Dinner Dates: Onfim (12th – 13th century CE)


“I am a wild beast.”
~ The label of Onfim’s self-portrait (ca. 1220 CE)

Through simple lines and geometric shapes, the artist explores realities and possibilities, the mundane and the fantastical. In one drawing, seven children stand in line, holding hands. In another, knights on horseback trample fallen bodies, brandishing swords and spears. One self-portrait depicts the artist as a fire-breathing chimera. Another shows a mounted warrior driving a spear into an enemy half his size. The victor is labelled “Onfim.

These are the doodles of a creative child, made on the backs and in the margins of his schoolwork eight hundred years ago.


Onfim was born in the late 12th or early 13th century in the city of Novgorod in northwestern Russia. At the time of Onfim’s birth, Novgorod had been an independent democratic city-state for about a hundred years. The Republic of Novgorod would survive and prosper for several more centuries, growing so much in power, wealth and prestige that its proud residents referred to their city as though it were a person: “His Majesty, Lord Novgorod the Great.” Veliky Novgorod (Great Novgorod) is still the city’s official name in Russia.

Lord Novgorod the Great had an unusually high level of literacy for the period, at least partly due to a free and accessible source of paper: the region’s abundant birch trees. Novgorodians used them as living memo pads, peeling off the papery bark and writing messages on it. Called beresty, these birch-bark notes were discarded after use, at which point many would be preserved by the unique mixture of clay and bacteria in the local soil. Since 1950, over 1100 beresty have been discovered in Novgorod, and more get dug up every year. Written in a Slavic vernacular called Old Novgorodian that is distinct from the literary language of the time, beresty offer a glimpse at everyday life in Medieval Russia. They are not political discourses or religious texts but shopping lists, love-notes, invitations, and even children’s drawings. That’s where Onfim comes in.

At the time Onfim made his drawings, he is estimated to have been six or seven years old. It’s possible he never survived to adulthood, like some 30-50% of Medieval children. But assuming he did survive–what then? If these discarded drawings could be shown to the grown-up Onfim, he probably wouldn’t remember making them. He might even be embarrassed to know that out of everything he did and created during his lifetime, history remembers him as a little boy who zoned out during class. Onfim might have become almost anyone, but here are the details we know for certain about his life:

Images of Onfim’s drawings from Wikimedia Commons.

  • He was raised Christian. Aside from copying out the alphabet, his schoolwork includes quotations from the Book of Psalms and snatches of prayer, such as “Lord, help your servant Onfim.”
  • He had a family. He drew and labelled his mother and father alongside two children chasing each other around a tree, perhaps himself and a sibling. Another drawing of a child next to an adult, both figures dressed for war, may depict Onfim’s fantasy of becoming a warrior like his dad.
  • He had a male friend or sibling named Danilo. The self-portrait of Onfim as a beast carries a sign in its claws that says Poklon ot Onfima ko Danile, “Greetings from Onfim to Danilo.” It might have been a gift, or even a note passed during class.


The earliest Russian cookbook dates to 1547, centuries after Onfim, but we have a general idea of the diet of a Medieval Russian peasant. Onfim’s family dinners would have been hearty, uncomplicated and mostly vegetarian. Cows provided dairy, while foraged berries and mushrooms supplemented home-grown vegetables and grain. Turnip and cabbage were important crops, as was kasha or buckwheat, a botanical weirdo of a plant dubbed a “pseudocereal” because it has grain-like seeds but is not a true grain. Novgorod is a lakeside city, and fish was another important food source, especially on days of religious abstention from meat. The church calendar set the rhythm of Onfim’s diet, with some form of fasting practiced more than 60% of the year.


In the Russian Orthodox calendar it’s currently the middle of the Great Lent, the longest and strictest fasting period, when followers abstain totally from animal products, olive oil and wine. Kasha porridge is traditionally seasoned with butter, but I left it unseasoned to reflect the Lenten fast.


