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: 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).