What do the gastronomical preferences of ancient Romans tell us about their culture and values? Quite a bit, it turns out. Latin students have been studying the ancient trade routes between Rome, Greece, India, China, and Japan to learn how Eastern flavors and spices migrated into Roman cuisine as they prepare for their Roman Culinary projects.
Ancient Romans were cultural assimilators, speaking various languages and dabbling in religious traditions rooted in Egypt, India, and the Middle East. This liberalism included their culinary tastes. Latin Teacher Dan Blanchard notes that due to the popularity of peppercorn, cumin, and cinnamon, the food in ancient Rome probably tasted more like today’s Indian food. “The peppercorn was a valuable piece of Roman cuisine,” says Dan. “Not everyone could afford it because of the effort it took to get it from India to Rome, but everyone wanted it.” Similarly, he points out that the most popular condiment in ancient Rome was a fish sauce, very similar in flavor to a Thai fish sauce. Roman cuisine highlights the breadth of the republic’s trading network extending to Vietnam, Thailand, China, and North Africa. Roman coins have even been discovered as far away as Okinawa, Japan! Dan points out that the explorations of Marco Polo and the creation of the Silk Road trade routes were not something new, Romans were already doing it, and their cuisine is just one example of the impact it had on their culture.
Latin students will demonstrate their knowledge of the exotic flavors and preparation techniques favored by Roman citizens by preparing a Roman meal this month. The meal will be composed of two vegetable dishes, two side dishes, and a protein dish using recipes from a translation of Apicus’ Cook Book, a famed compilation of Roman recipes from around the 1st century AD. While partridge, quince, and sow’s belly may not be readily available to today’s students, plenty of recipes use familiar ingredients and highlight the everyday use of cumin, caraway, ginger, honey, and anise. Students will be researching each dish and its ingredients, making substitutes where necessary (while staying at least 90% true to Apicus’ recipe), and documenting the meal’s preparation. Then, they will create two five-minute videos presenting and explaining their meal as they describe its flavors and the process and challenges involved in its preparation. “As they cook, taste, and learn about the origins of the food, they will be connecting our study of the trade routes to the food that Romans were eating daily and their reliance on heavy spices for their meals,” says Dan.