Ancient Recipe: Egyptian Beer (Egypt, ca. 5000 BCE)

“Give me 18 cups of wine; I want to drink to drunkenness, my throat is dry as straw!” ~ Words of a female partygoer in an Ancient Egyptian banquet painting

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Homemade bousa with bonus homemade glass.

At some point in the distant past, an Australopithecus taking a stroll through the East African grasslands ate some rotten fruit off the ground and got a little dizzy and giggly. That hirsute lush was the first of our ancestors to get drunk. But the first hominids to do so deliberately were the people of the ancient world: the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese and others who stumbled upon the wonderful secret of brewing beer.

Beer was invented independently by several civilizations, and may have originally been discovered by accident. If water leaked into an ancient container used to store grain, the excess moisture would cause grain to sprout, releasing new chemical compounds that altered its taste. Moisture would also foster the growth of bacteria and yeast, which would feed on the grain and produce alcohol as a waste product. And if some curious Egyptian or Sumerian (perhaps a direct descendant of the aforementioned Australopithecus) decided to taste the leaky drippings of that improperly sealed jar–bam! A life-changing discovery. Some archaeologists believe it was the rise of beer-making that directly inspired early humans to transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural economy. That is, the ancients planted grain for beer before they planted it for bread.

Ancient Egyptian beer, called bousa, was a dietary staple. With more nutrients and less alcohol than modern beers (about 2%), it could be drank throughout the day and was actually safer to drink than water due to the lack of modern sanitation. Laborers were often paid in beer rations (the workers on the Great Pyramids at Giza received 4-5 liters a day). Beer was served at every Egyptian meal, especially among the lower classes. Multiple people often shared the same beer vessel using long reed strawscreating a visual effect similar to 1950s teenagers sharing an ice cream float (or modern college kids sharing a fishbowl of liquor and fruit juice at that one restaurant that doesn’t card). The straw was both social and practical: bousa is a lumpy semisolid rather than the liquid we might expect. The custom persists in some African cultures that make beer in a similar manner (here’s a picture of people sharing beer with straws at a wedding in 1980s Burundi).

Written sources record various kinds of beer flavored with different ingredients and given poetic names like “Friend’s Beer”, “Iron Beer”, or “Beer of the Protector”. Some of these variants were only made for special occasions, such as the annual “Festival of Drunkenness“. On that day, Egyptians indulged in a beer dyed red with pomegranate juice or powdered ochre (a kind of mineral clay) in honor of the ferocious lion goddess Sekhmet. According to legend, Sekhmet once threatened to devour all of Egypt, until she was tricked into thinking the red-dyed beer was blood. Literally bloodthirsty, the goddess chugged a few barrels and passed out, sparing the Egyptians from her hunger. Sekhmet was one of several goddesses associated with beer in Egyptian mythology. Viewed as an offshoot of bread-making, beer-brewing was considered a largely feminine activity.

THE RECIPE *

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First, we will malt the grain, meaning we’ll allow it to sprout and then roast it. Soak one cup of wheat berries in a bowl of water at room temperature for 8-10 hours/overnight. Drain the wheat berries and place them in a large glass jar. Cover the jar with a light cloth, such as cheesecloth, secured with a rubber band. Let stand at room temperature for 1-3 days or until you see little tails sprouting from the grains. During this time, make sure the grains stay moist but not submerged in water. Once a day, shake the jar gently to help air circulation.

Once your grains have sprouted, spread them on a baking sheet and roast them at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about 3 hours. When done, they should be completely dry and dark brown and give off a pleasant, nutty aroma. Grind the malted grains into coarse flour in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle.

3Some Egyptian beers used bread as a starter yeast culture, and others used grain porridge, as confirmed by archaeological evidence. We’ll be making a porridge-based beer. Boil two cups of barley in two cups of water until you have a soft, mushy porridge. It should be soft enough that you can break an individual barley grain with the edge of a spoon. When your barley porridge is no longer boiling hot but still warm, put it into a pot with the ground-up wheat berries from the previous step and six cups of water. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 3 to 4 days.

When you uncover your Egyptian beer, the first thing you’ll notice is that it smells like it’s gone bad. This, of course, is because it has. The smell will dissipate completely if you take off the lid and let it air out for a while. It’s safe to drink, I promise! And it tastes completely different from the off-putting initial aroma. Very lightly sour and fizzy, with a little bit of smokiness from the roasted grain. You can also try sweetening it with honey or date syrup, or mixing it with pomegranate juice if there’s a lion-headed goddess you’re trying to intoxicate.

THE VERDICT

This beer is not bad, but it’s also not something I could picture myself ordering at a bar. The rank smell means that I have to rank it behind my Mesopotamian beer recipe, which I’ll share another time. III out of X.

* Adapted from Cooking in Ancient Civilizations by Cathy Kaufman (2006).

