Ancient Recipe: Maza (Ancient Greek, ca. 2nd millennium BCE)

“My maza comes to me from my spear, from my spear comes my Ismarian wine, and I drink while leaning on my spear.” ~ the Greek warrior-poet Archilochus explains how he earns his keep

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Balls of maza.

Barley is one of the most ancient crops known to humanity. It was the staple crop of Egypt and Mesopotamia as well as Greece, where it is referenced in some of the earliest written inscriptions. An example of the centrality of barley to the Greek diet can be found in the name of the Greek goddess of the harvest: Demeter, from dēa métēr, “Barley Mother”.

While various ancient cultures venerated barley, they differed in how they made use of it. Porridge is perhaps the simplest preparation, since it requires nothing more than whole grains, water and fire. There are numerous accounts of porridge throughout the ancient world, made from barley as well as other grains, and it likely dates back to humanity’s earliest farming days. Bread and beer are comparatively more complicated to produce and are therefore more recent innovations. While barley beer was cherished in Egypt and Mesopotamia, barley bread often had a lesser reputation. Barley is harder to refine into flour than other grains such as wheat, and barley bread (especially with the pre-Industrial technology of ancient times) arguably inferior to wheat bread, being more dense and less chewy. In Egypt and Mesopotamia alike, everyone drank barley beer and those who could afford it enjoyed wheat bread, while barley bread and porridge were staples of the lower classes.

The Greeks disdained beer as a drink for barbarians. They did make porridge and bread, and agreed with other ancient peoples that barley bread wasn’t really worth the trouble. But their preference was to serve barley in a unique form somewhere between porridge and bread; an intermediate recipe called maza (μᾶζα in Greek letters, and originally pronounced like “mahsdah”)

Maza begins as álphita: barley flour that has been toasted over a fire, giving it a dark brown color and a nutty aroma and flavor. This rich flour is mixed into a dough with hot water and a little bit of oil (and perhaps salt). No baking is required, as the flour has already been cooked. The maza is then shaped into balls or pancakes. Sometimes small maza dumplings were added to broth to create an ancient matzoh ball soup.

Maza is believed to date back to well before the emergence of a recognizable Greek civilization, and is referenced by very early Greek authors such as Archilochus above, who lived in the 600s BCE. Maza requires very little effort or technology to produce and is both nourishing and versatile. It should come as no surprise, then, that of the many ancient cultures who made use of barley, the Greeks were not the only ones who came up with this particular recipe. In Tibet, a very similar dish is called tsampa, and is such an important part of local culture even today that Tibetans sometimes refer to themselves as “tsampa-eaters”.

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Your barley flour should look something like this when it’s ready to be mixed with water, salt and oil. Make sure you stir thoroughly to distribute the heat.

 

The Ancient Greeks prided themselves on a simple, hearty diet, believing it the source of their strength and, to some degree, their superiority. The varied cuisines of other peoples like the Persians were looked down upon as decadent, diet seen as evidence of moral character (“you are what you eat”). Maza has few ingredients, does not require much preparation, and is quite filling: thus, it checks off all the criteria of an ideal Greek staple.

In Greek dining, food was divided into two broad categories. Sitos was the grain–the bread, porridge or maza that formed the basis of the meal. In hard times sitos could be a meal on its own; in the play Eirēnē (“Peace”), Aristophanes describes a prisoner as “eating nothing but barley”, a Greek equivalent of our phrase “bread and water.” But most of the time, you would want your sitos with something tastier to go on top of it. This is where the other broad food category, opson, comes in. Opson was formerly translated into English as “relish“, but it covers a broad range of dishes, from vegetables and cheese to fish and meat. Containing ingredients that were more costly and less common overall, opson dishes were cherished and celebrated. The balance between richly flavored opson and bland sitos in the Ancient Greek meal calls to mind a similar concept in Japanese and Korean cuisines, where a varied assortment of dishes (called okazu and banchan, respectively) is served in small portions with rice.

THE RECIPE*

First, make your álphita. Pour 1 and 1/4 cups of barley flour into a skillet over medium-high heat.  Stir it thoroughly with a wooden spoon until it gives off a toasted aroma and turns a rich brown color. Then, remove from the heat and add 1/2 a cup of water, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Continue stirring until you have an even, thick dough.

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Half-mixed maza dough.

 

You might need to add a little more water. Once your dough has cooled, you can shape it as desired. Note that it is not flexible enough to knead like bread dough.

Your maza is now ready to serve: make sure you have some opson ready!

THE VERDICT

Maza has a pleasant, nutty flavor, and I’ve especially enjoyed it with a simple spread of mashed olives, garlic, olive oil and minced herbs. I’m sure it would also be great with cheese or anything with a sauce that you might dip bread into. Just don’t overindulge in the delights of opson, lest you be branded a gluttonous opsophagos, literally “opson-eater.” Barley, the ancient mother that sustained the Greeks, is still pretty good on its own. VIII out of X.

