Keep calm and eat like a Roman

When in Rome, do what the Romans do. When not in Rome, you should still be interested in their culture and what they eat, and if you’re not, we shall make you interested ;)

The Romans dietary habits for both the poor and rich were strongly affected by the influence the Greek culture after the Greek empire fell to the Roman Republic, and also by the empire’s large expansion, which exposed them to many new culinary habits and cooking methods. The dietary habits between the rich and poor were initially not very different, but these disparities were soon made clearer over time as the empire grew larger and more powerful.

On top of the fun facts that we shared here of what we found when we were researching on the Romans, we decided to show you guys how the Romans cooked some of their favourite food by attempting to do a "buzzfeed" kind of cooking video! Sounds exciting? Stay tuned ;)

THEIR STAPLE FOOD

The staple food of the Romans are similar to the ones of the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians, and consisted of barley, olive oil and wine. These were also known as the Mediterranean Triad. The barley was used to make bread and porridge for almost every meal. Other common ingredients in most of their meals were home-grown vegetables and fish.

Went to the supermarket again to see if we could find the staple foods of the Romans and we did!

  The Mediterranean Triad -- Olive oil, Barley and Wine. 

 

The Mediterranean Triad -- Olive oil, Barley and Wine. 

Most of their food was boiled as a majority of houses, no matter what social class you came from, did not have ovens for roasting. That’s pretty sad if you think about it. All of you fried food lovers wouldn’t have been able to survive in that time period.

Their main food was called pottage, which was a thick stew that was made mostly from wheat, millet and corn. Depending on how rich you were, other ingredients like cooked meat and offals were added to the concoction (4).

However, as Rome became an empire, the difference in diets began to show as the rich began to eat more exquisite and fancy dishes, and the poor just stuck to what they knew best. The Roman government was made up of a nice group of people though, and they believed in keeping the masses satisfied, so they provided free bread to the poor.

Fun Fact: Romans ate most of their food with their fingers. They were not blessed with the joy of KFC, but they definitely had finger lickin’ good meals too.

Their traditional eating habits

They would traditionally eat breakfast, which they called ientaculum. This was served at dawn. For lunch, they would eat a small meal. Their main meal for the day would be dinner, which they called cena (2). For the rich, due to an increase in importation of foreign foods, the range of foods consumed during cena increased over time. They used to have vesperna, which was a light supper that was eaten in the evening, but this was completely abandoned as cena grew. This was replaced by Prandium, which is like a second breakfast or brunch to them, and this was eaten at noon. For the poor, these changes were less pronounced as their traditional routines were closely linked to their manual labor schedules.

The Poor

The poor romans survived on the basics like the Mediterranean Triad. They had plenty of porridge and breads that were made from cheap grains and barley. They also had a lot of vegetables that that usually grew by themselves, and they ate these vegetables with their porridge or used them in soups. Meat was considered a luxury to them unless they resided in the countryside or went hunting or fishing for them.

So got a little hands on and attempted to make one of the poor Romans staple food: porridge!

Roman Porridge

Pour groats into a clean pot with fresh water and bring to the boil. When cooked, slowly add enough milk that it turns into a thick cream. - Cato, de agricultura, 86

 

What you need:

1.       40g Semolina

2.       75ml Water

3.       25ml Milk

4.       Methods

 

How to cook it:

1.       Add the semolina and water to a saucepan, and bring to the boil.  Don't add too much water! Just add as much as you need. 

2.       When it starts to thicken up after around 5 or 10 minutes, add the milk bit by bit and let it simmer for a while.  If it's too watery, or if you like your porridge thicker, you can add more semolina.

WE RATE IT:

How easy it was to make: 10/10

How tasty it was: 3/10 (pretty bland and mushy) 

Would we make it again? Probably! But to make it taste better we would add some other ingredients like honey, dates or cream to the concoction to make it tastier!  

Apart from whatever we mentioned above about what poor Romans ate, one interesting fact that we found while researching for this project was that the Romans ate dormice. Yes, dormice. Cringing yet? They would capture the mice and fatten them for the table, just like we fatten our turkeys for Christmas and Thanksgiving. They were then roasted with honey or studded with pine nuts, pork and spices and the baked. We don’t know for sure if the rich or poor ate them, but we put it under poor because we assumed that these were more easily accessible for the poor, and the rich would probably have other better meat options.

The Rich

The rich mostly had what the poor people had, just with lots of extras (Like how you know, if you’re richer, you can jia (add in Chinese) fish and more meat when you order caifan(mixed dishes with rice)) and that were of better quality. For instance, like the poor, they would have bread for breakfast. However, they would usually add fancy stuff like eggs, honey, dates cheese, honey milk and fruit to their meal. Their bread was also of better quality, and they enjoyed the more expensive refined white bread. They also could afford a lot more options as compared to the poor like meat, cheese, milk, eggs, seafood and wine.

