Tilapia Stew with Barley (Egyptian, ca. 3500 BCE)

img_2848.jpg“I behold the tilapia in its true nature, guiding the speedy boat in its waters.”
~ From The Book of Coming Forth Into the Light, better known as The Book of the Dead, 2nd or 1st millennium BCE

In a prehistoric Egyptian tomb of the fourth millennium BCE, archaeologists unearthed a rare surprise. Unlike the carefully dissected mummies of later Egyptian history, whose innards were cleansed and removed to canopic jars, one of the bodies in this early tomb had its digestive system intact, complete with stomach contents. Analysis revealed the last meal of this early Egyptian: a simple soup of barley, green onion, and tilapia.

Today, tilapia has achieved fame for its versatility and economy as a food source. The fish breeds quickly in captivity, can tolerate cramped conditions, and eats almost anything plant-based, making it cheap and easy to farm. Its mild white flesh is inoffensive to palates unaccustomed to seafood and readily accepts a range of seasonings. After carp, tilapia is the world’s most-commonly farmed fish, riding a wave of popularity that took off in the 1980s and shows no sign of slowing down. But thousands of years ago in Egypt, the fish simply called in was already being raised in enclosed ponds and captured with nets and spears from the life-giving Nile River. The tilapia species most-commonly eaten today is still known, appropriately, as the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus).


The Greek historian Herodotus remarked in 440 BCE how much the Egyptians cherished their animals. They let them sleep in their homes, mourned them when they died, and worshipped them as living gods. It’s no surprise then that the Nile tilapia was featured in Egyptian culture, art and religion as prominently as in the Egyptian diet. A popular shape for bottles and makeup palettes, tilapia was represented by its very own hieroglyphK1. The fish was believed to help guide the Boat of the Sun as it sailed across the sky, as in the above quote from The Book of the Dead, a compendium of magic spells for ushering spirits to the afterlife. Tilapia was also associated with Hathor, the goddess of love and women, and considered a symbol of fertility and renewal. Such lofty significance may have stemmed from a misinterpretation of tilapia behavior. When danger threatens, the tiny baby fish swim into their mother’s mouth for protection (a phenomenon called mouth-brooding, also observed in other fish species). Ancient people who saw tilapia fry emerging from mom’s mouth may have believed the adult fish was miraculously creating the babies.

Egyptians would not have recognized today’s supermarket tilapia, white, cleaned and vacuum-sealed. Not only did the Egyptians consume every part of the fish, they ate only the dark tilapia now referred to as “wild-type.” The color of a tilapia has no effect on its flavor, but because many modern consumers prefer white fish, commercial fisheries now rely on pinkish “red tilapia.” These fish have been selectively bred for a genetic lack of pigment called leucism, the same mutation which produces white tigers. And the modification of farmed tilapia doesn’t stop with their genes. Keeping these ancient symbols of fertility in mixed-sex groups leads to unmanageable population growth, so today’s farmers give the sexless baby tilapia food laced with hormones, causing most of them to develop into males.


IMG_2855This recipe is modified from Cooking in Ancient Civilizations by Cathy Kaufman (2006), one of my favorite sources for reconstructed ancient recipes. The original Egyptian stew this recipe was based on contained bones, fins and scales, but for the pictures above I was only able to obtain cleaned tilapia fillets. If you can find yourself a whole tilapia or a similarly mild white fish like catfish or sea bream, use it. As a wise woman (Maangchi) once said, don’t be afraid of fishbones, especially in soup! They add extra flavor, and when fish is properly cooked the meat falls off the bone easily.

Fish farms contribute to water pollution and the spread of fish diseases, but some have less of an impact than others. Tilapia farmed in the USA, Canada and Ecuador are the most ecologically friendly choice.

-1/2 cup barley
-3 cups water
-4 scallions/green onions, washed and sliced (use the entire scallion, including the root. The roots will give more flavor to the soup and will be removed before serving, taking another page from Maangchi’s book.)
-2 tilapia fillets or 1 whole, cleaned tilapia (or similar white fish)
-salt to taste

Rinse the barley and place in a saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil, add just the roots of the scallions, and simmer for 30 minutes. Use a spoon to skim off any foam that rises to the top (excess starch from the barley).

Remove the scallion roots. Cut the tilapia into chunks (if you’re using a whole fish, keep the skin, bones and fins). Add the fish to the water and cook for about 10 minutes over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the rest of the scallions and cook for 5 minutes more.

Taste and add salt as needed. Serve hot.


The fish releases some oil into the soup, and I find that it doesn’t need much seasoning to taste delicious, though you could also add garlic, butter or spices. It’s a simple, hearty meal that will have you landing solidly in Ancient Egypt.

