Food perhaps is the most universal of all things, after music maybe. Or perhaps not. The shared interest in gastronomy and taste is what has managed to keep humans closely knit with each other to quite some extent, despite the differing ideologies and boundaries to which they belong. That of course is not to say that food hasn’t been the cause of considerable strife in history, or even today. At the same time though, the empirical fondness for an excellent tasting meal means that our ancestors jumped in on the pursuit to decipher brilliant flavours and derive mouthwatering dishes and attained such levels of perfection on the piquant quotient that these foods have continued to stand their ground, and gain some more of it as well, as they have dived through the past and into the present, to possibly claim also a route to the future. Surprising as it might be, some of the most exemplary foods and recipes that we go gaga over have really ancient roots. Here’s tracing the history of some of the most cherished items of popular gastronomy-
A stemming of the bread realm for which Italy is so famous, focaccia might come across like a really modern day invention given how it makes for some of the most sophisticated dishes in the culinary world today. But with its roots going back to the Rome of the ancient times, this flatbread is anything but recent. In fact, focaccia is also believed to originate even before the formation of the Roman empire, presumably among the Etruscans of North Central Italy or perhaps even in ancient Greece sometime at the opening of the first millennium BC. Even with its existence since pre Christ times though, focaccia isn’t the only bread that has stood the test of time as a wide range of flatbreads had already been made day in and day out by our ancestors in different parts of the world by then.
Today prevalent widely within the exploration of Ligurian cuisine, focaccia is very similar in style and texture to the iconic Italian fare of pizza, earning it therefore an alternate identity as pizza bianca. Traditionally baked over coals in Roman times before adapting to be prepared in ovens instead, focaccia derives its name as well from this characteristic method of preparation, from the Roman term “panis focacius,” meaning “hearth bread”. Today widely interpreted in a number of different ways throughout Italy and even beyond, in such elaborations that are myriad additions to the earliest recipe involving flour and oil and water and yeast and salt, focaccias of the modern day are rarely plain, taking on a number of elements to deliver both savoury and sweet flavours, eaten in any number of ways as can be fancied- as a snack, as part of a sandwich meal or even dunked in cups of the very classic Italian cappuccino.
A mere side dish, if you would so like to view it as that, but encompassing a medley of zingy flavours that is all it takes to make even the blandest of meals lip smacking and hearty, the quintessential Indian preparation of chutney surely is a miniature marvel. Call it a dip, a side or sometimes even a spread, chutneys are inseparable from the Indian food experience, appearing as it does in some form or the other in different explorations of food. From dipping your chips and pakoras in to smearing your desi sandwiches with them or just relishing a simple platter of dal chawal with just the right tang and spice of it, the very versatile and widely assimilating chutney is a true Indian phenomenon even in just little amounts of it.
Dating back some 2000 years to 500 BC, chutneys spread to be popular throughout the world but nowhere does it enjoy a relevance and significance as huge as the one it has in India. An essential source of such micronutrients derived from herbs and spices that cannot be readily incorporated in every mode of cooking, chutneys can be made from anything from lentils and veggies to even seeds and peels, of course with the addition of spices making it not just a flavor enhancer but also a health preparation. Perhaps it is the simplicity and lack of elaborate technicality of it all that makes the chutney possibly the oldest form of prepared food known to humans. With variations that are mind bogglingly diverse and uniquely ethnic, it is quite a surprise how the many chutneys churned up today so effortlessly in mixers versus the age old preparation in a mortar and pestle still manages to deliver exactly the same notions of piquancy in taste and elevation in flavour no matter in which part of the country it is made, in whatever form, from whatever ingredients. Often raw and fresh but also sometimes made from charred ingredients of cooking, chutneys are what lends Indian cuisine a distinctive element of taste, as a condiment, as an ingredient or sometimes as the star of the whole meal itself.
One of the most exquisitely decadent slices of cake to have ever existed on earth, there is a certain allure to the very name and fame of the cheesecake that makes one inclined to believe that it is an essential preparation of the Instagram times. Aesthetic, delightful, delicious, heavenly and sinful, cheesecakes might indeed be a piece of modern day excellence as far as its nomenclature goes, but some form of it has been in existence since at least the times of the ancient Greeks and thereafter of the Romans. In fact, Greek physician Aegimus had written a book as early as in the 5th century BC where he detailed the art of making cheesecakes. Further ahead but still dwelling in times before the advent of the Christ had been the Latin prose De Agri Cultura of Cato the Elder wherein finds mention a certain placenta cake, most closely related in preparation to the modern day cheesecake.
The Greek version of the cheesecake consisted of patties of fresh cheese pounded smooth with flour and honey and cooked on an earthenware griddle, served perhaps even to athletes at the first Olympic Games in 776 BC to replenish their energy levels. In more modern times, after the birth of Christ to be precise, a certain cheese-filled pastry called fluden came to be popular among Franco-German jews by at least 1000 AD. The first English cookbook Forme of Cury, compiled in the 14th century, mentions a similar recipe called Sambocade, of fresh cheese, elderberry flowers, egg whites, rosewater and sugar mixed together and poured onto a pie crust before being baked. But despite its existence since times really ancient and its continuing popularity ever since, it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that eggs came to be included in the recipe and cream cheese was created leading to the evolution of cheesecake into the dessert as we know it today, persisting though still with numerous variations native to different parts of the globe.
Among the superfoods that has risen to global prominence only recently, tofu though has a history that easily spans a couple of millennia. Attributable to the Chinese, like many soybean products are to different Asian regions, tofu or bean curd has found relevance in the health conscious world of the present day owing to its high protein content, presenting it therefore as a viable vegan alternative to animal sources of the essential macronutrient. Prepared by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into solid white blocks of varying softness such that there exist many variations of it like silken, soft, firm, extra firm or super firm and so forth and so on, tofu isn’t a dish per se but an ingredient that can be made into a number of sweet and savoury preparations, lending it therefore a versatility that has enabled it to find growing favour among folks of the modern world.