Found some of the foods in supermarket that Romans added to their bread: Milk, Dates, Eggs and Cheese. 

Found some of the foods in supermarket that Romans added to their bread: Milk, Dates, Eggs and Cheese. 

 

We decided to try out one of the recipes that we found that used some of the basic ingredients that the rich Romans had access to, and we found out that Romans surprisingly enjoyed to eat this dish called Roman toast. It’s pretty much the same as French toast but they called it Roman toast, who knows, maybe they were the ones who came up with it first.

Roman Toast

"Slice fine white bread, remove the crust, and break it into large pieces.  Soak these pieces in milk and beaten egg, fry in oil, and cover with honey before serving." - Apicius, 7.13.3

What you need:

  1. 3 Eggs
  2. 200ml Milk
  3. Honey
  4. 6 Slices Bread

How to make it:

  1. Thinly slice the loaf of bread so that it is easier to fry. If you don’t like the crusts you can remove them.
  2. Break the three eggs into a casserole dish or a bowl.  Add the 200ml of milk and mix it all together.
  3. Soak the bread slices/chunks in the mixture for a few seconds on each side. Don’t soak them for too long or you’ll get an omelette instead! (Which isn’t a bad idea either actually, but we want Roman Toast, NOT omelette).
  4. Drop the bread into a hot, frying pan that has been coated in oil. Turn it over occasionally, making sure it doesn't burn. You’ll know its ready when each side is a nice crisp brown. When you're ready to serve, cover it in as much honey as you want, you can add cinnamon too!

WE RATE IT:

How easy it was to make: 7/10

How tasty it was: 11/10 

Would we make it again? YES WE WOULD! Really tasty stuff! We completely enjoyed devouring this pile of goodness after we were done filming the process! We were also tempted to make another batch of french toast but we ran out of ingredients. We highly recommend all of you to try this yourselves!

 

The rich Romans were able to afford luxuries like meat, and these included sheep, goat, chicken, fish and pork. Fresh meat was more expensive, so salted meat, especially pork and fish, was a more popular option as it could be transported around more easily and was less expensive. On rare occasions, they would enjoy exotic meats like peacock and ostrich, and exotic seafood like sea urchins and raw oysters.

Found some of the meats that the richer Romans consumed in the past: Fish, Pork, Chicken and Lamb. Couldn't find the exotic food like Sea Urchin and Ostrich, those seem to be too exotic for our time.

Found some of the meats that the richer Romans consumed in the past: Fish, Pork, Chicken and Lamb. Couldn't find the exotic food like Sea Urchin and Ostrich, those seem to be too exotic for our time.

 

Rich people being rich people had plenty of money to throw around, so they often had big banquets, especially for dinner that featured exotic foods like rich meats, spicy sauces, sweet desserts, and many other fancy kinds of exotic rich people food that you could imagine. They especially loved their sauces as the sauces added flavour to their bland food (Remember how they boiled most of their food? Boiled food is bland food). One example of a sauce that they really liked to dunk their food in was Garum, a kind of fish sauce. It was their idea of ketchup and chili.

They usually had so much food leftover from these massive banquets that the guests were often asked to “dabao” (Singapore Cantonese term for taking food home) home leftovers, and this was considered a compliment to the host. It showed that his banquet had been really successful and that his food was so well received by his guests that they wouldn’t mind eating the leftovers for their next few meals.

So… Why is this topic significant to history?

It is always interesting to learn about the eating patterns and the kinds of food that people used to consume and enjoy in the past, and it’s also helpful to learn about how people used to live in the past so that we can better appreciate what we have now. From studying the past we were able to see the vast differences between how the poor and rich lived, and how money played a crucial part in these disparities. Even in current times, we can relate to this as we see the large differences in the lifestyles of the rich and poor all around the world. Not so much in Singapore as we are blessed with a great economy, but from our less developed neighbouring countries we can see how much more less privileged they are from us. All these show how the disparities between the rich and poor are still very relevant now, and it isn't just a thing of the past.

 

References

(1) https://www.reference.com/history/did-ancient-greeks-influence-romans-45c75d7d6d7e59fb

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Roman_cuisine

(3) https://www.reference.com/history/did-poor-ancient-romans-eat-f1928e7bee6a56a8#

(4) https://kidskonnect.com/history/roman-food/

(5) http://www.historyextra.com/article/food/dormice-ostrich-meat-and-fresh-fish-surprising-foods-eaten-ancient-rome

(6) http://www.historyextra.com/article/food/8-weird-foods-through-history-pig-chickens-beavers-tails-mock-turtle-soup-Annie-Gray

(7)http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/romans/family_and_children/

(8)We got our toast recipe from here http://www.passthegarum.co.uk/single-post/2015/02/19/Roman-Toast

(9)We got our porridge recipe from here http://pass-the-garum.blogspot.sg/2013/03/punic-wars-and-porridge-part-4-of-6.html

Credits to The Market Place at Tanglin Mall for allowing us to take photos in their premises!