* It’s the buffet’s rice gruel that I am taken in by. Italians spell it fancily as zuppa congee which I, after some initial confusion, decipher as the unmistakably Indian kanji
* Long before spaghetti was eaten in Rome, the Arabs carried noodles called itriyya as a handy provision on trading expeditions (and in regions of Italy, such as Apulia, the common word for pasta is tria )
* Those who had an appetite for huge breakfasts were frowned upon as insalubrious gluttons, but started their days with the most important item on Roman tables — namely panis , bread
* I stop mulling ancient tastes when I see a Chinese tour group enter... and the coin drops. Kanji is of course prepared for them
My first Roman breakfast takes me by surprise. No, I’m not referring to the view of the Vatican across the Tiber from the Sofitel’s restaurant on the roof of an 1870s’ palazzo.
Or the slow sunrise over the adjacent Villa Borghese park — which was once a vineyard belonging to 1st century BCE gastronome Lucullus who, during eastern war campaigns, is said to have encountered cherries there. When he planted Rome’s first cherry tree in his pleasure gardens, in the 70s BCE, he named the fruit after its place of origin, the Black Sea port of Cerasus. Thus cerasus became a rage with Romans who loved exotic edibles — especially since Lucullus celebrated his return with a feast at which his fellow city-dwellers were treated to 3,50,000 bottles of fine wine. By the next century, cherries were grown even in Britain. And let’s face it: How lame cocktails would be without cherries!
But wait, I’m having breakfast. Immoderate bar-hopping and Lucullan largesse will follow later. Nor does my excitement stem from the buffet’s formaggi regionali selection, though I do savour the sharply aromatic pecorino Romano, one of Italy’s oldest cheeses.
Legionnaires received daily pecorino rations to stay energised and, along with their expanding empire, a taste for cheese spread across Europe. For example, English cheddar is said to be a relic of the island’s Roman occupation. Cheeses can be historically revealing: Pecus is Latin for sheep and hence ‘pecorino’ means cheese of sheep’s milk (or goat’s), the preferred raw material of Roman creameries — which is no coincidence as Rome is believed to have originated as a humble shepherds’ settlement in 753BCE.
Millennia before foodies began instagramming every morsel, ancient authors discussed assorted caseus (precursors of pecorino) so that today we can read cheesy accounts about which milk produces the best, by bibliophile-scholar Varro (friend of Julius Caesar), while the farm-owner Columella penned detailed instructions for cheese-making (like how to flavour it with thyme) in his 12-volume agricultural encyclopaedia Res rustica . The great nature scholar Pliny praised smoked goat’s milk cheeses — “cheese of this kind which is made at Rome is considered preferable to any other” — and claimed that such cheeses, “pounded and applied to the part affected, is a cure for carbuncle of the generative organs”. Cheese was simply the perfect food.
But, no, I’m not raving about cheese either. And neither is it the caffe latte churned out by the barista; anyway, ancient Romans didn’t drink coffee. Their morning pick-me-up was wine, which also was their lunch drink, ideal teatime thirst-quencher, and dinner beverage.
It’s the buffet’s rice gruel that I am taken in by. Italians spell it fancily as zuppa congee which I, after some initial confusion, decipher as the unmistakably Indian kanji that in its original avatar consists of soft-boiled rice or millets, eaten so as to balance out spicy dishes in South India, served to infants, or had during sickness to cure tummy upsets. It was recommended by the Buddha himself for its health benefits. A friend from Kerala once told me, “We usually take it with a bit of salt, payaru beans and popadum. In the olden days, a lot of people used to take it on a regular basis. These days, it’s essentially comfort food.”
This auspicious encounter makes me ponder the millennia-old trading links and how Indian exports shaped Roman food which, fundamentally, was a melting pot happily adapting ingredients from the world. They were, as historians argue, primarily influenced by the Greeks, which local food chauvinists obviously dispute — they don’t consider Greek grub a ‘cuisine’ at all. They also imported extensively from their northern provinces (now France, Britain and Germany) as well as African and Arabian territories, and most distantly from Asia way beyond their easternmost frontier outpost Dura-Europus (in the Syrian desert). They even made forays eastwards into present-day Iran, but, unlike Alexander the Great, their troops never reached as far as India. Nevertheless, there was extensive shipping and caravans, and so Indian ingredients also graced their kitchens.
