Here in this classic dish we have two essential elements of Japanese coming together: Soy and the Sea.
I couldn’t say I did any historical Japanese cooking if I didn’t make something with Dashi, the ubiquitous broth of dried seaweed and smoked fish flakes that’s essential to so many dishes. The unique flavor of Dashi is said to be that of the Sea itself.
And tofu, originally invented in China, was a vital source of protein for Buddhist monks abstaining from meat, but of course other people enjoyed it too. Tofu gets such a bad rap these days, but when its treated simply, fried up perfectly to be crispy on the outside and creamy within, it’s really tasty!
Both of those things come together simply and deliciously in Agedashi Tofu, a dish still popular today but some version of which must have been eaten for many centuries in Japan. Shallow fried tofu in Dashi, or “ocean stock” if you like, garnished with some nice veggies.
We started a batch of what the Romans called Garum, a delicacy across Ancient cultures: fish sauce! The gross way to say it? Fermented fish guts.
It’s been almost 8 weeks. My layers of salted, chopped sardines have been fermenting in the fridge, their essence dissolving in salt. This could go for much longer, but I think it’s ready to strain and try!
I made Liquid Gold:
Line a mesh strainer with two double layers (yes, a lot) of cheese cloth, pouring in the fish mixture. It will take a long time to strain this way, but you will be rewarded with a cleaner sauce. Feel free to stir to help the process along.
I HIGHLY suggest doing this outside!
And that’s it! The end result is a sauce that’s similar, but also distinct from fish sauce bought in the store. It’s actually less fishy, with more of a delicious, meaty, umami blast of saltiness. It’s great in stirfries, mixed with other things into dipping sauces, or added just a couple drops at a time to nearly anything to give great depth of flavor. It’s no wonder civilizations across history and geography have all enjoyed their own versions of garum.
If I had to name just one ingredient that was key to the ancient world’s cuisine, it might be fish sauce.
All you need are fish and a lot of salt. An ingenious method of food preservation, its invention too deep in the past to ever know, alongside other legendary foods of yore like bread, beer, and cheese.
From Sumer onwards, almost all civilizations seem to have made the stuff. But it was the Romans who called it “garum” and recorded it into history. Fish sauce could be made at home by poor fishermen families, but there was also a highly expensive market for the very finest vintages of garum. Whatever quality, you can’t make Roman cuisine without it.
There are many recipes in Apicius’s On Cookery which, while intriguing, I have little desire to taste. The sardine and gelatin omelette for instance, or the fried pork livers and brain sausages that were usually paired with the dish I’m making today.
But that so named “Dish of Scallops” is a recipe that caught my eye long ago when I started reading this stuff. It’s something I’ve always wanted to make and taste ever since. Given its mastery of the Mediterranean, Roman love of shellfish was… well, a given! Herem Apicius presents a delicious, exceedingly refined way to cook some.
Lightly cook scallops or the firm part of oysters. Remove the hard and objectionable parts, and mince the meat very fine. Mix this with cooked spelt, eggs, and season with pepper. Shape into croquettes and wrap in caul. Fry, and underlay a rich fish sauce and serve as a delicious entree.
We’re going to modify the instructions just a bit.
Today, we’re going to use the Homemade Feta Cheese we made last week to prepare two different appetizers. We know marinated feta, as well as fried cheese are staples in modern Greek food, but probably go back much further into the ancient world. Greeks have loved their cheese for a long time, especially those who had migrated to Sicily, known for its excellent quality dairy products.
Submerging fresh cheese in olive oil no doubt began as a preservation method, but by adding herbs and aromatics, we can create a really flavorful cheese salad.
As for fried cheese, there are few things far more delicious. Modern Greek restaurants in the US call the dish saganaki, after the name of the frying pan its cooked in. It’s usually doused in lemon juice and flambeed in distilled alcohol right at the table. “Opa!” shouts the waiter as flames whoosh high up into the air, and the next table says “Oo, I’d like to order that opa thing.”
Without lemon juice or distilled liquor in our Ancient Greek Pantry, we will have to get creative. Also, we’re using fresh feta cheese. If you want a Saganaki just like you get in a restaurant, substitute Kasseri or Kefalograviera cheese. Continue reading “Greek Cheese, Two Ways”
This is classic Ancient Greece. Though not necessarily limited to classical Ancient Greece.
From the earliest Neolithic settlers, up until the present day really, Octopus Salad represents an Aegean staple.
This is the ancient version, lacking citrus and using ingredients representative of the ingredients that were available. The simplest rendition of this is just cold octopus chopped up and tossed in olive oil. You don’t need more than that, but by adding barley, onions, garlic, greens, and fish sauce, tied with mustard for favorite ancient condiment of the world, we can really build up the flavor. Continue reading “Octopus Salad”