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Parthian Cuisine

Do we know what the Parthians ate? Some information has come to us about Parthian food through Roman sources, principally De Re Coquinaria by Marcus Gavius Apicius. In addition, there are a number of other sources containing classical Roman recipes with references to Parthia, the most important being De Agricultura by Marcus Porcius Cato.

The recipes below are adapted to the modern kitchen and hopefully give a reasonable idea of some Parthian foods eaten in classical times, while recognizing that they were Roman adaptations.

     Parthian Beans
     Parthian Bread
     Parthian Chicken
     Parthian Lamb

Parthian Beans

Apicius 5.3.7: Aliter pisam sive fabam: despumatam subtrito lasare Parthico, liquamen et caroeno condies. Oleum modice superfundis et inferes.

This dish was most likely named for the use of the strong laser parthicum flavoring.

     Beans, 1 can
     Garum (liquamen; substitute Vietnamese nuoc mam)
     Laser (substitute asafetida)
     Pine nuts
     White wine, 1/2 bottle
     Vegetable stock, 1/4 pint
     Boil the beans and skim off, save separately
     Grind the asafetida and pine nuts together
     Put about stock and wine in a pan with the spices, and bring to a boil, reducing to about two-thirds the starting quantity
     Add beans to the pan, heat thoroughly

If you're going to need to keep this warm for a while, you may need to add more wine or stock to prevent drying out. Remember that wine needs to be actually boiled to remove the alcohol.

If asafetida is unavailable, fennel or ginger can substitute for laser. Use mainly fennel seed with a pinch of root ginger, plus some ground pine nuts. The rest of the sauce is boiled white wine (down to about half the starting quantity) and vegetable stock.

Some varieties of beans are from the western hemisphere, so select old world types.

Parthian Bread

Roman legions were familiar with "Parthian bread" and Pliny claimed that it would keep for centuries. Parthian bread was a very hard, barely risen biscuit. This must be the same hard tack or biscuit that was the staple food of soldiers and sailors for millennium. Biscuit (or cracker in American usage) is a sweet or savory dry flat cake with a high calorie content. Both biscuit (fr.) and biscotti (it.) mean twice-cooked. This double baking makes the cake drier and harder to improve its keeping qualities.

There is a recipe for Parthian Bread (that I have not seen) in Charles and Violet Schafer, Breadcraft (San Francisco: Yuerba Buena Press, 1974).

Parthian Lamb or Agneau à la Parthe

(Agnum Particum, Agnum Pasticum)

Apicius 3.6.5: Haedun sive agnum particum: Mittes in furnum. Teres piper, rutam, cepam, satureiam, damascena enucleata, laseris midicum, vinum, liquamen et oleum. Fervens collitur in disco, ex aceto sumitur.

The origin of the name is subject to some debate. The name is assumed to originate from the use of laser parthicum (here substituted by pureed garlic) but may possibly be a mistranslation from the original text and could be pasticum instead of particum. Pasticum means suckling as in milk fed.

     1/2 small milk-fed lamb (or kid, that's baby goat) (10 lbs approx weight)
     1-1/2 lb pitted prunes - plumped in warm water (or wine)
     4 large onions (chopped)
     2 teaspoons garum (liquamen; substitute Vietnamese nuoc mam)
     4 tablespoons olive oil
     2 tablespoons (total) rue and savory (chopped)
     3 garlic cloves (2 crushed & chopped, 1 pureed) as substitute for laser (asafetida)
     Glass of white wine
     Pepper to taste
     Score the lamb and chop through the bones (but not all the way through the meat) approximately every 2 inches (this makes it easier to portion up after cooking)
     Rub lamb with olive oil, chopped garlic and salt and pepper
     Roast lamb slowly at 335° F (170° C/gas mark 3) for approximately one and a half to two hours, basting with the white wine after half an hour
     Meanwhile, take the chopped onions and sauté in a little olive oil. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes (do not allow to burn) add the salt, pepper and herbs. Then add the prunes (they should be soft) and the pureed garlic. Cook until the fruit has nearly disintegrated into a puree. Add the garum and stir. Take off the heat
     Remove the cooked lamb from the oven. It should be crisp outside and well-cooked but not dry or burnt (neither ancient Romans nor their modern descendants eat 'pink' lamb)
     Sprinkle the lamb carefully with a little white wine vinegar to degrease
     Chop the lamb through the cuts you made before cooking, a couple of pieces should make about a portion
     Place in an oven-to-table dish (terracotta's good) and pour over the sauce. Return to the oven for about 10 minutes
     Remove and serve with a hearty sprinkling of ground black pepper. Serves 10

Parthian Chicken

(Pullum Parthicum)

Apicius 6.9.2: Pullum Parthicum: pullum aperies a naui et in quadrato ornas. teres piper, ligusticum, carei modicum. suffunde liquamen. uino temperas. componis in Cumana pullum et condituram super pullum facies. laser et uinum interdas. dissolues et in pullum mittis simul et coques. piper aspersum inferes.

