “salad” of fresh fermented tea leaves, lime juice, peanuts, sesame seeds, chili peppers, pounded shrimp and a bit of sugar. Bok choy or other vegetables are often added to extend the dish, or it can be eaten prepared en seul as specified above. Flavorwise, the ingredients read much like Burmese Tamarind Leaf Salad, but the tea leaves add a tremendous pucker factor to the dish that tamarind leaves do not offer – hence its importance in the Burmese flavor pantheon as an astringent. According to state statistics, pickled tea for use as a food (not a beverage) accounted for almost 20% of all tea consumption in Burma in 2006-2007. Laphet thote also has great ceremonial significance in Burma and as such is an important part of food for festivals, holidays and weddings.

Ground or pulverized tea leaves or the use of tea-beverage itself are also used as flavorings from China (tea eggs, to flavorings for soup, vegetable dishes and spring rolls) to Pakistan (a flavoring for chickpeas and other pulses). But to my knowledge, the direct mass consumption or fresh fermented or pickled tea leaves is uniquely Burmese.

Tea leaves are also chewed for a stimulant effect (not unlike betel, tobacco and coca) in Burma, Laos and Thailand and miang production is an important rural industry. Leaves are steamed, wrapped into individual bundles then packed into containers and weighted down. They are then covered with banana leaves. Young leaves are fermented for a few days to a week and mature leaves are fermented for as long as a year.

Pu’er Tea Medallion

So, a survey of other indigenous and national practices in the countries bordering western China’s Yunnan province – popularly noted as the birthplace of tea – show us that tea drinking and the eating or chewing of tea leaves takes place in nearby Burma and Laos and also is evident in Assam and in Thailand. What this suggests is that tea drinking and eating is probably ancient across the entire region and not something that is uniquely Chinese.

Modern molecular systematics also suggests an ancient regional use of tea. A study done by a team of researchers from China and Japan (Phytochemistry 71 (2010) 1342–1349) have used the phytochemicals in tea to create a “family tree” of different tea species and varieties called a dendrogram.

Backtracking a bit about species and varities, Camellia sinensis is the plant that modern tea is harvested from. This has two modern subspecies or varieties, var. sinensis and var. assamica. As you may have guessed, var. sinensis is found mostly in China, with some spread to bordering areas to the west and south, and var. assamica grows from Assam through Burma and into western China where altitude and precipitation favor its growth.

The earliest large-scale production of tea in China was in the form of easily transportable tea “bricks” and was made from C. sinensis var. assamica leaves. Pu’er tea is still made from the same plants and sold in brick form to this day. Chemosystematic analysis of several of the polyphenols from almost 100 tea species or varieties by the Chinese-Japanese research team indicate that the closest “wild” ancestor to these assamica leaves comes from the area near Dali, China and is often referred to as Dianmien tea. The tea species this represents is Camellia irrawadiensis – which is native to Burma, Laos and western China.

So a history of tea is indeed complex and made more so by the repetition of myths and legends. But there is also the value of indigenous practices versus mass cultivation and consumer trade to consider, and the importance of the value of oral history versus the published word at play as well. Modern science is throwing its hat into the ring and is helping to unravel this tangled skein of tea tales. More stories from the Tea-Horse Road and the “discovery” of tea by western colonialists will follow on a periodic basis. (Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photos of modern Pu’er tea bricks borrowed from Google images).

Culinary History Mystery #3: Garum and Nuoc Mam

A post about how Garum and Nuoc Mam are related through a west-to-east technology flow.

You heard it here first folks: Over the course of the next six months or so, the kitchens of Chez Kelley are going to make the fish sauce of the ancients or garum. More accurately, we are going to compare easy or quick methods with traditional outdoor fermentation. If we haven’t been run out of the neighborhood, we will report our results in an end of summer post.

Asian and Italian Fish Sauce

I’ve been interested in making my own garum for a while now, and have a few traditional and modern recipes in hand to try. For those of you not familiar with this culinary wonder of the ancient world, it is a magical, translucent amber liquid that results from the fermentation of salted fish. When used with a heavy hand, the sauce understandably lends a fishy flavor to foods. When used with a lighter touch, it imparts a subtle, undeniably savory quality to dishes that is nothing short of absolutely delicious.

Interestingly, modern science has shown that analysis of remnants from ancient garum production from Pompeii has shown a pattern of free amino acids high in free glutamate followed by sweet-tasting glycine and alanine. These amino acid patterns are similar in modern Italian fish sauce (colatura di alici) and in some modern Asian fish sauces.

Importantly, fish sauce doesn’t appear in Asia until well into the period known as the Early Middle Ages in Europe, almost 1,000 years after its documented use in the west. Its use in China and Japan diminishes after about the 14th Century ACE, because of the rise of soy sauces, but in Southeast Asia, fish sauce use remains strong to the present day. Umami is as savory does.

A Garum Production Site Near Cadiz

Like salt-baked fish, garum production started with the Phoenicians in Carthage who controlled the Mediterranean salt trade from Spain and Morocco across Europe and North Africa to the Levant and well into Western Africa. The largest installations in the western Mediterranean was located at Lixus, on the Atlantic coast of Mauretania (Morocco), with another one in New Carthage (Cartegena) in southern Spain. Spanish garum was renowned as being of the highest quality and was traded widely across the ancient world. The Black Sea (Euxine) was another prominent area for the production of garum. Pompeii was the home of a major garum processing industry. Here, the liquid from already fermented fish was diluted and flavored with a wide variety of substances including wine, must, vinegar, honey and multiple herbs and spices.

