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The Mystery of a Lost Roman Herb (bbc.com)
238 points by tomcam on Sept 8, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

> In fact, Roman cuisine wasn’t at all like Italian food. It was all about contrasting sweet with salty and sour foods (they liked to eat fishgut sauce, garum, with melon).

It's true that it wasn't at all like Italian food, but this is a particularly bad example:

1. garum kinda lives on as colatura di alici, though the former was fermented, and the latter isn't [1]

2. Italian cuisine still contrast melon with salty food, just prosciutto, not fish

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colatura_di_Alici

Garum also lives on as Worcestershire sauce, which unlike colatura is still fermented. I'm happy you showed me this, it's incredible to see living Roman history, still 2,000 miles apart!


I remember looking at the ingredient list as a kid and wondering why in the world you would put fermented fish in a sauce.

Then I learned biology, in particular the molecular nature of umami, and it makes perfect sense.

Fish sauce of course is a Thai and far east staple!

The book The History of Salt says that soy sauce originally started out as fermented fish sauce and that it and garum may have a common ancestor.

They were more than likely developed independently. Putting a bunch of fish in a container and adding salt seems pretty standard pre-refrigeration.

I recommend this lecture about the history of ketchup, which explains the relation to soy sauce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iYwUh1Hdho

Also the basis of Sambal sauces from Indonesia. I think thy may be shrimp based, though.

I guess it is notable that the Romans didn't have tomatoes.

Or zucchini, peppers, eggplants, chillies, and coffee which are all staples of Italian cuisine now.

Don't forget pasta, avocados, pineapples, chocolate, potatoes or chocolate

They had olives, bread, cheese, mushrooms, and sausage, though. Imagine being stuck in a dystopian Italy where they were one ingredient away from being able to make pizza.

olive oil based pizza is actually pretty good

Yes. We regularly have this, cooked by Nonna or my wife...

The Romans probably had some kind of fried pasta called lagana (probably cognate of lasagna), the other things you mention are not quite staples, for example avocados are still pretty hard to come by in Italy.

Yeah avocados are a stretch. I included them because last time I was in Italy there was a tray of avocados with balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, basil and mozzarella everyday and at every meal at catering and I was there for a few weeks. It was delicious but threw me off. Pineapples on the other hand I've been able to find at nearly every street pizza vendor and and pineapple juice in almost every grocery and convenient store. There's no doubt Italians and Greeks were making something with their grain, wheat was domesticated not far from Italy in Turkey of course, but they weren't making pasta until Marco Polo or somebody brought the practice back from China. I think the real issue is when does "Italy" really begin, and what constitutes "Italian food"? Of course none of this really matters it's just fun to argue about mainly because Italians are just so proud of their food. I guess all cultures are and rightfully so.

Why can't pasta have been invented independently in Italy and in China (and possibly somewhere else?). After all flatbread and pizza are very very common in cultures that had not communicated.

As a matter of fact the first written mention of pasta in Italy predates Marco Polo's birth by exactly one century (1154-1254).

They did have dormice, which in a way we don't.


Every time I put salt on my cantaloupes people look at me like I'm a monster, until they try it.

Even better is a salty cheese.

Apple slices with cheese. Mmmm.

Reminds me of hindu soma:

Soma (Sanskrit: soma) or haoma (Avestan) was a Vedic ritual drink[1] of importance among the early Indians. It is mentioned in the Rigveda, particularly in the Soma Mandala. It is described as being prepared by extracting the juice from a plant, the identity of which is now unknown and debated among scholars.

The bit about camel-llama hybrids being camel-sized and llama-woolly seems to be completely wrong (they've confused the general goal of the project with reality), so I'm a bit dubious about the rest of the article. According to Wikipedia [1] and google image search, camas are smaller than both llamas and camels, and not very woolly.

I do find it fascinating that camels and llamas, whose last common ancestor was roughly as long ago as that of chimpanzees and us, can produce viable offspring.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cama_(animal)

I have to ask, do we know that humans and chimpanzees can't produce viable offspring?

We don't know either way. The camel-llama hybrid takes a lot of work, artificial insemination etc., and they've only managed to make 5 so far.

With all the cracy shit people are doing ... I can't imagine that it has not been tried yet. But I also do not know anything further.

Seems odd to me that they crossed a camel and llama and expected a better temperament. I've never seen a camel, but llamas are some of the most vile tempered animals I've ever seen.

Camels are worse.

Check out macroevolution.net if you want to really twerk your noggin.

Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered http://www.oocities.org/syrtica/silphium.html.

Funny, lovage (which they mention near the end) is or was quite common here in Switzerland. My mother used it a lot while my generation uses it a lot less already. Still have some in the garden though.

Same in Austria. It's commonly called "Maggi-Kraut", because it tastes very similar to a sauce produced by Maggi (which is now part of Nestlé). Funnily enough, the sauce doesn't contain any lovage.

Not usual (but not hugely popular) in Czechia too.

Lovage is still used by Ken gardeners and cooks in middle class England

What are "Ken gardeners"?

Ah, some mobile autoincorrect. 'Keen'.

You actually can grow red huckleberries (at least in the PNW). I even have one in a neglected pot that does ok. Here's an advanced technique:


I've don't think I've ever seen a cultivated evergreen huckleberry plant with berries on it though.

i believe that's the point "When they’re grown from seed, they are mysteriously devoid of fruit."

I don't know how plants people buy are propagated (seed, cuttings, layering, etc).

You've got one in a pot? Care to share a pic?

Re: Asafoetida - anyone got a good way to use it?

