As a self described historian, I’m fascinated by foods from bygone eras. I love checking out old, ancient cookbooks. One of my favorites is attributed to Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived in the 1st century CE and who’s tome, De re culinaria or De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking) is one of the earliest cookbooks known to humanity. In it, Apicius notes the dishes enjoyed by the Roman elite during the reign of Emperor Tiberius.
The recipe given, Numidian Chicken (with modifications), is one of Apicius’ entries. Numidia was located in what is today Algeria; and had been a Roman province since 46 BCE. Obviously, Apicius considered their cooking on par with Roman cuisine since he included this recipe in his cookbook. Full disclosure: the recipe does contain ingredients that are hard to find. One of them is lazar root. an ingredient which is now extinct. The other is liquamen, a fish sauce that was used to salt dishes. To create liquamen today, even in a modern kitchen, is a long involved process that includes using fish blood. The only substitute I found online is simply mixing 1 teaspoon salt with 2 ounces white wine. I went with that. If you want it less, you can reduce the salt content to ½ or ¼ teaspoon.
The recipe itself is simple enough. It involves par-boiling a chicken (cut up), then roasting it. The final step is preparing an aromatic sauce with various ingredients and seasonings that are still available today. In Apicius’ time the idea was to pound the ingredients and seasonings. That is, crushing them (I guess in a giant mortar) then cooking to make a sauce that was poured over the chicken. It is not as complex as you think. For instance, instead of pounding the ingredients, I blend them in a food processor. One of the benefits of 21st century living. It just takes patience, and you have a meal a Roman Patrician would savor. Except, you are the Roman gourmand.
The dish goes good with rice, couscous, quinoa or farro. You can add a modern Italian bent to it and serve it over pasta. In our clan, we like it as is with a good crusty loaf of bread. With a fine wine, Italian or otherwise, you have a meal that Caesar and his contemporaries would find delicious—and so will you. Toga is optional.
1 fryer chicken, 2½ to 3 pounds, cut into serving pieces
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup dried dates
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon salt mixed with 2 ounces white wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Rinse chicken pieces under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.
- Place chicken in a pan or pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook 2 minutes.
- Remove from water and place in an oven proof dish (we prefer cast iron), sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon of pepper, and bake 45-50 minutes or until tender.
- Meanwhile, place dates, pine nuts, cumin, remaining pepper, coriander seed, vinegar, honey, salt-wine mixture and olive oil in a food processor. Blend and mix well. Transfer to a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat for 3-4 minutes. If sauce is too thick, add 1-2 tablespoons of white wine to thin it. Or, if too thin, you can add a bit of starch mixed with water. Here, it’s a judgment call. I find that when I heat the sauce, it comes out on the thick side. Pour over chicken and serve, either in the oven proof dish or a serving platter.
Yield: 4 servings.