The Lord is a giant who stands at the edge of the waters, towering over the birch trees. Like the giants in Grandmother’s stories; like Novgorod the Great. He wears a helmet and carries a sword, a real one like Father’s that Onfim is not allowed to touch. Knights and heroes and Father blur together in Onfim’s mind into one figure, larger than life.

Today, Onfim used a big stick to draw him in the snow by the lakeshore: the great man, the god-city-father, resplendent in armor. But before he finished, Danilo came and found him, and they broke the stick into two swords and became Ilya Muromets dueling the sorcerer Koschei until it was time for dinner.

When Father has finished the prayer, they begin to eat. There are still four weeks of fasting ahead, and Onfim is growing impatient. Curling his fingers into claws under the table, he decides to become an animal to help himself finish the meal. Beasts gobbled their feed and didn’t miss the taste of butter, or caviar, or berries with fresh cream. The steam rising from his porridge mingles with Onfim’s memory of exhaling vapor in the snow. He is awash in the breath of dragons.

I am a wild beast, he thinks. He can see it so clearly! He will have to draw it later.

Another of Onfim’s self-portraits. He is also known by the Latinized name Anthemius of Novgorod, which makes him sound like a wise philosopher monk instead of a doodling seven year-old.

Cheese and Other Updates


I’ve had a busy summer. Aside from my earlier vacation, I worked at an amazing culinary camp through CampusNYC, where I got to teach groups of teens about the history and science of food. Now I’m off on my last major event of the season: Burning Man 2017. This is my first time going to Burning Man, and while I’m not exactly certain what I’ll encounter out there, I know it will delay my next blog post. Expect a new ancient recipe in early September.

For now, I wanted to provide some updates about a recipe from the Medieval Islamic world that I posted some time ago: kamakh rijal, the remarkably simple recipe that uses salt and natural probiotic cultures to ferment milk into spreadable cheese. Last time, I wrote about the first six weeks. For the cheese to reach its final stage, I had to wait a total of 15 weeks before adding seasonings and transferring it from its original container. I am happy to say I am now the proud owner of several quarts of kamakh rijal.

Now that the cheese is officially ready to serve, I moved it from the counter to the fridge to slow down the fermentation process. Following the instructions of the original recipe in the Medieval Book of Dishes, I mixed in equal amounts of garlic and mint leaves (minced) and nigella seeds (one and a half tablespoons of each for the large amount of cheese I had–about 6 cups. That’s almost exactly the amount of milk and yogurt that went into the cheese in the first place). Nigella, also called black cumin or black caraway, is a spice that was widely-used in the ancient world, even being found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The seeds are similar in appearance to black sesame seeds, but the flavor is unique and powerful, like onion mixed with anise. In Armenia and Syria, nigella is still used to flavor cheese today (especially string cheese), while modern-day South Asians use the spice in naan and other breads.


This is what the cheese looked like immediately after being transferred to a larger bowl for mixing. Less solid than it looks.

Kamakh rijal was likely intended to be served on flatbread, ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisines to this day. I’ve been experimenting with different ways to use it beyond its original context. It’s good on crackers and raw vegetable sticks or in a sandwich. Because the flavor is so strong, it is best-used sparingly and pairs well with milder ingredients like celery, tomato or lettuce. I could imagine using it in tuna salad, or anywhere you might use an herb cream cheese or goat cheese.

I used some of the kamakh rijal with milk, flour, butter and spinach to make a cheese sauce. I also made chicken rollatini using it as filling. The flavor of the cheese was a little overpowering in the chicken, but I really liked the cheese sauce on pasta or baked potatoes.

If the garlic/nigella/mint combination doesn’t appeal to you, you could try mixing it with dried rose and cinnamon (another suggestion from the Book of Dishes) or other flavorings of your choice. VII out of X.


Kamakh rijal-stuffed chicken cutlet, topped with dried mint and onions and served with asparagus on the side.