For instance, jungle-fowls that originated in Bengal as ‘desi murgh’ reached Europe in the 7th century BCE to become popular on Roman tables. “Keeping of hens by farmers is quite a general practice,” wrote Columella in the eighth book of his agricultural encyclopaedia. He classified them either as common domestic farmyard hens which were most well-liked, big Numidian hens (alias Guinea fowl that may have been similar to turkeys) and rustic Mediterranean cocks (possibly implying wild partridges). Pliny waxed eloquent on the ideal birds, “a fowl is judged of by the erectness of the crest, which is sometimes double, its black wings, reddish beak, and toes of unequal number”. With time, chickens, that were so easily bred, spread to northern Europe along with the troops and were relished by Celts and Germans too.
On the other hand, rice was a pricey ingredient, but try imagining risotto without it today! The name stems from Old Tamil’s arisi , which became risum in Latin (modern Italian riso ). After being shipped all the way from India it had to be taken on camelback through Egypt to the Mediterranean. It is estimated that whereas four out of five recipes in the oldest surviving cookbook ( De re coquinaria believed to have been written in the 1st century CE) include Indian-imported pepper, only one in a hundred calls for rice — mostly in the form of starch or what we’d consider a roux to bind sausages, batter-coat pepper-fried fish, and thicken sauces such as peppery chicken gravies or saffron-flavoured seafood stews. The Egyptian-born food scholar Athenaeus remarks that rice was baked into bread in Ethiopia, but that it caused dyspepsia. Pliny on the other hand knew it to be India’s “most favourite food of all” and even tells about a soupy health-dish he calls ptisan , which must be kanji .
Whilst most historians believe that pre-Islamic Europe had no sugar but that it came later with Muslim traders by 700CE, Pliny knew (already in the 70s CE) that sugar was found in canes in India and he had a name for it — saccharon (from Sanskrit sarkara ). Sugarcane had reached India from Southeast Asia around 1000BCE and, at that time, had been cultivated along the Ganges for more than half a millennium. Molasses were then transported via Persia to Rome where it was considered even more exclusive than rice, only to be used as expensive exotic garnish or as medicine. (The common Roman sweeteners for cooking and baking were honey and syrupy wines.)
Another cornerstone of Italian cuisine is mozzarella, which exists thanks to water buffaloes, an Indian-origin bovid. Buffaloes had reached Egypt by the 4th century CE where they were noticed by the ancient Roman travel writer Ammianus Marcellinus. But the creatures were ferried to Italy much later, following the medieval crusades. Hence mozzarella was not available in the Roman era, but now it’s one of Italy’s darling cheeses without which a pizza isn’t a pizza.
Pippali to pepe
The truth is that India had a fundamental impact on Italian cuisine and the import of spices is well-documented in ancient texts and evidenced through archaeological finds. In particular, they bought vast quantities of peppercorn that was essential — as mentioned — to 80 per cent of all gourmet dishes and remains central to, for example, the quintessentially Roman cacio e pepe (‘cheese and pepper’). The modern word pepe stems from Latin piper which in turn has its roots in Tamil pippali and this simplest of recipes demands merely five ingredients: Water, salt, pecorino, thick rough-surfaced hollow spaghetti known as tonnarelli and plenty of fresh-ground pepper from the hills of eastern Kerala. The creaminess is created with a splash of starchy pasta stock whipped into a peppery cheese sauce. Its primeval roots are attested to by the fact that it uses no tomatoes. The tomato was introduced only after the discovery of America and few Italian gravies are nowadays cooked without.
