Ancient cuisine 101

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by Sudhir Ahluwalia | |

Numerous references to the high cost of imported spices, especially those from outside the Mediterranean region, appear in Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Arabic, and Indian works.

Ancient Egyptian Food

Although Egypt was the crossroads of the ancient Spice Route and had several Red Sea ports, the herbs and spices imported from the Land of Punt, the Islands of Malacca (modern Indonesia), and India would have been too expensive for most people.

Only the rich could afford cinnamon, pepper, myrrh, and frankincense to season and enhance banquets of fowl and meat.

Herodotus describes it as follows: “They eat loaves of bread of coarse grain which they call cyllestis. They make their beverage from barley, for they have no vines in their country. They eat fish raw, sun-dried or preserved in salt brine” (Histories, 2, 77).

Coriander was prized as an aphrodisiac and its seeds, which symbolized eternal love and faithfulness, were planted in tombs as early as 1000 BC.

Ancient Greek and Roman Food

The history of Greek cuisine can be traced back 3,000 years. It is the forerunner of Western cuisine and spread via Rome to Europe and beyond. The ancient Greeks prided themselves on simple, frugal food.

Ancient Roman cuisine was perhaps the most interesting of the ancient cuisines. In early Rome, culinary differences between social classes was small. As Rome conquered more lands (e.g., Greece, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Europe) and became wealthier, its cuisine also evolved.

Pepper, which was extremely expensive and regarded as a symbol of wealth, was used in nearly every major recipe of ancient Rome. Spice factories in ancient Rome manufactured combinations of popular spices.

Descriptions of these ancient cuisines were recorded in several books and texts. Archestratos wrote the first cookbook in 320 BC, and Mithaceus was a cook and writer in the 5th century BC. Lynceus of Samos, a comedian around the 4th or 3rd century BC, described Greek food in his writings.

Marcus Apicius, a gourmet and hedonist, compiled a comprehensive treatise on Roman food of his time. Martial’s Epigrams 1897 describes popular menus and food, especially during the Saturnalia, the most popular feast of the year.

Coriandrum sativum by Franz Eugen Köhler
Coriandrum sativum by Franz Eugen Köhler

About Sudhir

Sudhir Ahluwalia is a business consultant. He has been management consulting head of Asia’s largest IT outsourcing company Tata Consultancy Services, business advisor to multiple companies, columnist and author of upcoming book on herbs-Holy Herbs. He has been a member of the Indian Forest Service. His webpage is: