Variation in Roman Cooking: The Tale of the Cucumber and the Melon

This post recounts the results of an experiment that took place recently between me and my husband.  In the Apician cookbook there are two recipes very close together that can be used for either cucumbers or melons:


Ingredients are listed, but no amounts are offered. My husband, who is also a good cook, wanted to join me in the cookoff.  So I proposed using our different takes on the cucumber-melon Apician recipe to demonstrate the role of variation in Roman cooking.  We cooked our dishes separately, and did not compare notes until after the experiment was over. Interestingly, we came up with radically different dishes based on the same ancient recipe.  The results follow:


Apician Cucumbers by Laura Kelley
This is a slightly sour starter salad or condiment in a large meal that has the unusual flavor of red wine must and vinegar as the main flavors.  The pennyroyal sweetens the mixture just a bit and the asafetida adds a bit of depth.  The garum of course is the umami factor for this unusual combination of flavors.

1-2 large western cucumbers (or multiple smaller Asian ones)

3 teaspoons dried, shredded pennyroyal
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black peppercorns
2 tablespoons beef broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3-4 teaspoons reduced red wine *
4 teaspoons garum
1-2 pinches asafetida (optional)

Apician Cucumbers by Laura Kelley


Prepare the dressing by whisking all of the ingredients together in a shallow bowl or cup.  If you are sensitive to textures, you may wish to grind the pennyroyal into a powder.  Peel, deseed and cut the cucumbers crosswise.   Pour dressing over the cucumbers and mix well.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.  When about to serve, add the asafetida if desired, and mix well.  Serve cool, not cold or at room temperature.

* Reduced wine or must is very simple to make.  For reduced wine, simply heat wine to a near boil, then turn down the flame to low or medium low and cook very gently – stirring often – until light syrup is formed.  For reduced must, use procedure above on commercially available 100% grape juice – unless you live near a vineyard and can get a large amount of fresh must.  Best if prepared at least one day before cooking and allowed to fully cool before using.  Stores for months if refrigerated in a sterilized, sealed glass jar. 1.5 liters of wine makes about ¼ to 1/3 cup of must.  (Reduced wine and must carry a wallop of sweet and sour flavor and should be used cautiously, or they will easily overpower and recipe.)


Apician Melons by Stephen Kelley
This melon recipe is surprisingly sweet given the addition of so much white vinegar.  It provides a delicious and remarkable dessert or sweet snack of melons flavored in an unusual way – with sweet pennyroyal and lots of black pepper.  Best when served cool or room temperature – but not cold.

½ honeydew melon
½ cantaloupe

3 teaspoons dried, shredded pennyroyal
2½ teaspoons coarsely ground black peppercorns
6 teaspoons white vinegar
6 teaspoons reduced white wine
4 teaspoons garum

Apician Melons by Stephen Kelley

Prepare the dressing by whisking all of the ingredients together in a shallow bowl or cup.  If you are sensitive to textures, you may wish to grind the pennyroyal into a powder.  Peel, deseed and dice the melons and mix them together.   Pour dressing over the melons and mix well.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.  Serve cool, not cold or at room temperature.


First off, let me say that both dishes were delicious. We were both surprised to see what different dishes we made from the same list of ingredients. As you can see, to some degree, our preconceived notions about what to do with the main ingredient greatly influenced our choices.  Working with the cucumber, I went for a more sour, salad-like dish, and my husband went the dessert route becasue he was working with melons.

We both used reduced wine instead of reduced must (which would usually be slightly sweeter) or honey because that is what we had on hand.

We were also impressed by the absence of any fish flavor on the vegetables and fruits despite a fair amount of garum added to each dressing. I am not a big fan of dishes with a strong flavor of alcohol in them and particulary dislike rum cakes and tipsy parsons. That said, however, the rich flavor of reduced wine on the cucumbers and melons was fantastic and I urge you to try it.

Those of you who follow this blog will know that I pay a lot of attention to variation in Asian “recipes” many of which are offered as rudimentary lists of ingredients, just as the Roman recipe above. To sum up some of the posts I’ve written on variation, which are available here and here, I’d note that most of the rest of the world doesn’t care about the uniformity that so many in the west desire.

For example, many recipes in Central or Western Asia are given with the ingredient, “greens”. Most of the time this could be cilantro, parsley, tarragon, dill or even one of the savories – the varying balance of which could drastically change the flavor of a dish. A modern western version of such a recipe would, on the other hand, report the exact amounts of the herbs needed and the form in which to add them. This would lead to a single taste for the recipe, instead of a range of variation. A loss, indeed.

When Asians without formal culinary training are queried about how much of an herb is needed in a recipe, most don’t even understand the question. They shrug and say something like, “however much you wish”.

I find it interesting that many Roman recipes work like many modern Asian ones. We found out in the Mesopotamian cookoff that some dishes – like mersu – could take on many different forms by mixing and matching ingredients according to the diners likes and dislikes, wishes of the cook, their skills, and what they had on hand. Both ancient and modern recipes are part of the legacy of the Silk Road which still influences our world today. (Words by Laura Kelley; Recipes by Stephen and Laura Kelley as noted, and Photographs of the Apician Cucumbers and Melons by Laura Kelley).

