Experienced chefs are no strangers to improvisation—but what do you do when a recipe calls for an ingredient that's been extinct for almost 2000 years, like the ancient herb silphium? For Philadelphia-based cooks Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca, the challenges posed by recreating ancient Roman recipes are simply opportunities to use a bit of imagination. The result? Delectable dishes with quite a pedigree.

Kiki and Chris own and operate Poi Dog Snack Shop, a Philadelphia food cart that offers Hawaiian- and Filipino-influenced street food—but before embarking on their mobile culinary adventures, they both studied Classics in graduate school. Recently, the two jumped at the chance to put their passions together by organizing a class in ancient Roman cooking at COOK, a local demonstration kitchen. Hoping to offer some food for thought alongside the dishes they adapted from genuine Roman recipes, Kiki and Chris asked their friend Melanie Subacus, who teaches Classics at Villanova University and Temple University, to explain the history behind the recipes as the food was prepared.

In anticipation of their next event, which will take place on Monday, April 4 at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Culinary Literacy Center, we reached out to the trio to talk about the experience of teaching ancient cooking methods to modern crowds—and which Roman dishes we all need to start eating right now.

HistoryBuff: Is there anything that tends to surprise people with no Classics background about ancient Roman food?

Melanie: I think one of the biggest surprises is how different the flavor palate of ancient Roman food is from modern Italian food. Not very much garlic or basil, no tomatoes. The last time we ran this class, we also didn’t provide forks with the place settings. We offered forks for those who wanted them for the meat courses, but everyone was game and seemed to do well enough with a knife and spoon.

Kiki: People are shocked that tomatoes were out of the question. After we explained about, well, Columbus, I think they couldn’t be that surprised anymore. Then we discussed how basil was considered poisonous (if you got stung by a scorpion and ate basil on the same day, you would die) and garlic wasn’t used much by the upper classes.

Chris: I would have to agree with Melanie and Kiki, that they were struck by the distinct differences between examples of Roman food and the cuisine that dominates that region today. Though, I may have confused them further after they were set straight by Melanie concerning the absence of tomatoes, basil and garlic by including garlic in at least two of their five courses that evening. Coming from an Italian family, I find it difficult to omit garlic, particularly when I know that it would surely compliment the dish I am cooking. 

An appetizer of olive tapenade and pounded herbs with curd cheese served with bread, adapted from Cato the Elder

HB: What was the first ancient Roman recipe you ever attempted to cook? How did it turn out?

M: Kiki and Chris did all of the cooking for the class, I helped out on the research side of things. But Kiki and I met in graduate school, and I remember us running around NYC trying to find all different types of ancient beer to try. We were pretty liberal with “ancient”, so anything with a classical name counted as well as beers like Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, with is based off of an ancient recipe. I remember this turning out reallywell!

K: I became interested in ancient Roman cuisine long before I had any idea what I was doing in the kitchen. In grad school, I tested out only a few recipes (some involving pearl barley and a cheese bread with honey called Savillum based on a recipe mentioned by Cato ­­from Mark Grant’s “Roman Cookery­­ before throwing in the towel and having Mel over for “Ancient Beer Drinking Night.” I collected all the beers I could find with classical references (Midas Touch as Mel mentioned, being the most properly ancient, but also Pliny the Elder, which nobody outside academia seems able to pronounce).

C: The first Roman ‘recipe’ that I followed more or less directly was the pork and fruit ragout, which we eventually developed for the class we taught recently at Cook. The recipe described pieces of chopped pork braised in wine and fruit (apricots, figs, and dates) sauce. While this seemed like it had potential to produce a flavorful dish, with additional ingredients like shallots, dill, parsley, honey, garum, red wine vinegar, etc., I was not satisfied with serving guests at our class a dark red­ brown bowl of stewed pork. I thought it would be visually more impressive and read more as a special, banquet­y dish if I roasted the pork (belly) using similar methods to the way Filipino home cooks often prepare lechon, when they can’t roast an entire pig. So I wrapped a piece of pork belly around some of the ingredients suggested by the recipe (apricots, figs, shallots and garlic, though many sources stated that garlic was often avoided in Roman cuisine) and roastedit until the skin was crispy and delicious. I sliced the roasted pork and topped it with the sauce the recipe suggested one cook it in, and was surprised how well that sauce came out. We continued to tweak this dish until we got exactly what we wanted for our Cook class.

The main course: Roast Pork in Fruit Ragout from Apicius

HB: Is there any particular Roman dish that you think really needs to make a comeback today?

