Spices in Italian Cuisine: the Very Old is New Again

Photo of Roman ruins from Savannah Grandfather's Flickr collectionA recent New York Times article by Ian Fisher described how foreign-born chefs are working their way up the restaurant hierarchy in Italy: a man from Jordan is running a chain of pizza restaurants; a chef born in Tunisia makes the best carbonara in Rome, according to a prominent restaurant reviewer. It’s a common story in an era of migration. (The same phenomena surely applies in the United States. I recall seeing an article about how every different ethnic restaurant in Los Angeles relied on chefs from Mexico to do the cooking, generally with high levels of competence. Unfortunately, I am unable to find the article.)

I found this part of the article to be interesting:

With this mixing of cultures only in its early days, there seems to be no major shift in Italian cuisine, even if foreigners are doing the cooking more and more. Unlike in France, where foreign flavors have blended well over time with native ones, attempts here at some fusion of Italian and other cuisines have not caught on. There is, as yet, no equivalent to curry in Britain.

Still, there seems some leakage. Food experts say that foreign chefs, here and there, add spices not often used in Italy, like coriander and cumin.

Coriander and cumin might not be part of modern Italian cuisine, but they were both common during the days of the Roman Empire. Spices — most of which were brought from the East at great expense — symbolized status, and so the upper classes used them with abandon. Coriander and cumin are both natives to the Mediterranean, and so they were still part of the mix, as an article at Leite’s Culinaria about food in ancient Rome explained.

The only comprehensive collection of recipes from the Roman Empire is attributed to Marcus Gavius (or Gabius) Apicius, but was probably written by others and names in honor of Apicius, who was a famous epicurean who lived during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius1.

Several recipes mentioned in the Leite’s Culinaria article call for cumin or coriander:

[399] Locustum Elixam cum Cuminato
Real boiled lobster is cooked with Cumin Sauce [essence] and, by right, throw in some [whole]…sentence missing in surviving manuscripts…pepper, lovage, parsley, dry mint, a little more cumin, honey, vinegar, broth, and if you like, add some [bay] leaves and malobathron.

[116] Spondyli (boiled parsnips)
Boil the parsnips in salt water [and season with] pure oil, chopped green coriander and whole pepper.

[61] Lucanicae (Lucanian sausage)
…Crush pepper, cumin, savory, rue, parsley, condiment, laurel berries and broth; mix well with finely chopped [fresh pork] and pound well with broth. To this mixture, being rich, add whole pepper and nuts. When filling casings, carefully push the meat through. Hang sausage up to smoke.

If you want to try a modern recreation of an ancient Roman dish with cumin, I posted a recipe for carrots simmered with cumin and mint that is derived from Apicius.  Although ancient Roman food has a reputation as ‘over the top’ and insanely decadent, this recipe is simple and healthy, with just a few ingredients.

The bold spicing of savory foods continued in Europe throughout the Medieval period (an extensive description of that era can be found in Jack Turner’s Spice), but eventually faded away (possibly as a result of the deprivations of the Dark Ages). Modern Italian cuisine evolved after the era of spices had ended in Europe. Could it be that the recent rise of non-Italian-born chefs in Italy could push the cuisine towards its ancient roots?

Photo credit

Photo of Roman ruins from Savannah Grandfather’s flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.


  1. Project Gutenberg has an English translation of Apicius’s book as well as a informative prefaces and many explanatory notes

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