Ancient Roman Recipes
Food fit for Emperors
There was a lot more to Ancient Roman food than exotic dishes served by slaves at orgies. Lavish feasts were commonplace among the rich, but ordinary people ate ordinary meals, not very different to what we eat today.
The Romans dined on roast pork in spicy sauces, snacked on cheese with dates and nuts, ate omelettes with mushrooms and enjoyed desserts of cheesecake and figs in custard.
Apicius, a popular Roman chef, produced an ancient cookbook which can still be used today allowing any of us to throw together a meal very much like that eaten by the ordinary people, the plebians of Rome. And, if you're feeling adventurous in the kitchen, you can also reproduce the more exotic offerings which once graced the table of Emperors.
Prepare an Ancient Roman Meal
You don't have to prepare and cook a Giraffe or a Flamingo to have an Ancient Roman meal, here are some simple recipes which are almost authentic.
I've made all of these dishes in my kitchen and can vouch for their simplicity. Anyway, who's going to argue about fish sauce?
An Ancient Roman Kitchen
From The Pompejanum, the reproduction of a Roman house, built in Aschaffenburg in 1840-1848 for King Ludwig I of Bavaria,. The Pompejanum (Pompeiianum) is now a Museum.
Roman food was heavily reliant on fish sauce for its success. Wine, honey, vinegar, oil and fish sauce combined to create a balance of sweet-sour-salt.
Caroenum : Very sweet cooking wine, reduced to one-third its volume by boiling, and mixed with honey. You can add honey to a sweet wine or grape juice.
Defrutum : Thick fruit syrup, or a sort of Roman marmalade.
Garum : Fish Sauce. This was used to make foods salty in taste. You can substitute sauce from the Asian Supermarket. Nuoc Mam, Nam Pha.
Liquamen : is "any kind of culinary liquid, depending upon the occasion". It may be interpreted as brine or another word for light fish sauce. Use a pinch of salt in white wine if you have no fish sauce.
Pepper : For 'pepper', use nutmeg or allspice.
Want to cook a Dormouse?
From Apicius : 'Pound with pepper, caraway, cumin, bay leaves, dates, honey, vinegar, wine, liquamen and olive oil, then roast.'
A dormouse is hard to come by these days.so, in this recipe, I marinate chicken drumsticks overnight and call them dormouse (Gliris)
Prep Time: 20 min
Total Time: Marinate overnight
Serves: 2 - 4
- 8 Chicken drumsticks
- 1 cup plain all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 2 teaspoons caraway seeds
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika powder
- tablespoon honey
- 2 bay leaves
- A little vegetable oil
- Crush the cumin seeds using a mortar and pestle or equivalent
- Put the flour in a plastic bag with the crushed cumin, bay leaves, caraway and paprika..
- Lightly dab some vegetable oil on the drumsticks and toss them in the bag with the flour.
- Drop the honey into the bag. Give it a swirl around and leave the bag in the frig overnight so the flavours sink in.
- Place the drumsticks in a lightly oiled baking pan and bake for 20 - 30 mins, or until a skewer pushed into the thickest part releases only clear juice
Do you really want to cook a Dormouse?
In Ancient Roman times the dormouse was a delicacy, but these days it's one of the greatest threats to native British woodland.
After escaping from a private collection in the early 1900s, these rodents strip bark from trees, destroy fruit crops and, incidentally, chew through electrical wiring in homes.
It's listed as an invasive threat and no one would mind if you cooked a few.
What the Romans called the Ingredients:
Ius in cordula assa : : piper, ligustcum, mentam, cepam, aceti modicum et oleum.
What we call the Ingredients:
sauce for roast tuna : : pepper, lovage, mint, onion, a little vinegar, and oil.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 5 minutes
Serves: Depending on the tuna steaks - one per person
- 2 large Tuna Steaks and ingredients for the vinaigrette- -
- 3 tablespoons strong vinegar
- 2 tablespoons garum (or vinegar mixed with a little anchovy paste)
- cup of olive oil
- 4 finely chopped shallots
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon lovage seeds (or celery seeds)
- bunch of fresh mint
- olives to garnish
- Brush your tuna fillets with oil, pepper and salt.
- Grill them on one side over a hot barbecue.
- Turn them and brush the roasted side with the vinaigrette. Repeat.
- Don't let tuna overcook, the flesh should be pink inside.