     4 pieces chicken (breast or leg)
     ground black pepper
     6 fl oz (3/4 Cup/170 ml) red wine
     2 tablespoons (30 ml) garum (liquamen; substitute Vietnamese nuoc mam)
     1/2 teaspoon laser (substitute asafetida powder or 5 drops asafetida tincture)
     2 teaspoons chopped fresh lovage or celery leaf
     2 teaspoons caraway seeds
     Place the chicken in a casserole dish and sprinkle it liberally with pepper.
     Combine the wine, fish sauce and asafoetida, add the lovage and caraway seeds and pour over the chicken.
     Cover and bake in a pre-heated oven at 375° F (190° C/gas mark 5) for 1 hour. Half-way through the cooking time remove the lid to brown the chicken.
     Serve with a little of the sauce poured over the meat.

This is a simple dish, and very unusual in a Roman context, for it contains no sweetener. It is interesting that it is named after Parthia, Rome's rival, and notable that asafoetida is the dominant flavor. This may confirm that the recipe was Parthian in origin — or at least it may explain how it got its name — for asafoetida came to Rome from the Parthian Empire. Caraway, on the other hand, is of central European origin. It was certainly the Romans who added this to the dish. Green caraway, rather than caraway seed, was probably intended. However, caraway is difficult to obtain fresh unless you grow it in a greenhouse. Using the caraway seed works very well.

[adapted from The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby]

Garum (Liquamen)

Garum (or liquamen), a fish sauce, was a common flavoring sauce, and necessary to several of the recipes above. Read the very interesting discussion of garum by Sally Grainger. It is common to replace garum with Vietnamese nuoc mam in modern recreations of ancient recipes.

Accept this exquisite garum, a precious gift made with the first blood spilled from a living mackerel.
                                                                                                                                                      -- Martial 13, 102

Use fatty fish, for example sardines, and a well-sealed (pitch-coated) container with a 26-35 liter capacity. Add dried aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small leave them whole, if large use pieces); and over this add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these three layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for twenty days. After that time it becomes a liquid (garum).
                                                                                  -- Gargilius Martialis, De Medicina et de Virtute Herbarum, 62

But this recipe fails to mention the use of wine must (the solids left over from grape fermentation), which was prevalent. Different qualities of ingredients were used, of course, and the cheapest form of garum was liquamen, made using fish entrails instead of whole fish or fish blood. Although it would seem that the finished product was "rotten", the salt has preservative properties and the garum fermented rather than rotted, causing most of the ingredients to liquefy. The results were strained to exclude fish pieces from the finished product.

Laser (Silphium)

The Silphium plant was the first exotic spice to arrive in Rome and only the smallest amount was sufficient to flavor food. It was so important to the economy of its producer that its image was stamped on all coins of Cyrene from the 6th century B.C. This was undoubtedly effective as a form of publicity, since money enjoyed such wide circulation and its imagery was consequently a powerful message. Thus the cultivation of silphium must have been a great source of wealth for Cyrene and its territory.

In detailing his recipes in the 2nd century A.D., Apicius was trying to recreate the ingredients of an earlier time. The original main flavoring was laser or silphium, obtained by the Romans from Cyrene. "This seasoning was probably derived from the Ferula tingitana plant, a species of giant fennel which flourished, but only in a wild state, in North Africa. It was gathered with such zeal by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans that by the first century A.D. the plant was extinct on the southern coast of the Mediterranean and had to be imported from what are now known as Syria, Iraq and Iran. Apicius did mention Cyrenaic laser (Libyan asafetida). In modern times, the Ferula tingitana has returned to North Africa where it grows to heights of between six and eight feet." [John Edwards, The Roman Cookery of Apicius (London: Random House Ltd., 1985)].

Laser was often mixed and ground together with pine nuts, which would absorb the flavor. The ground pine nuts were then used as seasoning, while the expensive laser remained in the storage cask. When laser is added to hot oil, it changes from its strong and powerful smell to an enticing onion-garlic aroma.

Asafoetida emerged into prominence during Alexander the Great's invasion of Asia that began in 334 B.C. While crossing the northeastern provinces of the Persian Empire, his soldiers discovered a plant almost identical to silphium. It made an excellent silphium substitute for soldiers on campaign, and the only substitute when silphium became later extinct.

Botanists think that laser parthicum, which replaced the extinct silphium in Roman recipes, is Ferula asafetida. The gum resin, an extract of asafetida, was present for many years in European pharmacology and is still used in the Middle East. Thus asafetida, if the botanists are correct, is the same laser parthicum used by Romans from Pliny's time onwards, and asafetida is easily available in Indian groceries as "hing".

Read more about silphium, laser and asafetida at The mystery of the lost Roman herb.

This page last updated 23 Feb 2021

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