Patina de Rosis [Baked Brains & Roses] (Roman, ca. 5th century CE)

img_5800.jpg“Take roses fresh from the flower bed, strip off the leaves, remove the white from the petals and put them in the mortar; pour over some fish sauce and rub fine. Add a glass of fish sauce and strain the juice through the colander. This done, take four cooked calf’s brains, skin them and remove the nerves; crush eight scruples of pepper moistened with the juice and rub with the brains; thereupon break eight eggs, add a glass of wine, a glass of raisin wine and a little oil. Meanwhile grease a pan, place it on the hot ashes or in the hot bath in which pour the above described material; when the mixture is cooked in the double boiler, sprinkle it with ground pepper and serve.”
~ De re coquinaria (Apicius) Book 4, Chapter 2, ca. 5th century CE

I’m a big fan of eating brains.

My Roman ancestors felt the same way. The Roman cookbook Apicius contains recipes for brain sausages, brain-stuffed squash fritters and rose patina (patina de rosis), a baked dish of scrambled brain and eggs, flavored with roses.

Except among zombies and evil meteors, eating brains is far less popular globally than it once was. Modern science has found brains to be very high in cholesterol, and also tarnished their reputation by associating them with a deadly epidemic. That would be mad cow disease, properly known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). In the 1990s, a BSE outbreak in the UK caused a global panic, leading to the deaths of over 200 people and the slaughter of 4.4 million potentially-infected cattle.

Caused by the malfunctioning of DNA proteins called prions, BSE results in holes in the victim’s brain tissue (hence the name “spongiform”), leading to neural degeneration and death. It can be contracted from eating the meat and especially the brain of an infected animal, and transmission is unaffected by cooking. Which raises a reasonable question–didn’t the brain-craving Romans suffer from mad cow disease? Not exactly.

A Medieval copy of Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae, Vegetius’s guide to veterinary medicine. The prion disease of goats and sheep mentioned within might be scrapie, which was formally described by science in 1732. Photo by Sailko (2013).

BSE is not the only prion disease, and similar livestock illnesses are described by ancient writers such as Hippocrates in 400 BCE and Vegetius, who lived at the same time when Apicius was composed (4th and 5th centuries CE). But most prion diseases cannot pass from animal to human, making mad cow disturbingly unique. There is no ancient account of a person contracting a prion disease, although Hippocrates mistakenly conflated prion disease in animals with epilepsy in humans because of their similar symptoms.

BSE was first identified in 1986, and its development and spread were directly linked to the industrialization of 20th-century farming. Undesirable bits from slaughtered cattle, including their brains, were ground up and fed to living cattle as a protein supplement called MBM or “meat and bone meal”, inadvertently infecting the animals with prion disease (and giving me grisly flashbacks to Soylent Green and the “soap” from Cloud Atlas). Because of the ’90s BSE outbreak, most countries have banned the use of MBM in feed for ruminant (cud-chewing) animals such as cows and sheep, although it is still an ingredient in commercial pet food.  As a further precaution, since prion diseases do not manifest until adulthood, it is now illegal in many countries to sell brain from an adult cow. Which is to say that this recipe, which uses calf brains, is just about as safe as it was in Roman times.


The sweet wine in the original Roman recipe, called passum, was made from raisins, making it a type of straw wine. Passum is still made in Italy today under the slightly-different name of passito. You can also use marsala, sherry, or Manischewitz.


The main ingredient, looking exactly how you would expect.

Apicius provides some unusually specific instructions about incorporating roses into this dish: take fresh roses, “cut off the white” (presumably separate the petals from the flowerheads), grind with fish sauce and strain. I attempted this with fresh roses and their flavor/scent did not carry over into the fish sauce, so I ended up using rosewater (or rose tea), which I made by soaking dried rose petals in hot water.

-2 calf’s or pig’s brains (available, fresh or frozen, from halal butchers and some Mexican or Asian grocery stores)
-4 beaten eggs
-1/3 cup rosewater
-1/3 cup fish sauce
-1/2 cup sweet cooking wine
-1 teaspoon black pepper
-rose petals for serving (optional)

Rinse the brains in cold water and pat dry. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, lower the heat and simmer the brains until they are gray and a fork can pierce them easily (about 10 minutes).

In a blender or food processor, combine brains with all the other ingredients and blend until smooth. Pour the liquid into a pie dish greased with olive oil.

Apicius instructs the chef to cook the dish by placing it in termospodio, “in the embers.” You can use a double boiler to replicate the even, gentle heat of hot coals. I balanced my 9-inch pie dish on top of a cast-iron pan filled with water and added a lid.

Cook the patina over low heat for 40-45 minutes, until a fork inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve with rose petals and more black pepper.


The flavor of brain resembles liver mousse, rich and creamy. The roses are an interesting addition, with a subtle flavor balanced by the sweetness of the wine. Like many baked Roman patinae, this one is soft and wet enough to require a spoon. Eat it by itself or with bread, while it’s still hot (nobody likes cold brains).