Ever since Roman times, shepherds followed herds through hilly pastures where their sheep provided cottage cheese (ewe’s milk simply left in the pail to turn into fresh cheese) in addition to which they carried lightweight dry provisions such as pepper and tracta , which translates as ‘pastry’, and that was crumbled into the sauce. Confusion abounds regarding tracta ’s relationship to pasta, but according to my findings it was a nebulous gravy-thickener in the form of either deep-fried crackers or crispy sheets of fried dough, dumplings, wafers baked of wheat or sun-dried flattened strips of starch (precursors to lasagne, gnocchi, tagliatelle and so on). But if a meal had to be improvised, even stale dry bread would do. The aforementioned Marcellinus described how emperor Julian, ahead of a campaign in 358CE, got his soldiers to prepare three-week-rations of barley biscuits, calculating that it’d be easy to carry as they marched.
Interestingly, tracta was also known by the Greekish name laganum (‘cake’). Take for example the writer Horace who boasted, in 65BCE, of his modest taste for peasant-like meals. A tureen of “lagani, chickpeas, and leeks” was his comfort supper, implying a thickened chickpea soup seasoned with leeks which sounds much like the present-day cicero e tria , an Apulian speciality of chickpea broth and fried tagliatelle, or the Tuscan testaroli , boiled flour pancakes tossed in a pesto sauce. At some point in history, lagani edged closer to modern lasagne, probably through an intermediate stage which appears to have been a baked mince pie, and eventually became known as Patinam Apicianam (in the early centuries CE) which was more or less like lasagne, lacking just the mozzarella and tomatoes.
So although correlates of pasta existed, today’s multitudes of beguilingly shaped pastas such as tonnarelli , the coarseness of which imitates the texture of tracta in order for the sauce to adhere, are believed to have evolved through Arab, and possibly Chinese, influence. Long before spaghetti was eaten in Rome, the Arabs carried noodles called itriyya as a handy provision on trading expeditions (and in regions of Italy, like Apulia, the common word for pasta is tria ). Already by the 5th century CE — or the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire — Arabs were travelling along the Silk Road which saw flourishing trade between the Middle East and China, and in the caravanserais they came across Chinese food.
The aforesaid Athenaeus described lavish Persian meals that were possible thanks to the luxurious spoils of Silk Road trade: Each day the king slaughtered a total of 1,000 asses, camels, cocks, deer, geese, horses, oxen and even ostriches (imported from Arabia) to treat guests and feed his bodyguards and soldiers. Athenaeus makes no reference to noodles or pasta (because he’s quoting an obscure 4th century BCE historian and the Silk Road only became popular around 100BCE). Arabic noodles must have developed after that and still exist — although not as famous as Italian pasta, they are much like tracta or toasted wheat strips. Rice pilaf perked up with crunchy vermicelli is a traditional Lebanese dish, variations of which one finds in other Arab countries too under names like ruz bi sha’riya (‘rice with noodles’).
Pasta: Made in China?
Persians prepared a legume and broken noodle soup over a thousand years ago, today commonly eaten to celebrate the New Year among expat Iranians or any other such auspicious event. It’s called aush-e-reshteh : The Farsi word aush seems to denote thick soup or perhaps stew, thickened by noodle starch. A friend, who used to study in Iran, says he ate aush-e-reshteh there. “It’s a fairly usual soup. In central Tehran, at the Laleh Park, food stands have it and people regularly cook it at home, and during Ashura when free food is distributed, I seem to recall it’s often aush-e-reshteh .”
Another celebratory Persian dish is reshteh polo , raisins and dates pulao in which the rice is layered with thin salty golden-toasted noodles. One old-style Arab dish I found a recipe for seems a curious fusion of Mediterranean, Asian and American: Vermicelli with eggplants, tomatoes and capsicum, flavoured with anchovy, capers, chilli, cinnamon, garlic and raisins. I cooked it the other day and the result was intriguingly salty-sweetish, not unpleasant despite the unusual combination of salted fish with raisins and noodles.
