Ancient Recipe: Tzoalli (amaranth candy) (Aztec, prehistory – 16th century CE)

3“The priest brought down a small idol made of this dough. Its eyes were small green beads, and its teeth were grains of corn…he ascended to the place where those who were to be sacrificed stood, and from one end to the other he went along showing the figure to each one saying, ‘Behold your god!'” ~ Aztec amaranth dough ritual described by Diego Durán in 1574

The Aztecs had a way with words. They described the world around them with amazingly poetic turns of phrase and names so grandiose and ominous they sound straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook. Just take the name of Huitzilopochtli (weet-zeel-oh-potch-tlee), one of the most important Aztec deities, which translates to “Left-Handed Hummingbird.”

A mighty war-god crowned with feathers, Huitzilopochtli was associated with the sun and with a special kind of grain cultivated by his worshipers. We know it today as amaranth, but the Aztecs called it huauhtli (wow-tlee), which is unusual for a Nahuatl word because it comes from a root that can’t be connected with any other. The same people who called warriors “eagle-jaguars” and human sacrifice “the flowery death” and worshiped Left-Handed Hummingbird alongside his sister, Face Painted With Bells, seem to have had a lapse in creativity when it came to describing amaranth. Perhaps huauhtli was considered so sacred and important that it could only be referred to as itself.

In the Aztec diet, amaranth was second in importance only to corn. Every part of the plant is edible, but the Aztecs valued the tiny seeds the most, which are packed with essential amino acids and twice the iron content of wheat. As with corn, amaranth grains could be toasted and eaten whole or ground into flour to make the familiar base of every Aztec meal: tortillas and tamales. During the holy month of Panquetzaliztli, the Raising of the Banners (analogous to December in our calendar), toasted amaranth grain would be mixed with honey to form a special dough called tzoalli. This substance was shaped into idols of Huitzilopochtli and other divinities, which were paraded through the streets and displayed in the temple before being “sacrificed”; priests broke the candied offerings into tiny pieces and distributed them among the crowd to be eaten.

The association between amaranth and Huitzilopochtli is likely due to the brilliant fuchsia color of amaranth flowers, which makes them a favorite of Huitzilopochtli’s namesake, the hummingbird. The ritual of group tzoalli consumption represents the life-giving power of the gods and calls to mind sacrificial rituals in many other cultures. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and established their colony of Nueva España, they noticed a parallel between this ritual and their own Christian Communion ceremony, in which a gathering of worshippers also consume the flesh of God. The Spanish were so affronted by this pagan Communion that they outlawed the cultivation of amaranth in New Spain, despite the grain’s centrality in the Aztec diet. But the Aztecs continued to cultivate amaranth out of sight of the colonial government, and the ritual of shaping and sharing tzoalli survived in a new form. Today, Mexicans still make a sticky amaranth sweet for the Day of the Dead and other holidays that is nearly identical to the original Aztec recipe. Sometimes cut into simple squares, it can also be sculpted into skulls or other shapes that recall the idols of Huitzilopochtli. The modern Spanish name even has some of the creative flair of an Aztec name: it is called alegrìa, meaning “joy”. Having tasted it, I can understand why.

THE RECIPEtzoalli 1

As with many historical recipes, the precise procedure for making tzoalli is unclear, and there were probably many variations. I based my version on modern alegría, which uses whole, toasted amaranth grains rather than amaranth flour. The binding agent in alegría is molasses and/or raw sugar, which were unknown to the Aztecs. Some secondary sources claim the Aztecs mixed amaranth with human sacrificial blood for their tzoalli, an unlikely exaggeration (while human sacrifice did accompany the Panquetzaliztli celebration, first-hand accounts like the one quoted above make it clear that the dough idols were made before anybody was sacrificed). Most sources describe the use of honey, which the Aztecs knew in two forms: bee honey imported from their Mayan neighbors to the south, and locally-produced maguey honey, the boiled-down sap of a species of agave plant.

First, we need one and a half cups of toasted amaranth grain. I was lucky (or lazy) enough to find pre-toasted amaranth grain at Kalustyan’s in Manhattan, which carries a staggering array of spices from all over the world and has served me well for many an ancient recipe. You can toast your own amaranth in a covered pan over medium-high heat for about 30 seconds, one tablespoon at a time. Once the grain is toasted, melt three-quarters of a cup of honey, just enough so that it flows like water. I microwaved my honey in a bowl for 15 seconds, stirred, then microwaved 15 seconds more. You can also melt it in a pot over the stove on low heat while stirring constantly.

When your honey is warm and melted, all you have to do is combine the warm honey and amaranth in a bowl and mix well. At this point, I also added half a cup of ground pumpkin seeds to the mixture. Modern alegría often contains pumpkin seeds, and they were well-known to the Aztecs, so I didn’t see why not. Spread the mixture into a 9 x 13 inch pan lined with wax paper and press it down flat with moistened hands (it’s pretty sticky). Let it chill for abut two hours in the refrigerator, after which the tzoalli can be cut into bars and served. You could, of course, shape it into little statues of a left-handed hummingbird, but it didn’t seem right to me without all the attendant ceremony (and sacrifice).

tzoalli 2

THE VERDICT

The grain itself has the mild flavor of puffed rice, with just a hint of something else I can only describe as….planty. Have you ever bitten into a live twig? That’s the flavor I’m talking about: that generic “plant” taste, clean, organic and faintly bitter. But mostly the tzoalli crunches and tastes like honey, with a hint of nuttiness and salt from the pumpkin seeds.

This might be the best-tasting ancient recipe I’ve ever made. I can understand how special it must have seemed as a rare holiday treat, especially to an ancient Aztec who was breaking a religious fast and unused to eating concentrated sugar. In the future I’ll try making it with maguey honey, which has a distinctive taste. X out of X.

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?