A Beautiful Mistake on a Winter’s Day

February Snowstorm

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 . . . As the moments of the storm pass, the snow piles up like a Fibonacci sequence – each hour a layer falls deeper than the one already on the ground. Yesterday morning, when we were on the snow vigil waiting for the snow to begin, my son mistook the small birds flitting around the edge of the wood for snowflakes. Birds mistook for snowflakes – what a beautiful mistake! Then I got to thinking about how science has a long line of beautiful mistakes – proportionality of the human form, spectral indigo, Mediterranean sailors finding the New World during their search for Asia. In each case, the discovery came about because a desire to prove a long-held belief overpowered objective observation and slanted the outcome. Then I started to wonder how much desire and belief fuel discovery and achievement and the answer I came up with surprised me: they are in large part, the basis for many of the breakthroughs and innovations in history. Then I began to think about how much desire effects perception and the acquisition of knowledge itself and I thought it time for a hot bath – the place I go to really mull things through.

On the way there, I spied three crows fighting over some suet in the yard and remembered a scene from my childhood of my mother frantically trying to sweep blood off the snow in the backyard. Years ago, during a blizzard like the one I’m in now, a red-tailed hawk swept into our backyard and killed a bird eating spilt seed from the feeder. My mother was a friend and protector of winter birds and was mortified by the hawk meticulously ripping one of her birds to shreds to fill his hungry belly. She raced outside and chased the hawk off with a broom and tossed its kill into the woods. Then she began to sweep the blood off the snow, but as in the Cat in the Hat, the sweeping just made the relatively small red stain into a giant pink one. I can still see her stooped over the broom, pausing to wipe away her tears – of sadness, of defiance, of frustration. Eventually, she got a shovel and placed clean, white snow over the stain and tamped it down to form a new hard surface. The point of story is that if she didn’t see the blood on the snow, it was as if the event had never happened. Sort of like what happened in that Scottish play.

Buddhists reject the influence of desire, saying that it clouds judgment and keeps us from knowing the truth. They caution that overreliance on the senses brings suffering through the action of desire. On average, most modern scientists would say the same thing. They pride themselves on their objectivity and ability to observe and detect patterns with an unclouded mind. But how objective are we really? Everything we do and see is influenced by the knowledge, theory that has come before us. It is also shaped by our individual senses and experience. The more one peels the layers of scientific objectivity, the less objective one finds it to actually be.

Its interesting to note that Francis Bacon wrote at a time when science and the age of discovery was beginning to become adversarial to the power of western religious thought – or at least the European church was beginning to think so. None of the Iraqi, Persian or early European scientific thinkers before him had to contend with a powerful religious authority that was steadily growing suspect of the products of empirical thought. Perhaps this was the birth of the polemic world I grew up in? The one in which science and scientific observation was thought to be at odds with belief.

Our constant rejection of belief in the pursuit of scientific truth has had several consequences. First off, it makes questioning the accepted “results” of those who have come before us more difficult than it needs to be, subsequently squelching innovation. Two, it has led us to the reductionist quagmire we are currently stuck in, which has led to a total loss of the “big picture”. We haven’t just lost the forest for the trees; we’ve lost the forest for the structure of the xylem and the phloem. I am well acquainted with this last problem because I am often called upon to remedy it, to explain what something ‘means’ to someone who can act upon the content.

Perhaps the quest for empirical truth isn’t about listing characteristics or phenomena and then “eliminating the impossible”, and it’s not about moving stepwise from truthful premise to logical consequence. Perhaps it is the driving desire to discover a new truth or the belief in the predicted outcome that fuels many scientists to new discoveries is an important part of the process? Perhaps focused passion is an unacknowledged part of a lot of major discoveries and advances?

Of course along with beautiful mistakes, science has its share of amazing accidents as well, like the discovery of penicillin. On the other hand, however, perhaps considering that breakthrough an accident at all is colored by a European, Judeo-Christian background? Would perhaps a Muslim scholar, culturally accustomed to the concept of progressive revelation, perceive that God had simply chosen that moment to reveal the power of antibiotics to Fleming? Like Ben Kenobi said, “It all depends upon one’s point of view. . .”

So, what has all this got to do with the Silk Road and food? Everything and nothing is the best answer I can muster. So much of what is accepted knowledge about the Silk Road and its origins is at best a partial truth. The part of the Silk Road that everyone knows – the northern land route across the Eurasian expanse – was in reality just one tiny fragment of a network of routes that moved commodities and cultures across vast steppes and oceans. The impact of all this mixing was profound and has shaped the world we live in today. The lack of appreciation of the historical importance of the Silk Road is due in part to us blindly trusting in the certainty of past scholarship, and something a bit more insidious – the need to make our own time the great time of cosmopolitanism and globalization. These days, it’s hard to imagine how the nutmeg trade in the Indo-Pacific could have determined which nation colonized New York, but it did. Next time you visit the spice isle at the local market, realize that men fought and died for these hundreds of years ago. Seems a bit careless to take all that for granted, doesn’t it?