Ancient Recipe: Braised Flamingo (Roman, 5th century CE)

_DSC3235_02“Epicures regard my tongue as tasty. But what if my tongue could sing?” ~ A flamingo in Martial’s Epigrams laments his wasted potential

In case you couldn’t tell from the blog title, I have a special fondness for that marvelous pink monstrosity, the flamingo. Why? Because everything about them is weird. In their pained, awkward movements, they remind me of the borogoves from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky; “thin, shabby-looking birds” who are perpetually “mimsy” (miserable and flimsy). They thrive on lakes of poison where few animals larger than the plankton they eat can survive, striding comfortably through boiling brine and laying eggs inches from gaseous fumes. They have naturally white feathers that change to pink from a diet rich in beta carotene, the same chemical that makes carrots orange. Their outlandish color and unique profile has made the flamingo the icon of American tropical kitsch and the unofficial mascot of Florida, and official mascot of the Bahamas.

But to the Ancient Romans, they were food.

Not that we should imagine Roman storefronts selling flamingo pie, fried battered flamingo bites, flamingo on a stick, etc. Nor should we picture vast leggy herds of flamingos corralled in the Roman countryside, although the poet Martial makes a tantalizing reference to flamingo husbandry in his Epigrams (3.58.14), describing them alongside other exotic livestock on a wealthy man’s farm in Baia (modern Naples). Native to the salt lakes of Africa, the flamingo was eaten in Rome only by those who could afford it. In Roman times, having a roast fenicopterus (“scarlet-wing”) on the table was a status-symbol and a means of flaunting one’s riches. Truly wealthy gourmets ate only the choicest parts, like the brains and tongue. Emperor Elagabalus was even said to offer the costly birds in sacrifice to the gods, when a regular old chicken would have done just fine.

The 5th-century cookbook Apicius, the most complete primary source on Ancient Roman cooking, features a recipe for flamingo in spiced date sauce with a note that “parrot is served the same way”:

Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar to be parboiled. Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must [grape juice] to give it color. In the mortar crush pepper, cumin, coriander, laser root, mint, rue, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and the fond [drippings] of the braised bird, thicken, strain, cover the bird with the sauce and serve. ~ Apicius 6.231

So what was it like to eat a flamingo? Was the taste really worth the trouble of acquiring the creature, or did Roman patricians eat them for show? Unfortunately the Romans left no firsthand testimony behind, aside from a passing mention in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History that flamingo tongue has “the most exquisite flavor”. And flamingo meat is not exactly easy to come by. The birds are protected by law in the United States (where I live) and in many other countries as well. But we can make a few educated guesses. Like all waterbirds, flamingos have an insulating layer of fat. This means that eating flamingo is likely a several-napkin affair, and that their meat, like duck, is probably rich and dark. For flavor we might look to ducks as well, specifically a wild-caught fish-eater like a merganser or scaup, species usually scorned by modern hunters for their pungent flavor. In a 2009 article describing an increase in flamingo consumption in India, one scientist is skeptical of their popularity: “As a rule, all fish-eating or carnivore birds, the flesh of these birds is stinky. It never tastes good.

We may never know exactly how stinky was the flesh of a Roman flamingo (although it’s worth noting that the flamingo recipe appears in Apicius directly after a technique for removing foul odor from wild birds). And while I don’t want to rule out the possibility of my eating a merganser someday, today is not that day either. I decided to use a store-bought, farm-raised duck; milder in flavor but not too dissimilar from the ducks eaten in Ancient Rome. I also decided to go full ancient-style and buy a duck with the head and feet still on.

_DSC3125Those brown chunks on the plate are pieces of asafetida or hing, a dried plant resin that will stand in for laser root. Also called silphium, laser was so popular in antiquity that the Romans over-farmed it into extinction. Asafetida makes a great substitute because it’s the silphium plant’s nearest living relative. It has a pungent flavor reminiscent of cooked onions, and can be found online and at South Asian grocery stores.

The dried leaves on the plate are rue, a bitter herb which was very popular in the ancient world but today is rarely used in food, except in Ethiopia. I ordered it on Amazon. Use caution if you plan to cook with rue; some people are allergic. If you’d rather play it safe, you can substitute rosemary or sage.

THE RECIPE

Parboiling before roasting as described in Apicius is a good technique that I have used on duck before. It tightens the skin and renders out a lot of the fat so that it doesn’t become a greasy, splattery mess in the oven. Presumably the same could be said of flamingo (where did the Romans find a pot, and an oven, big enough? How did they deal with the neck and the legs?)

I washed and dried my flamingo substitute and trimmed off the extra fat, claws and wingtips. Then I poked holes in the skin all over with a fork to help the fat leak out during cooking (I remembered this from modern roast duck recipes).

Next I brought a large pot of water to a boil and put my whole duck in head first, together with a large pinch of salt, a quarter cup of white wine vinegar and about half a bunch of fresh dill. While my duck was boiling, I reduced one and a half cups of grape juice in a saucepan and added a cornstarch slurry to thicken it (only semi-anachronistic. The Romans didn’t have corn, but they did use starch powder extracted from raw wheat). I lifted my duck out of the boiling water and into a roasting pan with a rack after 25 minutes.

