“This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes [Greeks], some by the barbarians [non-Greeks], not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other.”
Two wars in the 5th century BCE might seem like an unusual theme for a dinner party, but the Greco-Persian Wars are among the most momentous events ever in ancient history. Faced with a common enemy, the fractious city-states of Greece were forced to unite for the first time as they fought for independence from the largest empire in the world. The Wars helped define the distinct quality of “Greekness” (Hellenikon) and set the stage for the flowering of Greek art, government and literature that would inspire later cultures up to the present day. They also helped seed our modern division of the world’s cultures into “East” vs. “West.” Herodotus, a Greek who grew up in the Persian Empire and whose home city played an important role in the conflict, devoted his life to researching the cause behind the Wars. The modern study of history, and even the word itself, are derived from the text Herodotus titled his Inquiries (Historiai), because it represented his inquiry into that most basic of loaded questions: “why don’t we get along?”
Luckily, there was nothing but harmony in the air last night at the Greek restaurant Nerai in Manhattan, which hosted a very special event in collaboration with myself and Eklektikon Wines. Together we developed an ancient-inspired menu, with Greek natural wine pairings drawn from ancient traditions.
To represent the conflict, we chose to serve Ancient Greek and Ancient Persian-inspired food side by side for each course. The restaurant’s chef spun off from our initial ideas to create recipes within the realm of what would have been possible for ancient chefs. Except for the refined sugar in the candied walnuts, all the ingredients are authentically ancient. Though we don’t have as much documentation of the Ancient Persian diet as the Ancient Greek one, the Persian side of the menu was informed by modern Persian cuisine as well as Ancient Greek sources like Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (a biography of the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great) and the grocery lists of the Persian royal kitchens. This blog was one online source that provided a lot of useful background information.
I was so excited to see this event come together. Huge thanks to Nerai, Eklektikon, and to everyone who came and ate!
“Ever drifting down the stream, lingering in the golden gleam; life, what is it but a dream?” ~ Lewis Carroll (from Through the Looking-Glass, 1871)
Between vacation and working for a culinary camp this summer, I’ve spent the past month surrounded by amazing food with few opportunities to cook it for myself. I was craving a creative cooking challenge, so yesterday, I did something that has served me well many times in the past: I threw a themed party.
My history with themed parties goes back a long time (probably all the way back to my teenage obsession with Party Monster
). Over the years I’ve hosted a couple of murder mysteries, some themed dinners, and I’ve had a costume party with a specific theme for my birthday every year since 2009. These parties have gradually featured more and more food as my interest and experience in cooking has grown. Some of the culinary highlights have included Ancient Roman and Egyptian dinners and a party featuring only food from the pages of A Series of Unfortunate Events
(pasta puttanesca, salmon puffs and chilled cucumber soup, among other things).
This time, I decided to have an afternoon tea party outdoors on my apartment building’s terrace, inspired very loosely by the Mad Tea-Party in Alice and Wonderland
. I’m a huge Lewis Carroll fan (the original Tenniel illustration of Alice knocking over the jury-box
decorates the back of my phone case) but I had never had an Alice party before, so really I was killing two birds with one stone. I decorated with paper doilies and appropriate EAT ME and DRINK ME labels, and made an assortment of tea party snacks.
Here’s what was on the menu:
Makgeolli. If you never tasted it or smelled it, you’d swear it was tea.
Tea. Naturally. I got some cheap teapots off Amazon and brewed a few different kinds, chosen mainly for their potential to be mixed with booze: peppermint, Earl Grey and jasmine green.
There was also artichoke tea, which I picked up in Vietnam. It was very good; dark brown in color, it smelled like brown sugar and tasted faintly of a freshly steamed, unseasoned artichoke, as it should. A Vietnamese friend told me it’s believed to cool down your body, which I know is true of other teas like chrysanthemum as well. We mixed it with rum and ginger ale, which may not cool down your body but doesn’t taste half bad.
Makgeolli. This is a rice liquor (sometimes called “rice wine”) that I made according to the recipe of my usual source for all things culinary and Korean–Maangchi. I just made it because I’ve been wanting to. The only connection to my theme is that it does look rather like tea with milk. It was pretty easy to make, tasted great, and is old enough of a beverage to deserve its own Ancient Recipe post (forthcoming).
Tuna salad on endive spears. I’ve made this as an hors d’oeuvres for parties before, except usually I use imitation crab meat (which I was unable to find in time).
Hong Kong egg tarts
. These were really fun to make. I chose a fairly simple recipe, rather than going the authentic route and making Chinese puff pastry, which sounded a bit more complicated than the puff pastry I’m used to. I loved how cheerful they came out looking, like tiny suns.
Two kinds of finger sandwiches
. The white bread ones are Japanese chicken katsu (panko-breaded fried chicken cutlet with mayonnaise and tonkatsu sauce
). The pumpernickel ones are cucumber and herb cream cheese.
Jam-pennies. A British tea snack and supposedly a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II. Butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread cut into little circles (I used a shot glass. The Queen most likely does not).
Bonus image: it wouldn’t be much of a Mad Tea without a hatter. In the process of putting this costume together, I learned that the “In This Style 10/6” on the label in the Hatter’s hatband is not the hat’s size, it’s the hat’s price (ten shillings sixpence).
. A favorite of Australian children, fairy-bread is simply buttered bread with sprinkles on top. In keeping with my theme, I like to think it has something to do with the “bread-and-butter-flies
” of Looking-Glass World.
All in all it was a pleasant afternoon and an excellent excuse to get friends together, sit out in the sun, and most of all, cook.
New ancient recipe coming soon! (I do still write about ancient food, I promise.)