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

Ancient Recipe: Asparagus Patina (Roman, 4th century CE)

Asparagus patina is made like thisPut in the mortar asparagus tips. Crush pepper, lovage, green coriander [cilantro], savory and onions; crush, dilute with wine, liquamen [fish sauce] and oil. Put this in a well-greased pan, and, if you want, add while on the fire some beaten eggs to thicken it, cook without boiling the eggs and sprinkle with very fine pepper. ~ De Re Coquinaria (On Things Culinary) or Apicius, Book II

patina cooked

Originally, a patina was a specific type of Roman pottery; a round, flat, shallow dish. Over time, the word came to be used for the food cooked in the dish, not just the dish itself (compare modern terms like barbecue, hot pot, and terrine). The 4th-century Roman cookbook Apicius has a whole chapter devoted to patina recipes, including patinae of vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, and my personal favorite, calf’s brains and roses. The only common ingredient is ovae, eggs. As such, modern authors have often characterized patina as similar to a modern frittata, raw beaten eggs mixed with other ingredients and baked until solid. But the recipes in Apicius use eight different verbs to describe methods of incorporating eggs into patina, implying that the term was a general one covering everything from baked scrambles to delicate, airy soufflés. There were also egg-free variations, as in the recipe above, which instructs you to add beaten eggs only si volueris, “if you want”.

An element of surprise or trickery is found in many Roman dishes, making the food itself a form of table-side entertainment as guests attempt to identify what’s front of them. This celebration of the transformative aspects of cooking is found in many cultures, from Medieval European sugar-sculpted “subtleties” to the old Korean tradition of reshaping fruits and nuts into a confection shaped like the original. With its brilliant green color and the unusual step of pureeing the asparagus, I can imagine a group of Roman diners being similarly charmed and surprised by this recipe. I’ve made it for an Ancient Roman dinner I hosted and for my classes on Roman food, and it holds up to a modern taste-test quite well. It is named in the text of Apicius as “aliter patina de asparagis“, “another asparagus patina“, because there is a similar recipe immediately preceding it. The first asparagus patina is almost identical except for one ingredient: the meat of tiny birds called ficedulae (literally “fig-peckers”), three of them for one patina. I’ll be saving that for another time.

THE RECIPE

As it doesn’t deviate far from the modern palate, this is one of the most popular Ancient Roman recipes for revival, and there are numerous modernized versions out there. I mainly follow Cathy Kaufman’s reconstruction in her book Cooking in Ancient Civilizations (2006), but this recipe can also be found in other great books about Roman cooking, like A Taste of Ancient Rome (1994) and The Classical Cookbook (2012). The original Latin says to strain the crushed vegetable and wine mixture, a step which some translators follow and others, like the one quoted above, don’t. I personally think the recipe is better if you don’t strain. Roman vegetables were tougher and stringier than our vegetables, so this step was probably necessary to make 4th-century asparagus more palatable, but most modern asparagus will turn out sufficiently soft anyway.

Modern fermented fish sauce (available where Asian groceries are sold) will stand in for the near-identical Roman version. Savory and lovage are two herbs used in this recipe that you might not be familiar with, as they are less-popular today than they were in historical times. Savory is one of the traditional components of herbes de Provence and has a slightly bitter, spicy flavor. If you can’t find it, use thyme, marjoram or sage. Lovage has a similar flavor to celery, and crushed celery seed or the inner leaves of celery make a good substitute. All these substitutions were plants known to the Romans, so perhaps a strapped 4th-century chef might have done the same. The presence of pepper in the recipe hints at the intended audience of Apicius: enslaved or formerly-enslaved career chefs laboring in the kitchens of the wealthy. In Rome, pepper (known in three forms, black, white, and long) was a costly dried import from India. Households of more limited means used only fresh green herbs as seasoning.

raw patina

Asparagus and herb mixture.

First, gather your non-liquid ingredients: six eggs, 1 bunch of asparagus (trimmed), 1/4 cup chopped onion, 1/4 cup cilantro leaves, 1/4 teaspoon ground black or long pepper, 1 teaspoon dried savory or sage, and 1/8 teaspoon celery seed or lovage.

You will also need 1 tablespoon of olive oil (plus more for the dish), 1/2 a cup of white wine, and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.

Preheat the oven to 400 °F. Spread the inside of a one-quart gratin dish, pie dish, or cast-iron skillet with oil.

Puree all the ingredients except the eggs in a food processor or a mortar and pestle. Depending on the size of the equipment you are using, you may find it necessary to mash up the asparagus first and then add it to the other ingredients. Make sure everything is combined to a smooth, even texture. Beat the six eggs and add them to the pureed vegetables. Mix well to combine, and pour the mixture into the dish. Bake until set (about 35-40 minutes. If a fork or chopstick inserted into the center comes out clean, the patina is done). Serve with fresh cracked pepper.

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Raw patina about to go into the oven.

THE VERDICT

The predominant flavor in this dish is, of course, asparagus, but the spices and herbs come through quite nicely. It’s best-served and eaten with a spoon, as it has a mushy texture. It goes well with crusty bread, white wine, and, I’m assuming, fig-peckers. VIII out of X.