First recorded presumably during the period of China’s Han Dynasty by its then Prince Liu An sometime during the 2nd century BC, it also is possible though that tofu might have come into existence as quite an accident when a Chinese cook ended up curdling soy milk by adding nigari seaweed to it. Known then as okabe, tofu though has yet another possible origin story that owes however its still Chinese existence to the Mongolians or East Indians, but in a time frame that occurs much later and bereft as well of much credibility. Whatever that may be, the birthplace of tofu indeed is China from where it spread first to Japan and then to other nations of south east Asia, particularly in countries where Buddhism is most prevalent, being as it is an important source of protein in the vegetarian diet of East Asian Buddhism. But all these journeys that tofu undertook to the rest of the Asian continent occurred in times that aren’t really ancient which is not anything particularly surprising given that even in China the popularity of tofu as a food picked up only during the Song dynasty that ruled from the 10th to the 13th century AD.
Perhaps the most globally renowned of foods that date back to times in ancientry and also perhaps the oldest of the lot is the very commonplace phenomenon that we delight in as cheese. A staple of so many of our modern day favorites, from pizza and macaroni and cheesecakes to traditional national delights like the Bhutanese ema datshi and the Georgian Khachapuri or the all over popular but still predominantly Swiss servings of the fondue, cheeses have ruled over the palate throughout periods of time in history.
With origins predating times of recorded history, perhaps in sync with its essence as being a ferment food product, it therefore is difficult to pinpoint the region from where this art of one of the most loved elements of the culinary world evolved, perhaps from Europe or Egypt, the Middle East or Central Asia or even the Sahara. Continuing also perhaps since 8000 BC when sheep were first domesticated, the earliest evidence of cheesemaking in the archaeological record dates back some few millennia later to 5500 BCE that traces the beginnings to Poland even as probable cheese strainers from 6000 BCE have also been found in Switzerland. In fact so ancient has been the strains of cheesiness that it has also been attributed to mythology, like the Greek reference to the discovery by Aristaeus, making quite clear therefore the origins of this particular item of gastronomy as the one with the deepest entrails into history. With so much of time in existence, cheeses have therefore evolved and emerged beyond a mere hundred varieties to today rest in an astounding more than 1800 types, affiliated to different parts of the world, establishing at once its universality not just as a much loved slice of decadence but also as a wholesome block that integrates into itself a wide many nationalities.
Just when we thought we have discovered the oldest known item of food humans have indulged in since times of the past, we stumble upon a preparation that is even more distinguished in its historical depths, but still as relevant to the times today like it has always been. For at least millennia of millenia now, we and our ancestors have been relying on the warmth emanating from the healthy premises of a bowl of soup to keep the blues at bay. The earliest soup was likely cooked up in 20,000 BC in Xianrendong Cave China where the discovery of ancient scorched pottery had been the fuel that fired historians’ pursuit of the origins of this bowlful of flavored comfort. Soups back then perhaps had been a mixture of just boiled grains and water, much like gruels, until they came to incorporate meats and vegetables and herbs and spices, simmered and boiled inside clay pots over hot rocks. There also exists the possibility though of soups having its own distinctive method of being cooked during times when the Neanderthals were still in existence, about some 40000 years ago. A hole was dug in the ground and lined with animal skin, making for a vessel where animal bones and fats were boiled using hot stones to prepare a broth that assimilated the nutrients and flavors of them all.
Indeed, the evolution of soups occurred most significantly during later times to today be the bowl we all hanker after a tiring day of the colds and the blues and what not. From the basic steaming veggie soups and meat soups, today we also can seek different forms of solace in diverse offerings of cold soups and fruit soups and dessert soups and numerous other traditional servings of flavor that satiate our body and soul to the most optimum extent possible, having us thanking once more our ancestors who brought to life this tremendous medley of tastes and aromas and not to forget, nutrients as well.
Perhaps the most popular of traditional desserts that is a favorite with sweet lovers the world over, the baklava is often attributed to the not so ancient times of the Ottoman Empire that existed sometime from the 13th to the early 20th century. But the layers of its history are much varied, much like the pastry itself. A layered dessert made of filo pastry, filled with chopped nuts, and sweetened with syrup or honey, baklava dominates today the sweet palate in Iranian, Turkish and Arab cuisines, but is mostly recognised as being a sweet treat from the land known particularly well for its exquisite sugary offerings, a reputation that stems most notably from its signature sweet, the Turkish delight. In origin though, the baklava can be traced back to the Assyrian empire sometime in 800 BC where sweet dishes for festive occasions usually saw layers of bread dough stretched thinly and baked with chopped nuts and honey. The phyllo element to the pastry was lend though by the Greeks, even as its many layers always had enough space for further modifications and inclusions of other exotic ingredients, ultimately finding perfection in the kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul under the Ottoman Empire sometime during the 17th century. In fact, so profound was the love reserved for the flakes of this decadent dessert by the ruling Sultan then that he began giving the pastries out to his soldiers on the fifteenth day of Ramadan in what became known as The Baklava Parade. And while much like other dishes with origins that cannot be traced exclusively to one particular expanse within the geographical demarcations of the modern day world, the baklava too has undergone adaptations to enthrall slightly differently people of different regions and nationalities, it still is Turkey that continues to be most associated with the dessert. Specifically with the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep that specialises in the pistachio element of this sweetness, the fame is all the more pronounced with Gaziantep Baklavası or Antep Baklava registered as a Protected Geographical Indication by the European Commission.