What Apicius and Madhur Jaffrey Have in Common in the Kitchen

24 Feb

Back in the late 7th century B.C., the Greek king of Thera (Santorini) traveled to Delphi and asked the Oracle how his people could appease the gods and reverse the 7-year drought that had been plaguing them.   The high priestess, giving it some thought, advised the king to sail to Libya and build a city there in honor of Apollo.

After several false starts, the king’s son, Battus, finally arrived in north Africa in 630 B.C. and founded Cyrene – one of the most magnificent and wealthy cities of the ancient world. Cyrene became so coveted that Mark Antony gave it to Cleopatra, Augustus gave it to Crete, and Diocletian gave it to Egypt. Yet just shy of Cyrene’s 1000-year birthday, Apollo abandoned the city built in his honor, and left it to perish in the cataclysmic earthquake of 365 A.D.

Today, the ruins of Cyrene enjoy the protection of UNESCO, the organization that has designated it a world heritage site, and of Libyans who, freed from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s rule, are at liberty to try to save its ruins from looters and to manage Cyrene as an archaeological and tourist site.  Spanning three square miles, the site includes the excavated remains of temples to Apollo and Artemis, smaller monuments to Persephone, Hades and Hecate, and more than 1,000 tombs dotting the countryside.

Cyrene (photo from http://www.livius.org)

But what is conspicuously missing from the site is the treasure that made Cyrene so rich and powerful in the first place:  silphium, a relative of the carrot and fennel plants, which in ancient times was worth its weight in silver. 

Coin from Cyrene depicting silphium plant. (www.britishmuseum.org)

The plant grew exclusively in Cyrene and was widely exported as a culinary spice and medicinal herb.  The Greek herbalist Dioscorides recommended it for goiters, scorpion bites and bronchitis (among many other varied ailments), and women relied on its powers to prevent – and end—pregnancy. 

When the Romans took over Cyrene in 96 B.C., they continued exporting and using silphium, until the plant seems to have mysteriously disappeared by the end of the first century, when Pliny the Elder wrote that the plant had been over-harvested and the last stalk had been sent in tribute to the Emperor Nero.

With Nero chewing on the last silphium stalk, the Romans looked about for a substitute. They found it in asafetida, a spice they could import from the middle east that was closely related to silphium and that shared many of its characteristics, including  its unfortunate aroma:  “a sulfurous blend of manure and overcooked cabbage, all with the nose-wrinkling pungency of a summer dumpster.” (For more such appetizing descriptions, see Chip Rossetti’s article on silphium and asafetida titled “Devil’s Dung, The World’s Smelliest Spice.”) 

Why would the Greeks and Romans want to spice up their food with something that smelled so bad? As Rossetti explained, and he is quite right, asafetida loses its pungency when heated in oil, and gives off a savory scent reminiscent of sautéed onions. 

And so then, I wondered, why would the Greeks and Romans give up such a beloved spice that jazzed up their food and endowed them with health, fame and lucre?  Rossetti again had the answer:  the Roman Empire eventually fell and with it all the well-established trade routes that brought asafetida to Greece and Rome from Persia and Afghanistan.  By the time new trade routes were secured several hundred years later, the Greeks and Romans had lost their taste for asafetida and preferred to keep it safely confined in their medicine cabinets and out of their kitchens. 

If you would like to rescue asafetida from its medicinal confines and experience a taste similar to one enjoyed by ancient Greeks and Romans, Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger offer a recipe from Apicius calling for a brave ½ teaspoon of the spice in a recipe for Parthian Chicken included in their book “The Classical Cookbook.” 

Or you can do like I do and turn to Madhur Jaffrey, who likes it in her Indian lentil and potato dishes. Or you can experiment – one chef recently whispered that she sometimes slips a pinch or two into the white sauce that she makes for, of all things, moussaka.  So perhaps asafetida might make it back into Greek cooking after all these hundreds of years (my apologies here to my Greek friends who are wonderful cooks, and who still celebrate the Fall of the Roman Empire for, among other things,  its role in keeping the “Devil’s Dung” from contemporary Greek kitchens!)

Red Lentils Tarka, from Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking

1.5 cups red lentils

1/2 teaspooon ground turmeric

1-1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

generous pinch of asafetida

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

3-5 dried, hot red chiles

Put lentils in a heavy saucepan.  Add 5 cups water and turmeric.  Stir and bring to a simmer.  Cover, leaving lid slightly ajar.  Turn the heat to low and simmer 35 to 40 minutes or until tender.  Stir a few times during cooking.  Add salt and mix.  Leave uncovered, on very low heat, as you complete the next step.

Put the oil in a small frying pan and set over medium-high heat.  When the oil is hot, add the asafetida; then, a second later, add the cumin seeds.  Let the cumin seeds sizzle for a few seconds.  Add in the red chiles.  As soon as they turn dark red, lift up the lid of the lentil pan and pour in the contents of the frying pan, oil as well as spices.  Cover to trap the aromas. 

You can add mustard seeds and a choice of garlic, curry leaves, onions or even tomatoes to this tarka. 

Serve this with plain rice and a simple meat or vegetable.  Yogurt relishes and pickles make good accompaniments.  Serves 6 to 8.

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2 Responses to “What Apicius and Madhur Jaffrey Have in Common in the Kitchen”

  1. Megan February 25, 2012 at 4:14 am #

    I had to buy asafoetida for a recipe (Indian) a few years back. Took forever to find it! What’s the expiration I wonder. I’m sure it’s still back in the closet!

  2. Kristopher February 28, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    Barely 8:15 am and I’ve already learned something new! 🙂

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