In this context, I can’t help but ponder how this cosmopolitan food travelled to South Asia too. Take, for example, ribbon-pakora made in Kerala with rice flour, chickpea flour and urad dal, that’s flavoured with butter, salt, sesame, asafoetida and chilli powder. A similar snack is called chakli elsewhere in India. The chakli — which is also the name of the implement used for making it — reminds of how in his book De Agricultura (160BCE), Cato described how to make enyctum : Flour paste is pressed through a mould, the resulting coils dipped into boiling lard and glazed with honey, making it sound like... hmm... jalebi. Come to think of it, the ubiquitous snacky sev is basically deep-fried crumbly chickpea noodles. And although it’s hard to fix upon a date for India’s indigenous noodle variations, we do know that since time immemorial India traded with both Arabia and China, and would naturally have imported the tastiest snacks.
Perhaps even more significantly, the Berbers in what used to be Roman Africa invented couscous which, effectively, is a granular form of pasta and can be cooked and eaten much like Indian rawa . Couscous grains are actually African durum wheat, which was introduced to Italy by Arabs who conquered Sicily in 965CE, and subsequently durum became the main ingredient of modern pasta. Due to its hardness, durum pasta has a long shelf-life, which was practical in times before modern preservation methods.
Now the Uighurs, an 8-million-strong Sunni community from western China, may be another forgotten link in the creation of pasta. Since the 200s CE, they traditionally dwelt in the valleys along the caravan routes, in oases such as Kashgar, one of the main halts for ancient travellers and which was visited by the illustrious Marco Polo who praised the city, its gardens, orchards and vineyards, but remarked “Merchants from this country travel to all parts of the world; but in truth they are a wretched, sordid race, eating badly and drinking worse.” Despite this he became so fond of local barbecue made with wild Uighur fatty-tailed sheep that one Pamir subspecies is named after him as ‘Marco Polo sheep’ or, scientifically, Ovis poli .
Living in China as they do, Uighurs relish noodles but prepare these in a different way from the Chinese. Uighur chefs hand-pull flat pasta, wringing it into what resembles endless tangles of tagliatelle; freshly boiled it’s then chopped up into squares — which reminds me of the Tuscan testaroli — that are stir-fried in giant woks in a thick Bactrian camel’s meat broth, habitually seasoned with coriander leaves and spring onion in a thrilling fusion of the Middle East and the Far East. The Uighur noodles are by far spicier than anything one might eat in the rest of China, save for Sichuan-style hotpot. Further, breads that resemble Indian naan are an Uighur staple, as well as flatbreads similar to Levantine pita, stuffed with finely chopped meat. Uighurs eat rice too, of course, but preferably in the form of polo (pulao).
I sampled polo in Xi’an a couple of years back, the Chinese town marking the eastern end of the Silk Road and which had a Muslim quarter that by 705CE had grown sufficiently large to feature a mosque. Streets like Damaishi Jie have a distinct Ahmedabad or Cairo vibe. The dish was quite similar to biryani except it was made with cuts of fatty-tailed Uighur sheep. Another speciality of theirs is samsa , a juicy meat pie that’s tandoori-baked making it a hybrid between a Chinese dumpling, an Indian mutton samosa and maybe... large tortellini?
Baked food, apparently, is also typical of Beijing cuisine, which picked up many Central Asian influences. Another interesting meal in this context was the ‘national dish’ of Xi’an — yangrou paomo or ‘sliced pancake mutton stew’. As I sat at the table, I was given an empty bowl and rubbery flatbreads which, like the Roman tracta , were to be shredded by hand into as tiny bits as possible. After 15 minutes of shredding, a waiter carried off my bowl to the kitchen where he filled it to the brim with vermicelli-garnished rich mutton stew.
In any case, although it is not known when rice was first made into noodles, archaeology tells us that the Chinese were eating millet-noodles 4,000 years ago, which makes noodles at least four times older than Roman spaghetti. Therefore, there’s a persistent myth that Marco Polo, coming to China, discovered not the polo , but the technology to make noodles and brought it to Italy. But it’s a fable, because Arabs introduced noodles to the Mediterranean prior to Polo’s travels. Considering that the peripatetic Polo family had long been trading in the East (in fact, Marco’s father and uncle had visited China once before) one supposes that they had their fill of Arabic-Persian-Chinese noodles.