- Serve with the remains of the vinaigrette.
- Garnish with a few olives
Globuli (sweet fried curd cheese)
Curd cheese is similar to cream cheese but with a lower fat content with a light flavour, colour and texture.
I use ricotta or sometimes bocconcini for this delightful sweet
Prep Time: 1 minute
Total Time: 1 minute
- Curd cheese, 500 g or about 1lb
- A cup of semolina
- olive oil
- Drain the the curd cheese. Use a sieve or colander, or let it hang in cheese cloth, or squash excess moisture out any way which suits you
- Mix with the semolina into a loose dough and let it sit for a few hours. (Have a sip of Vino Caroenum while you wait).
- With wet hands, form the mixture into dumplings.
- Quickly fry dumplings in olive oil for a few minutes.
- Drain and roll in honey.
Libum (Ancient Roman Cheesecake)
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
- Half a cup of plain all-purpose flour
- One cup of ricotta cheese
- 1 egg, beaten
- bay leaves
- Half a cup of clear honey
- Sift the flour in a mixing bowl.
- Beat the cheese until soft, stir into the flour.
- Add the beaten egg to the flour/cheese mixture, forming a soft dough
- Divide the dough into four and shape each piece into a bun
- Place on a greased baking tray with a fresh bay leaf underneath.
- Heat the oven to 375F - 190C. Bake for 35 - 40 minutes until golden brown.
- Warm the honey, pour into a flat plate, place the buns on it to rest till the honey is absorbed
Isicia Omentata (Hamburgers)
Feed the Kids on Ancient Roman Food
Tell the kids they're going to have an Ancient Rome lunch.The food of gladiators, the food of emperors! Then serve them up ..
Pita bread with falafel and feta cheese
Chopped apples with yogurt and honey
They want meat? Make up some hamburgers - ( Isicia Omentata) - from the following recipe. Leave out the wine, go easy on the peppercorns, use a little water to moisten instead. Orange juice gives an exotic flavour..
Remember No tomato sauce. No ketchup
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Serves: a horde of children
- 500 g minced meat
- 1 french roll, soaked in white wine (or non-alcoholic cider)
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
- 50 ml Liquamen (or a little white wine with a pinch of salt - or orange juice)
- some pine nuts and green peppercorns
- a little Caroenum (optional)
- Baking foil
Caroenum is a very sweet cooking wine, reduced to one-third its volume by boiling, and mixed with honey. Powerful stuff! You can substitute Marsala or Sweet Sherry, or add honey to grape juice
- Mix minced meat with the soaked french roll. Grind up the pine nuts and peppercorns, mix into the meat.
- Form small balls with your hands.. Put them in a little packet of foil and add a splash of Caroenum. Close the packet.
- Bake for 10 - 15 mins.
Kydonion syn Meliti - Quince with Honey, from Apicius
With quince boil it with honey and a little wine, after peeling off the skin; or remove the core and steep in honey, mold dough made from spelt around the whole quince, place in the embers and let the dough burn away completely; then this burnt layer is removed and so the whole quince is cooked and all the honey absorbed.
Ova Spongia ex Lacte
Eggs with Honey
Do you remember Ova Spongia ex Lacte from schooldays? Here's the full recipe from Apicius' De Re Coquinaria.
Ova spongia ex lacte: ova quattuor, lactis heminam, olei unciam in se dissolvis, ita ut unum corpus facias. in patellam subtilem adicies olei modicum, facies ut bulliat, et adicies impensam quam parasti. una parte cum fuerit coctum, in disco vertes, melle perfundis, piper adspargis et inferes.
Let's cook it!
Ova Spongia recipe
- 3 TBLsp honey
- 4 eggs
- 275 ml milk
- 25 g butter
- 1 TBLsp olive oil
- Good pinch of black pepper
- Beat together the eggs, milk and oil.
- Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan and heat. When this is sizzling add the omelette mixture.
- Agitate with a fork until the mix starts to solidify (this will make for a lighter omelette).
- When thoroughly cooked on one side turn the omelette over and cook on the other side. Fold in half and turn out onto a plate.
- Warm the honey and pour over the omelette. Fold this over once more and cut into thick slices.
- Sprinkle with black pepper and serve.
Allspice, Fructus Pimentae, with its pleasing clove-like aroma can be exchanged for the 'pepper' in many ancient Roman recipes.
