Sunday, October 17, 2010

Asafoetida Adventure: a Parthian Meal

Salve! Spartacurtus sum! Tonight, I made a dinner with the intention of showing off the spice asafoetida. From The Classical Cookbook by Richard Dalby, I chose to make a Parthian dinner, which included Parthian Beans, and Parthian Chicken. The Parthian Period was a period in Iranian history (274 BC – 224 AD).

Parthian Chicken
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(Apicius 6, 9, 2) 

    • 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. Halfway through the cooking time, remove the lid to brown the chicken.
    • Serve with a little of the sauce poured over the meat.

Parthian Beans

Aliter pisam sive fabam: despumatam subtrito lasare Parthico, liquamen et caroeno condies. Oleum modice superfundis et inferes. (Apicius 5, 3, 7)

    • Black Beans, 1 can
    • 1 T Garum (liquamen; substitute Vietnamese nuoc mam)
    • 1/2 t Laser (substitute asafetida)
    • 2 T Pine nuts (I substituted sunflower seeds)
    • 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

This dish was surprisingly delicious! The chicken came out a little burned. I knew I shouldn't have followed the instructions that said to leave the chicken in the oven for an hour. I took it out after about 45 minutes, when I could smell it beginning to burn. The chicken was still delicious, but a little dry. The dish had a strange earthy garlic taste that was new to my palate. The beans were the best part. They were fantastic! I used Goya black beans, which I'm not 100% sure is authentic Roman, but it was marvelous! I had added celery leaves and caraway to the beans, because I happened to have some left over from the chicken, and it was a nice addition. They all ground up in the mix when before I tossed them into the boiling wine. The asafoetida taste certainly came through, and it was, in an odd sense, a good pairing with the fish sauce. It was a weird combination of tastes- fish sauce and the asafoetida, but both dishes tasted much better than the individual ingredients smelled like when they went in. I would certainly do this again, especially the beans! In all, this dish was quite successful. As you can see, I paired the Parthian dishes with white rice. 

While I was doing the cooking, I did a bit of reading on asafoetida to see what I'm up against. My findings follow: 

The name asafoetida originates from the Persian word aza (mastic resin) and a Latin word foetida meaning stinking. It is also known as devil’s dung because of its strong pungent smell (due to the presence of sulfur compounds).  The famous Victorian chef Alexis Soyer was not a fan:

Alexis Soyer
“This plant, which we have excluded from our kitchens, and whose nauseous smell is far from exciting the appetite, reigned almost as the chief ingredient in the seasoning of the ancients. Perhaps they cultivated a kind which in no way resembled that of modern times. If it were the same, how are we to explain the extreme partiality which Apicius shows for it and which he says must be dissolved in luke-warm water, and afterwards served with vinegar and garum? It is certain that the resin drawn by incision from the root of this plant is still much esteemed by the inhabitants of Persia and of India ; they chew it constantly, finding the odour and taste exquisite.”
[From: The Pantropheon, Or, History of Food, and Its Preparation (1853)… Alexis Soyer]

The aromatic resin comes from certain species of the giant fennels, plants of the genus ferula. When the plants are about four or five years old, they develop very thick and fleshy, carrot shaped roots. The resin is collected from these roots just before the plants start flowering in spring or early summer. The milky resinous liquid soon coagulates when exposed to air. The color darkens when it is sun dried into a solid form.

The strong smelling and sparingly used asafoetida has an interesting history. Its predecessor silphium (also known as silphion or lasar), the wonderful spice from the region of Cyrene (now in modern Libya) was in great demand in ancient times. Silphium resisted attempts at cultivation and transplantation, which made it one of the major sources of revenue for Cyrene. The plant was valued for its many uses as food source, seasoning for food, and most importantly, as medication. Perfumes were made from its flowers; the stalk was used for food or fodder while the juice and root were used to make a variety of medical potions. Some of the best-known representations of silphium are the stylized images used in ancient coins.

The Greeks believed the plant was a gift from Apollo, because the plant appeared after a heavy rainstorm flooded the area at about the time the city of Cyrene was founded in 7th century B.C. Silphium was first mentioned in one of the Athenian poems from 6th century B.C. as a seasoning and dominant flavor of sauces served at banquets. It was also prescribed as part of several compound drugs in the Hippocratic texts of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. In his History of the Plants the Greek scientist Theophrastus wrote that Silphium is a thick root similar to celery. Two kinds of sap are collected from the plant, one from the stem and the other from the root. Exporting it to Athens they put it in jars and mix flour with it and shake it for a long time; and thus treated it remains stable. 

However, true silphium became extinct by the end of 1st century A.D. According to geographer Strabo profit taking led to the decline of silphium. Two centuries later Pliny tells the end of the story of silphium in his Natural History. He called it “one of the most precious gifts from nature to man”. In those days the spice was worth its weight in silver and it was used in the treatment of leprosy, to restore hair and as antidote to poison. Potions made from silphium were supposedly among the most effective birth control methods known at the time. According to Pliny, the last single stem of silphium that was found within living memory was sent to Emperor Nero.

Asafoetida, as a substitute for silphium emerged into prominence during Alexander the Great’s invasion of Asia. While crossing the northeastern provinces of the Persian Empire, his soldiers discovered a plant that was almost identical with silphium. Although not quite so good, it made a perfect substitute for silphium in tenderizing hard meat.

Asafoetida was cultivated for both medicinal purposes and for the use as a spice. The Greek called it silphion medikon - Median silphium (silphium from Iran) and the Romans called it silfi. De Meteria Medica, the foremost classical source of botanical terminology, by Greek Physician Dioscorides (circa 40 AD to 90 AD) treated both the Libyan and Median silphium under one heading. It said that the Cyrenaic silphium has a very healthy aroma, so that it is not noticed on the breath, but the Median and Syrian silphium are weaker and have a nastier smell.

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