The earliest mention of garum fish sauce is to be found in the agricultural writings of the Carthaginian Mago which was translated into Latin after the Third Punic War, but composed probably in the 6th or 5th Century BCE around the time of the rule of Magon (550-530 BCE). Cato the Elder mentions the trade of “Carthaginian fish sauce” in the 2nd Century BCE, and later descriptions can be found in The Deipnosophistae (The Philosopher’s Dining Table) by Athenaeus, I. 4b; II. 67f, c (3rd Century ACE). Athenaeus also mentions the remains of garum or liquamen production called allec which is not unlike the anchovy paste still used in Mediterranean cooking today.

Many different fish were used to make garum or liquamen in the ancient Mediterranean world with Tuna used during their seasonal migrations past Spain and Morocco, and mackerel, sardines and especially anchovies used during other times of the year. In fact, the remains of seasonally available fish from garum processing jars at Pompeii was the way that archaeologists confirmed the August date of the eruption of Vesuvius. Anchovies form the backbone of Asian fish sauce production for export, but many other local salt-water and inland fresh-water fish and shellfish are used for local and regional consumption.

Garum Amphorae from the Pompeii Pottery

The production of garum and Asian fish sauce is virtually the same as well. Fresh fish and salt in some proportion (recipes vary widely from 5:1 to 2:1) are layered in barrels, clay pits or earthenware crocks. Because of their large size, tuna were cut up before fermenting to prevent putrefaction, but most fish – especially the small species are processed whole and intact. In Rome, oregano and other herbs were added at the production phase for both flavor and to suppress bacterial overgrowth, but this step is largely omitted in the production of Asian sauces. The vats are then left to ferment – sometimes covered or sometimes uncovered (Carthaginian and Roman) in the heat and stirred every few days to a week to ensure even enzymatic digestion of the fish.

Basically the digestive enzymes of the very fresh fish digest themselves. The period of time the fish are allowed to digest varies widely between ancient west and modern Asian production, but it ranges from about 3 months to almost 1 year. As the fish ferments and decreases in bulk, bricks or a weighted bamboo mat is placed on top of the mass and presses down on the fish. When completed, the vats are siphoned from the bottom, or drainage holes opened in the bottom and the liquid is allowed to drain out. Multiple simple filtrations later, and the translucent amber fluid begins to emerge. In both east and west, the first draft is considered the highest quality sauce. Lastly the fluid is diluted with water to different degrees for culinary use. As stated above, the fish paste that remains after the garum or fish sauce is withdrawn is also used in the kitchen.

Ancient Romans flavored their garum extensively. For example, one recipe for oenogarum is a 1:1 dilution of garum with must from sweet white wine. This basic recipe can be augmented with both vinegar and pepper, or with crushed garlic, vinegar and salt. Other recipes have garum mixed with red wine must, vinegar, mint, coriander and honey. Commonly used herbs to flavor garum included dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano – depending on what the garum was going to be used for. Oxygarum was garum diluted primarily with vinegar and meligarum was garum cut primarily with honey. Modern Italians combine the basic colatura with herbs and other flavors during the cooking process, but generally don’t flavor the fish sauce directly. For example, I cooked a pasta dish last night that had colatura, garlic, lemon zest, capers, chives and parsley in an extra-virgin olive oil base – it was divine.

Making Colatura and Nuoc Mam

Like the Ancient Romans, modern Asians use prepared fish sauce a lot. Vietnamese nuoc mam cham is a great example of this. Recipes for nuoc mam cham (or just nuoc cham) vary a great deal from region to region (and from family to family) but generally have some combination of nuoc mam, lime juice, garlic, chili peppers, rice vinegar and oftentimes sugar. There is also nuoc mam gung in which ginger and peanut or sesame oil is used to flavor the nuoc mam along with lime juice and chilis. The Cambodian tuk trey has similar ingredients to nuoc cham, but adds pounded peanuts to the mix. The Japanese shottsuru mixes fermented fish sauce with malted rice for a darker, deeper fish sauce and in the Philippines; people use calamansi citrus or lemon and pepper to flavor their fish sauce patis.

So, once again, we can identify a product that flowed from west to east and was eagerly adopted by Asians on the Silk Road. The recipes for garum changed and adapted as they moved east and became nuoc mam and nam pla according to cultural preferences and what gifts the Asian seas had to offer. Archaeologists and food scientists are working to confirm these flows and linkages, so stay tuned to this channel to learn more about garum production in the ancient world and in the kitchen of Chez Kelley.

Right now, I’ve got to run, my husband is preparing a rocking Parsi salad with fresh turmeric, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and lime juice that smells incredible! (Words and Photo of Garum Amphorae from the Pompeii Pottery by Laura Kelley; photo of Modern Asian and Italian Fish Suaces from commercial culinary sites; Garum Production Facility near Cadiz, Spain from Wikimedia, and the photos of colatura and nuoc mam production from google images).