In the editions of Polo’s travels I’ve read, he refers to noodles by the Italian nomenclature vermicelli and speaks of other pastas, or pastes, including dishes resembling aush-e-reshteh , so evidently he had the vocabulary to describe these. Then again, despite hogging like an Italian gourmand, he doesn’t seem to find it worth bringing up chopsticks, which creates some doubt regarding his familiarity with Chinese eating habits. In his travelogue, I only found a single foodstuff that interested him enough to collect samples of. “They have a kind of trees that produce flour, and excellent flour it is for food,” Polo noted. This edible tree is thought to be a sago palm from whose flour cakes were baked: “Of this, which resembles barley bread in appearance and taste, [I have] frequently eaten, and some of it [I] brought home with [me] to Venice.” This flour which he called farina di alberi is “made into pasta in strips and other forms”.
However, he encountered these not in China, but on a Southeast Asian island while on his way home in 1292. He called the place Fanfur and scholars have located it close to the upper tip of Sumatra (originally its Indian name was Samudra). Today known as Barus, it seems that the ancient geographer Ptolemy put this trading port on record as Barousai (the spelling Polo used appears to derive from its Arabic name Fansùr). At the time it was actually an outpost of the Cholas, frequented by Tamilian merchant sailors from as early as 800s CE. The historian KA Nilakanta Sastri documented an inscribed pillar of a Tamil trading guild which he dated to 1088CE, indicating a fairly permanent settlement, probably attracted by the high-quality camphor, an aromatic resin which the area was virtually synonymous with. Muslim traders sailing there described Fansùr as ruled by a Hindu king and a “well-known land of India”. Incidentally, the ubiquitous South Indian breakfast staple idli may have been born there, when Hindu chefs learnt special Indonesian techniques for making fermented foods. In return, they taught the art of peppery curries to Southeast Asians. In any case, by 920CE idli had become Indianised thoroughly enough to find mention in an old Kannada text.
So to get back to the question of pasta, it started out as a Roman shepherd’s basic gravy thickener, but was enhanced by Chinese noodle technology brought across Asia by Arab traders who also sold Italians the hard durum wheat of Africa. So the emblematic cacio e pepe , the perhaps most antique dish on any Roman restaurant menu, is in fact a product of African, Arabic, Indian and Chinese contacts.
Despite ample evidence for foreign stimulus in Roman cooking, I mull over this singularly odd Indian kanji gruel served in a premium luxury hotel such as Sofitel, which is especially strange knowing that Romans were never, not then, not now, into cooked morning meals. Today’s breakfast staples are espresso to-go and a pastry such as cornetto (croissant with sweet filling). Chomping down ientaculum at dawn in antiquity was a completely optional activity as the vast majority had just one meal a day. Breakfast, if at all eaten, might have consisted of leftovers though even these were mostly saved for the prandium , an early lunch which also appears to have been optional. For common people the one proper meal of the day was dinner, generally taken during afternoon, and put together from leftovers and sausages or a dried fish dish from the nearest fast-food thermopolium stall.
Those who had appetite for huge breakfasts were frowned upon as insalubrious gluttons, but characteristically started their days with the most important item on Roman tables — namely panis , bread.
The upper-classes preferred easily-digested light white bread. Millers and bakers had by 175BCE perfected the art of bread-making into a highly specialised business which is evident from the diversity of titles such as the pistor who baked regular bread, a crustularius made cookies, a dulciarius prepared honey-sweetened cakes, the libarius sold sweets, panchestrarius confectionery, to name a few. Athenaeus, in 200CE, described an amazing number of breads with assorted names and origins (such as Egypt or Syria). Apart from those baked in normal ovens, he wrote of breads roasted in ashes, grilled on coals, toasted on hot stones; then there were rolls and flatbreads, wheat-breads, milk-breads, millet-breads, barley-cakes (presumably the same that Polo got nostalgic about in Indonesia a thousand years later!) and breads containing eggs, lard or cheese (akin to ricotta), with flaxseed or poppy, various fruit-fillings (like our tarts or muffins) or they were flavoured with blackcurrants or Indian cinnamon.