As to food, what does such a sensual topic as the culinary arts have to do with the unacknowledged importance of belief and desire in the ‘objective’ pursuit of knowledge? You know the answer already: everything and nothing. I’ve written before on the artificial uniformity that western cookbook writers have imposed on the art of the Asian kitchen. In the essay “Viva Variation”, I questioned whether the western need for precise description of ingredients and measures is just a fundamental difference between the written and the oral traditions. Generally speaking, a western cook wants to know that she needs 25 sprigs of cilantro (not dill, parsley or mint) that are diced as opposed to chopped or minced. A cook from Western or Central Asia is more likely to say simply, “add greens”. The choice of green and the amount are up to you and your tastes and what you have on hand. The differences between these two approaches to food preparation are not trivial. The western cook’s scientific precision is devoid of her own desire to shape the flavor of the dish by choosing a type and amount of green and how it is prepared. The average home cook doesn’t go in for too much variation. Variation is only attempted by experienced cooks, trained chefs and food artisans. So, in that example, its not only the cultural biases towards precision that have squelched individual innovation, it is also the effects of professionalization and commercialization of food on those left to cook at home.

The act of knowing and the quest for innovation are things that science and the culinary arts share, so points made about the tyranny of past thinkers and the color of theory all apply to food and to those who prepare it. Statements made about reductionist quagmires might also be true in some instances as well. Whether you agree with me on that might depend on how fond of foams and gels you are.

In closing, I guess I hope that scientists and cooks let a little more belief and desire into their journeys. The empirical approach needs tempering with less tangible energies in both pursuits. We are not automatons, we are infinitely more complex, and I bet if we approach innovation with more of our whole selves, the results will be really great. Then again, they might just lead us to some beautiful mistakes. (Words and photo View from the Kitchen Window by Laura Kelley)

Viva Variation!

Mixed Greens

In living the research for The Silk Road Gourmet, I found that modern, western cookery imposed something of an artificial uniformity on the art of the kitchen by demanding that all food adhere rigorously to prescribed recipes. By comparison, in much of southwest and Central Asia, recipes are given with ingredients such as “greens” in them, with no specific mention of whether the cook means dill, cilantro, or tarragon. The ingredient, “greens” doesn’t refer to a specific set of shared knowledge like one might encounter in the west in, ‘dry white wines and lighter reds pair well with fish and fowl’. Rather, it allows the cook to improvise as to which sort of green(s) she wishes to include. This allows for a certain amount of creativity and individual variation on the part of the cooks and also allows them to use what they have on hand. It can and does vary the taste of individual dishes quite extensively, and recipe variations abound and can change by region, village or even by individual. Still other versions of recipes vary by ingredient – for example the five-spice rub for lamb or mutton will be different from one for quail or hen.

I welcomed and felt right at home in the midst of all this unpredictability and wondered why so much of this has vanished in western kitchens – whether they be home or commercial ventures. Was it a fundamental difference between the eastern and western worlds that led to this or was there a more subtle cause for this rigor (as in rigor mortis)? Is it because commercial consumers expect reliability – because they demand that the dish on Thursday taste exactly the way in did last Tuesday? Is it something so fundamental as the differences between a written and largely oral tradition for passing down culinary skills? Whatever the cause, it seems a real pity to me, and I hope that I hope that more people work to counter this unfortunate trend.

Food and cuisines are not ideal forms fixed in time and space. Since man (or, for the most part when it comes to the preparation of food, woman) is the great experimenter, cuisines are always evolving. Removing the individual variability from recipes cooked in home or commercial kitchens dampens the engine of change. When individual chefs and cooks feel ‘unworthy’ to vary a recipe out of say, Larousse or Escoffier, real exploration and evolution of ingredient and flavor combinations or preparation styles slow down and we are stuck with ever more elaborate presentations or change for commercial shock value instead.

When I was coming up, the term ‘elegant’ was a great compliment. It didn’t mean chic or stylish, rather it meant simple and beautiful at the same time. Simplicity was at the root of the definition, and still is. Elegant ideas can change the way people think or experience something, and occasionally, they can change the world. Not to be slavishly trendy, one idea that is changing western food preparation right now is deconstruction. Being lucky enough to have all three of Jose Andres’ restaurants within a few blocks of my office, I get to sample his take on this elegant idea a lot. Frankly the foams leave me flat and make me feel a bit geriatric. However, dishes like the ‘new way guaco’ and ‘deconstructed mole’ are really a wonderful thing to behold and to taste. Dishes prepared this way really are different – and yes, they really are elegant.

While home cooks are less inclined to engage in deconstructivist culinary acrobatics on a daily basis, they can change things by experimenting with flavor combinations that are new for them. Using “sweet spices” like cinnamon or nutmeg on a steaks or chops; changing lemon juice to lime juice when that’s what the grocery provides or by substituting dill or tarragon – if you like the former and dislike the latter – even if the recipe you are working with doesn’t suggest that as a variation. Don’t fear what may be unknown. Consult the recipes, but use them only to guide you – not to fence you in. Revel in the creativity and the freedom. Bring the spirit of the Silk Road home. (words by Laura Kelley)