Bought it a while ago because of an Indian curry recipe that called for 1/8 of tsp per bucket, but never got around to actually adding it, because of its eye-popping burnt rubber aroma.

It's an amazing aromatic addition to potato curry. Just a tiny drop (1/4 teaspoon) adds a subtle dimension to a large pot of potatoes. It's almost like a flavour enhancer.

A word of warning: It is very potent. I store mine in a pot wrapped in two sealed plastic bags which is in turn put in a sealed jar. My spices cupboard still reeks of it the moment I open it.

Most indian cooking, especially lentils use it. It's always used in tempering, which means you add it in hot oil a few seconds before you dunk it in the dish.

It is also used as a replacement for garlic in dishes, for people who refuse garlic for religious reasons.

> for people who refuse garlic for religious reasons

I've never heard of this. What religions ban garlic? (and pity for them, I love it!)

I'll try and explain why Jains do not eat garlic (along with other rooted vegetables like onions and potatoes):

When taking out the entire plant, you also take out any organisms like bugs and such from their ecosystem, killing them in the process. Jains try and limit the amount of violence they cause (Ahimsa), so in turn they try and avoid eating rooted vegetables.

On top of this, by removing the whole plant you prevent them from sprouting again, which is effectively "killing" in Jainism.

All of this being said though, modern agriculture techniques kind of make this reasoning insignificant. Mass farming practices mean that all plants are effectively killed along with any organisms in that area when harvesting.

And to top it all off, many Jains do not follow this practice, at least in the US. Many of my family eat all of these things, maybe trying to avoid them during Paryushan (holy week).

How do you grow any crop without killing weeds and pests?

By growing a lot more of it (which prevents the birth of whatever would have grown in its place, but that's an invisible effect and technically not killing).

Also, grow mixtures of plants together that naturally crowd out weeds, inhibit the spread of pests, and replenish certain nutrients like nitrogen. IMHO this is grossly under-studied but could become more relevant with smarter robotics.

Also by growing hardier (but usually less productive) varieties, and growing multiple varieties of the same base vegetable rather than a single one, while I don't think that's the case for macro-scale parasites (insects) it's common for e.g. fungi to only attack some varieties of a specific vegetable.

How do you even establish an initial batch of the crop large enough to crowd out all weeds, without killing the existing weeds to start with?

Plants are hypercompetitive and constantly fighting for space and resources. The only reason modern agriculture works is we are so effective at killing weeds with machines and herbicide. Otherwise crop fields would quickly be taken over by whatever grows the fastest.

I don't know how they do their farming in practice, but I'm pretty confident that it involves more land use and lower yields.

They may also adapt their diet to whatever is the most edible among the weeds. This year a grape vine mysteriously sprouted in my garden and started taking over before I realized what it was and murdered it to save the zucchinis. A Jain would probably be happy enough with the grapes. I had even considered adopting it.

I think the idea is limiting the number of organisms total that you kill.

Jain religion as well as certain offshoots of Hinduism itself.

Onions and garlic are thought to promote carnal thoughts and violate the "sattvik" food lifestyle.

Very interestingly, Kashmiri Hindus eat meat, but are forbidden onions or garlic.

Jain vegetarianism (strictly interpreted) bans root vegetables (amongst many other things), in Gujarat restaurants (already vegetarian) have special symbols to mark "jain-safe" items in the same way western restaurants might mark vegetarian or kosher/halal items.

None of the other replies have mentioned Hare Krishnas (an offshoot of Hinduism). They are vegetarian: not only do they not eat meat but they also avoid eggs – though dairy products are seemingly alright. They distribute vegetarian food to the homeless and have a number of vegetarian restaurants around the world (mostly branded as Govinda's). As a vegetarian for 20 years or so, I tried their restaurants a number of times but the lack of onions or garlic put me off their food.

At the time, I asked them about this and the reply was that onions and garlic are considered to be stimulants and spiritually bad for you. The following article further elaborates on this explanation (best consumed with a pinch of salt): http://www.krishna.com/domains/d6.krishna.com/why-no-garlic-...

Buddhists. Some choose to not consume the five pungent plants. Why? Because they believe they stink.

Jains, Buddhist monastics.

I would guess that op is referring to "conformist" as the religious group in question..

Asafoetida - "The devils dung" http://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/200904/devil.s.dung-the... The most awful smelling spice in my cupboard. I have to put the spice bottle in a zip lockbag that is then put in another larger airtight glass jar otherwise the entire house smells like it.

Is used in Indian cooking - a pinch in hot oil transforms into a subtle flavor and aroma that people claim to be a replacement for onions and garlic. Used extensively in Jain cooking since the Jain religion prohibits use of onion and garlic in food. See http://www.manjulaskitchen.com/ for delicious vegetarian Jain recipes. Almost all her traditional recipes use asafoetida (aka "hing" in indian recipes). Look for her recipes around 2012/13 since those are the home cooked recipes before she went viral in the indian community.

This recipe with potatoes is simple http://www.manjulaskitchen.com/aloo-jeera-potatoes-with-cumi... . Use lemon juice as a replacement for mango powder.

The aroma changes significantly when cooked.

Just put it in, it's pretty amazing when the food is cooked :)

Yeah, I've hoyed it into a wide variety of dishes, especially when cooking 'under the influence' and found it goes with a wide variety of foods.

I think "if a dish would benefit from onions or garlic, then a pinch of fetid ass would go as well"

Is that the salt or the black garlic? Because both of those are vile ingredients. I've had them and they just do not belong in my western pallet.

It's in a form of a beige very fine powder.

It's the dried (and ground) sap of a plant - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asafoetida

tl;dr : We don't know, but here's a lot of other information.

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