Pliny actually dismissed that classic barley-bread as cattle-feed, but further adds to this list some intriguing bakes like oyster-bread, which was eaten with oysters, the ‘hurry-bread’ which was probably some kind of fast food, tin-and-mould-breads which could have curious shapes, Parthian water-bread, which was spongy and full of holes, and bread that was baked so hard that it must be soaked in milk mixed with honey to become edible!
People who owned braziers might cook tasty flatbreads at home, known as pinsa (the probable origin of the word ‘pizza’) that were spruced up with added toppings. As one lyrical description goes, a peasant prepared a cheesy herbal relish called moretum — the word is etymologically related to ‘mortar’ and the recipe is fairly simple if one wishes to replicate it: Chuck into your mortar mild creamy fresh cheese (ricotta, for example), aromatic herbs (coriander, mint, parsley or thyme) and nutritious veggies (chives, endive, onions and so on), season with peppercorns, olive oil and salt, pound it into a smooth pulp... and spread it on top of the hot bread. Pizza? Close enough, even though modern pizza was officially invented only in the 19th century.
Alongside bread, a well-off breakfaster might nibble on cheese (obviously) and olives, dates, fruit, eggs, but no butter. In their minds buturym had 25 medical uses (astringent, emollient, purgative, repletive and so on, according to Pliny) or was scented with roses to be used as moisturiser or soap. And eating cosmetic products was distinctly un-Roman, something that only ‘the barbarous nations’ would do — essentially Germans who, as Pliny noted, were known to prefer butter while they “despised the blessing of cheese”. Instead of butter, bread might be greased with a peppery olive oil dip or softened with watered-down sweet wine, or made into what we’d call French toast, which was invented in ancient Rome as pultes tractogalatae .
For the masses of underprivileged urbanites — an estimated 96.5 per cent of the city’s population — bread was grittily coarse but wholesome brown flatbreads or biscuits fried at home on braziers. Perhaps closest to such poor people’s bread is the quick-baked brittle barley-meal matzah, eaten at Jewish ceremonies to commemorate their hasty escape from slavery in Egypt.
This stress laid on bread as sustenance is emphasised by how grain was shipped in huge quantities all the way from Africa, where it grew abundantly, and here, one may recall the familiar Roman saying panem et circenses (‘bread and games at the circus’) coined by satirist Juvenal in about 100CE. In a big city like Rome, with huge numbers living under slummy conditions, uprisings easily got out of hand and could lead to social upheavals — so an emperor’s easiest solution was to avoid public discontent by seeing to it that the proletariat and plebeians ate and were entertained for free, typically by gladiators who butchered hapless animals such as imported giraffes whose meat was distributed amongst spectators.
Certain rulers doled out 400 kg of free or highly subsidised grain annually to each eligible male. About one in three city-dwellers benefited from such programmes but if the ships from Africa were delayed, emperors couldn’t be entirely sure of survival. If food suddenly became more expensive due to inflation or scarcity, they faced ignominy such as when Claudius, trotting through the Forum, was bombarded with stale bread pieces in protest.
This grain distribution was, as we may figure out, by no means any effort to eradicate poverty, but a practical solution to complex issues. The government’s agents frequently collected tax (or tribute) in kind, such as unmilled grain, so sharing it directly with their supporter base was easier than doling out cash, since storing, processing and selling produce in order to monetise it would merely burden state resources. By the 200s CE, the populace had caught on and, having become staunch believers in ‘free lunches’, demanded not only baked bread, but also free pork, olive oil and wine.
Bowl of contention
Another common staple was a soupy porridge ( puls ) of cheap but wholesome grains such as emmer (primitive wheat), millet, spelt or weedy panic grass simply seasoned with salt and which, come to think of it, brings us full circle to kanji .