I was confused by Apicius‘s instruction to “finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander [cilantro].” Roasted leeks, sure, but it doesn’t make sense to roast a bunch of fresh herbs, so I guessed that some sort of preparation was being implied. I chopped the cilantro, mixed it into the thickened grape juice and basted the duck with the mixture before putting it in the oven at 350 degrees. I didn’t have room for the duck and the leeks together, so I put them in separate pans.

Now it was time for the sauce. Like all ancient cookbooks, Apicius doesn’t use precise measurements, so I mixed together my spices through a combination of gut instinct, taste-testing, and the silent guidance of the Lares and Penates, the Roman household gods. I tried to keep everything equal, using half a tablespoon each of asafetida, powdered cumin, powdered coriander, dried mint, dried rue, and black peppercorns, plus 3/4 of a cup finely-chopped dates and a splash of white wine vinegar. I mashed everything with a mortar and pestle until I had a thick, gummy brown paste._DSC3166_01

My duck cooked for about 45 minutes, and I turned the heat up to 450 for the last ten minutes to brown the skin. Once the bird was out of the oven, I added the drippings to my paste and heated it in a saucepan. This step is important to mellow the flavor of asafetida, which is pretty nasty raw. Apicius says “thicken”, but the sauce was already so thick I actually added water to it, which didn’t really help. I realized after the fact that the Romans probably used fresh rue and mint leaves in this recipe instead of dried, which would have added more moisture. My sauce had the consistency of jam, and in the end I had to spread it on the duck with the back of a spoon rather than pouring it on top.

_DSC3209_02THE VERDICT

I tend to make a “Hmm!” noise of curiosity when I taste something unusual that isn’t exactly good or bad. My boyfriend told me that all he heard from the kitchen at this point was one “Hmm!” after another. The sauce is really the star of the show here. The combination of flavors was bold, complex, and totally unfamiliar: truly Ancient Roman. I could taste each ingredient separately. First came the sweetness of the dates and the punch of the asafetida, then a tea-like bitterness from the rue, a hint of coriander and cumin, and the bite of black pepper at the very end. (The only flavor that seemed to get lost was the mint). It was overpowering on its own, but in small quantities balanced the milder flavors of the duck and the leeks quite nicely. I could see why a strong-tasting sauce might be necessary on a strong-tasting meat like flamingo.

I may never know what a real Roman flamingo tasted like, but now I have some idea. Next time I’ll try using fresh herbs and whole seeds and a bit less asafetida (or more mint) in the sauce. Overall, a surprising and interesting dish. VII out of X.

POST SCRIPTVM: This was my first time eating a duck’s head, and it was AMAZING. Especially the brain. Now I know what Elagabalus was talking about.

POST POST SCRIPTVM: FELIX IDES MARTIAE, everyone. What better day to post my first ancient recipe?

Why Am I Doing This?

“No, I can’t have everything. But if only I could control my mind I might be able to experience everything. That’s what I try to do…I want to feel the whole civilised world beating in my heart.” ~ Elagabalus in Family Favourites (1960) by Alfred Duggan

In a world that seems increasingly dangerous, intolerant and cruel, with more than its fair share of present-day suffering, you might wonder, “Why should I care about people who lived and died thousands of years ago, let alone what kind of food they ate?” The past is behind us, and we have to look ahead towards the future, right?

If an ancient Mesopotamian heard you say that, they would strongly disagree. To them, the past lies in front of us and the future lies behind us. We don’t walk forwards through time, but backwards. That’s why we can only glimpse snatches of the future over our shoulder, and that’s why the past gets more distant as time goes by. It recedes from us, a misty horizon line that gets smaller and smaller as we stumble in reverse towards perpetual uncertainty.

We have to keep on shuffling backwards towards our future. That’s unavoidable. But we don’t have to lose the past in the bargain. Sometimes we can stop for a moment, squint at that far-off horizon and try to memorize some scrap of it before it disappears from view.

We can do this, and we should. Not for some debt we owe to the people who walked ahead of us (although we owe them a lot), but for ourselves. Ancient peoples left us their wisdom, the legacy of a thousand lifetimes’ worth of success and failure, wrong conclusions and right decisions: lessons from the past to help carry us towards our future. And they left us so much more besides!  Dirty jokes and heart-wrenching love poems, musings on science and philosophy and war, detailed accounts of the natural world and every human experience. Faced with the same problems and challenges as we are, ancient people offer up an endless number of solutions, testament to the remarkable variety and resilience of our species.

I say read about ancient peoples and admire their art, yes, but don’t stop there. Sing their songs, laugh at their jokes, eat their food! Bring them back to life, even for a moment. Celebrate the diverse history of humanity, and use those who walked ahead of us, backwards and blind as we are, as a mirror. Choose what was best in them and strive to emulate it. Point out what was worst in them and push back against it.

People in ancient times derived joy from the same sources as people today: food, drink, music, money, beauty, sex. They danced at weddings, haggled with the fishmonger and prayed when their children got sick. They feared the world around them, sometimes for a good reason and sometimes without cause, but they loved that world too, and fiercely.

They were us, and when we learn about them, we learn about ourselves.