It's a handy liitle spice, used by modern cooks for stews, sauces and for flavouring pickled vegetables.
Allspice takes its name from its aroma, which smells like a combination of spices, especially cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg. In much of the world, allspice is called pimento because the Spanish mistook the fruit for black pepper, which they called pimienta. (This is especially confusing since the Spanish had already called chillies pimientos).
What are these sauces? What's garum?
As they are with modern Romans, sauces and marinades were an essential element in ancient Roman cuisine.
One of the most popular was garum, a salty, pungent sauce made by fermenting fishgut, tails, heads, and other small whole fish in salt for several days out in the sun. Factories, salsamentarii, churned out massive amounts or you could make your own in the courtyard. It was really popular.
We don't need to use the original recipe, you can use a bit of Worcestershire sauce instead. Or buy a bottle of fish sauce from the Asian Supermarket - either Nuoc Mam or Nam Plah.
* Look for sauce of a light amber colour and the words nhi or thuong hang on the label. These terms indicate that the condiment came from the first extraction of liquid from the fermented fish. Grades of fish sauces are similar to that of olive oils. The first extraction is of the highest quality
Garum - Fish Sauce
Garum, as the Romans made it
Or why I buy my fish sauce at the Supermarket
From Gargilius Martialis, De medicina et de virtute herbarum
Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a well-sealed (pitched) container with a 26-35 quart capacity.
Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces) and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high.
Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.
If you want to try these instructions, best of luck to you! Please let me know how it went.
Reconstruction of a Roman Kitchen
A Taste of Ancient Rome
Giacosa gives us the original Latin text of several recipes from the ancient world, translates them into simple English and then gives us a list of ingredients which are available in our modern world to make these dishes.
Easily create ancient Roman recipes with ingredients of today.
A Roman Banquet
A medium menu
How can you can talk about the food of Ancient Rome without at least one mention of a banquet?
Here's one of the menus from Apicius for a medium- sized banquet.
It tells us a lot about the extent of Roman trade, for the ostrich and flamingo came from Africa, the dates from Judea, and the spices from throughout the Empire.
- Jellyfish and eggs
- Sow's udders stuffed with salted sea urchins
- Patina of brains cooked with milk and eggs
- Boiled tree fungi with peppered fish-fat sauce
- Sea urchins with spices, honey, oil, and egg sauce
- Fallow deer roasted with onion sauce, rue, Jericho dates, raisins, oil, and honey
- Boiled ostrich with sweet sauce
- Turtledove boiled in its feathers
- Roast Parrot
- Dormice stuffed with pork and pine kernels
- Ham boiled with figs and bay leaves, rubbed with honey, baked in pastry crust
- Flamingo boiled with dates
- Fricassee of roses with pastry
- Pitted dates stuffed with nuts and pine kernels, fried in honey
- Hot African sweet-wine cakes with honey
In the Words of a Roman
The Arbiter of Elegance
Gaius Petronius (27-66 ) was the advisor to the Emperor Nero in matters of luxury and extravagance. Petronius boasted an official title - arbiter elegantiae. As befitted his office, he slept days and partied nights.
Here's an account of a light supper which he attended in the course of his research into the good life :
""After a generous rubdown with oil, we put on dinner clothes. We were taken into the next room where we found three couches drawn up and a table, very luxuriously laid out, awaiting us.
We were invited to take our seats. Immediately, Egyptian slaves came in and poured ice water over our hands. The starters were served. On a large tray stood a donkey made of bronze. On its back were two baskets, one holding green olives, and the other black. On either side were dormice, dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seed. Nearby, on a silver grill, piping hot, lay small sausages.
As for wine, we were fairly swimming in it."
Fast Food of Ancient Rome
It wasn't all banquets
An Ancient Roman could also eat at a thermopolium, something like a small wine bar selling warmed wines and the ancient equivalent of fast food.
There were plenty of these hot food shops and taverna, places instantly recognisable to us as the handy corner shop blessed with a liquor license. A tradesman, sandal-seller or clerk would pick up some hot sausage, bread, cheese, dates and, of course, wine, on the way home.
Unless stated otherwise, photos are from
- Senior at Large — In a Sicilian Kitchen
La Cucina Siciliana
What do you think of Ancient Roman food?
Would you eat Ancient Roman food?
Fancy a Roman feast? While lying on the couch, you can leave a comment
© 2008 Susanna Duffy