Wealthier people also ate porridge. Theirs was called pulentium , an edible paste of grain to which they might add a bit of this and that — lard, for instance — to make it richer. This gradually transformed into polenta, which translates loosely as ‘crushed wholegrain mush’, the difference being that in those days it was made primarily of barley, but today it’s essentially a maize mash. However, mahiz , as American natives called it (known in India as corn), reached Italy from the West Indies only after Columbus’s travels. Since the adventurous discoverer never found the sea route to India, which was his real objective, he promoted maize to save face.
To complicate our understanding further, these grain or cereal-based staples could be made into fancy potages by adding legumes (chickpeas or lentils) and Pliny tells us how these were commonly flavoured with coriander — essentially a precursor to modern veggie purées and creamy soups. A classic variation was known as pultes julianae or ‘Julian Mush’ — boiled spelt mixed with chopped brains and minced meat, seasoned with spices such as pepper, which may have appeared fairly similar to haleem . This mush is attributed to the purportedly vegetarian glutton and 2nd century CE emperor Julian; vegetarians in Rome found it hard to sustain on a meatless diet, so chefs would mix offal or mince into porridges. Other food historians presume it’s called thus because it kept the forces of Julius Caesar marching, as he, like the much later Napoleon, believed that armies fought harder if they weren’t hungry.
The rich occasionally served an even plusher ceremonial pultes oenococti which, if we strictly look at the name, means porridge stewed with wine — but of course it isn’t as simple as that. They ate it to honour their rustic ancestors, who lived frugally in an era before bread was invented (or so said Pliny), but as sophisticated city-dwellers they not only boozed it up, but embellished it with classy trimmings such as dainty morsels of pork (just like the zuppa congee at my hotel buffet) or castrated cockerels, cheese and eggs, and chopped veggies. They seasoned this rich porridge with exotic — which largely means Indian — flavours such as asafoetida and pepper to make it suitably tongue-tickling. Once rice became plentifully available, the same porridge evolved into what is nowadays known as risotto.
One might also consider the basic puls (its name is actually linked to our modern word for legumes: Pulses) to be a distant relative of homely Indian lentil stew — namely dal. Interestingly, in his book Deipnosophistae , food philosopher Athenaeus wrote about a creative Hellenistic cook introducing a novel sauce in 300BCE, ‘the royal lentil-soup’, so eating lentils was considered both posh and wholesome, or as the learned food writer Chrysippus once said, lentil-and-onion soup is “like ambrosia in cold weather”. Anyhow, consulting an Italian-origin food expert, Stefano Foconi, I learn that essentially all these porridges, pastas, and even breads, are but different permutations of the same raw material: “Noodles and pasta didn’t really become as elegant as they are until the age of machines in the 19th century. One might say that everything starts with flour and water, but eventually it is more of a morphological question than gastronomic. Ancient tracta can be viewed as a form of dumpling, farinaceous food, simply dough. So the difference between, say, tracta and bread, or the notion of pastry on the whole, is fluid.”
Coming face to face with this cauldron of kanji on a high-end breakfast buffet in Rome opened up surprising historical vistas of food migration across millennia, which was a suitable start for my sightseeing in the capital of what once was the most multicultural global empire of ancient times. However, I stop mulling ancient tastes when I see a Chinese tour group enter... and the coin drops. Kanji is of course prepared for them — in China I’d observed congee being eaten everywhere for breakfast, in restaurants and on street corners. Portuguese seamen, who in the 16th century sailed from Goa to Macao, were so fond of it that they brought the dish with them — and it became known in Portuguese as canja . Piggybacking on such trade links, it is nowadays eaten across Southeast Asia.
In China it was initially viewed as famine food, but in due time it became an exotic dim sum delicacy. In short, the widely travelled dish migrated from India, where I’ve had hot kanji vellam as a stomach-calming beverage alongside meals in Kerala restaurants, to China, where in the best Cantonese restaurants I ate flavoursome congee luxuriously laden with prawns or crab, and thence to Portugal and Italy in an example of dietary globalisation. It is indeed one of India’s most remarkable culinary exports.
Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;
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