K: I’m so pleased with the Parthian chicken we served at our last COOK class (mostly Chris’ doing). Our first few attempts at making it didn’t go so well, but the version we settled on was super delicious, partially because Chris suggested we deep­ fry the chicken after braising it more or less anciently. So we definitely took some modern liberties in an effort to make sure those attending our dinner would enjoy the meal that they paid for.

M: I agree with Kiki—the Parthian chicken was amazing! I tried it after one of the first trial runs and it was good, but after Kiki and Chris had tweaked the recipe for the class, it was on another level. Chris also made a great roast pork with fruit ragout (with some modern liberties taken to get the skin really crispy). I would make either of those for dinner any time!

K: Chris and I had just been in the Philippines (we run a heavily Filipino­-influenced Hawaiian food truck in Philly called Poi Dog Philly—follow us on facebook/twitter/insta @poidogphilly) so given pork belly, Chris could not help but “lechon­ify” it.

C: It’s not as much a dish as it is an ingredient, but I would love to see a resurgence of garum, the Roman fish sauce, especially if it meant specific regional varieties would reemerge. I much prefer, when possible, seasoning dishes with a salty sauce like Southeast Asian fish sauces, which brings much more flavor than simply increasing salt content. When I read about suggestions for modern approximations of garum that include adding reduced sweet red wine, grape juice or other spices to an anchovy based fish sauce, I can’t help but imagine the potential that such an ingredient could have for expanding and enriching flavors of Mediterranean cuisine people typically associate with the Roman world.

Chris, Melanie, and Kiki share a laugh in the kitchen

HB: Are there any Roman ingredients that are especially hard to recreate?

M: I think the difficulty stems more from a lack of measurements in the recipes than it does from finding ingredients (although we also chose meats like pork and chicken instead of ostrich or dormice). I thought we would have to get creative when it came to an ingredient like garum (fermented fish sauce), but there are actually several different brands on the market.

K: We used Indian asafoetida (or hing) which was really easy to get on Amazon, but that is a substitute for silphium which Nero ate the last of. We definitely discussed making our own garum (which is in the cards), but I don’t think the Philadelphia Health Department would have been thrilled with us serving homemade garum to the public. So I ordered a bunch of Sicilian garum and for comparison’s sake, brought Red Boat and someother Vietnamese and Thai fish sauces to the class.

C: Yes, silphium of course, and garum for reasons I alluded to in the the previous answer. These two examples illustrate that it is not so much that ingredients themselves are difficult to recreate, just that some of them are tricky, if not impossible to procure. As far as elements of a dish are concerned, I would say thatthe sauce for the Parthian chicken posed a bit of a challenge. What I think contributed most to my difficulties with this was the tension between attempting to reproduce something that truly represented flavors one would encounter in Ancient Roman cuisine and cooking a dish that could also appeal to modern palates. In other words, it had to be a historically accurate representation and also a tasty plate of food that guests would want to finish, not simply taste for its novelty. The Parthian chicken proved especially challenging in this respect because of the strong flavor of the asafoetida ­fish sauce combination and the rare exclusion of a sweetening agent, the absence of which is actually evidence that this preparation of chicken was in fact Parthian (or at least non-­Roman), as Romans preferred sweet components in their dishes.

Kiki cooks

HB: Did you learn any major lessons from your last Roman cooking class?

M: Since my main role was to talk about Roman dining customs (my day job is teaching Classics at both Villanova University and Temple University in Philly), I learned a lot about the assumptions the guests had brought with them about Roman dining. Most of the questions were in the vein of myth­busting (were vomitoriums a real thing?) or about the variety of ingredients (where did these flavors come from?, how did they change over time?). It was also really surprising to see the response to the course. Kiki and Chris run classes at COOK pretty regularly, and I was forewarned that ancient Roman food might not be the fastest-selling course. But it sold out really quickly and it was exciting to learn that that interest in the ancient world was out there.

K: It sold out within hours! Anyway, I learned that putting cilantro into a dessert is not the most terrifying or disgusting thing in the world.

C: Like Melanie, I learned that people have vague, but heavily re­inforced (likely by common representations in media) misconceptions of what Ancient Roman food and feasts were. Many of the guests were surprised by the dessert of herbs and pine nuts mixed into cheese, which Kiki had to compliment with additional sweet elements to help meet expectations.

HB: Could you describe the flavors common in Roman food in three words?

M: Pepper, wine, fish sauce.

K: Peppery, herby, wine­y.

C: Sweet, wine, herbs.

Hungry yet? If you're located in or near Philadelphia, tickets are still available for the group's next class, which will take place on Monday, April 4 at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Culinary Literacy Center.

All photos courtesy Serge Levin