Ancient Roman Lentil Soup
In college, I had no idea what I wanted to do for my career. I knew that I loved Greek mythology, French culture, human behavior, world cultures, fitness, and food. Thankfully, my awesome school (the University of Oregon) wanted us to be well-rounded. We had to take extra-curricular classes that had nothing to do with our major. Those classes turned out to be more inspiring and interesting than I could ever explain. Because of this area of freedom in my course schedule, I was able to take an upper level food and cultures humanities class that was exclusively reserved for Classics or Humanities majors. It had such a cool premise that I literally begged my way in.
The course discussed the foods eaten by ancient Greeks and Romans and the culture that was so deeply tied to their food. It was an exhilarating look into the lives of the people who have been wonderfully romanticized in books and movies. Through their food we were able to see into their daily lives. For example, wealthy families had their servants cook exuberant feasts of exotic meats molded to look like other meats. Soup was a very common food and so, it is featured in many books and plays from that time period. It represents the simple comfort of life. In the play, “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes, a solider on horseback buys vegetable soup from a street vendor and uses his helmet to carry it home for lack of a better container.
Many of the grains and vegetables that the ancient Romans used in their soups and potages (blended soups) are still used today. Pea and lentil soups were the most common comfort foods all over the Mediterranean (going much farther back in time than the Romans). They supplied the basic essentials of protein, vitamins, and minerals that people needed to thrive, at a cheap cost.
Apart from slit peas and lentils, Romans also used the following veggies in their soups; barley, chickpeas, cabbage, fennel, leeks, and carrots. Beans and onions were used in early Roman societies, but then were deemed too heavy and unrefined. The spices and flavorings of the time were anise, cumin, fennel seed, oregano, mint, mustard, salt, pepper, olive oil, and fish sauce.
While I was taking this humanities class, I attempted to recreate a classic ancient Roman vegetable soup, Tisanam Barricam, (as well as homemade bread) so I could taste the flavors that the commoners enjoyed in ancient Rome. The soup is made of barley, lentils, chickpeas, split peas, leeks, cilantro, fennel leaves, beet greens, mallow leaves, and cabbage. The flavorings include anise, fennel seeds, oregano, lovage seeds, asafetida, and fish sauce.
I’ll be honest, it wasn’t very good. I didn’t want to affect the recipe with my modern tastes (and I didn’t have the foresight to prepare it in a better way), so I put all the ingredients in a pot of water and let it boil until everything was soft. Because of this method, it didn’t have much flavor. And once I added the smelly fish sauce (the crowning glory seasoning of the Romans in that age), I didn’t want to taste it again.
I will try my hand at this classic dish again someday. I’ ll make it in stages so that the flavors can build and be more noticeable. I’ll also switch out the fish sauce for soy sauce or salt. I’ve included the original recipe here (with my suggestions and substitutions) because I find that it is really interesting to see what people used to eat in a far off land, a long, long time ago.
As for this soup, I love me some lentils! I could pop open a can of lentils and eat them by themselves. I could pour them over some brown rice and have a very satisfying meal. This soup developed out of the desire for something hearty (okay, really the desire for lentils), along with the need for it to take like, 15 minutes tops. So I added a can of lentils to some water and an idea formed in my busy little head: SOUP!
The liquid from the canned lentils turns out to be an awesome little shortcut to thicken and flavor water for a soup broth. There’s something about cooked carrots with lentils that gets me going, so fresh carrots were definitely going to be a part of this dish. I added some of the frozen veggies in my freezer along with some nutritional yeast, cumin, and salt – and VOILA! I had myself a lovely soup that I will be making every day from now, because hey; that’s what the Romans did – and that’s a good enough reason for me. A bit of homemade bread would pair nicely with this, and it would be a lovely homage to the ancient Roman way of life… just in case you were thinking of trying your hand at bread-making too.
Granted, this isn’t a recipe straight out of Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria (the only real cookbook from that time), but it has some basic flavors that were enjoyed back then. It is a lentil-based soup, which is very ancient Rome, and has the flavor or cumin. For more traditional additions to the lentil base, see the Tisanam Barricam recipe at the bottom.
- 3 cups of water
- 1 cup of fresh carrots, chopped
- 1 can of brown lentils
- 1 cup frozen cauliflower, chopped
- 1/2 cup frozen spinach
- 2 Tbs nutritional yeast (if you do not have nutritional yeast, use only 2 cups of water)
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1+ tsp of sea salt
- Extra nutritional yeast
- Salt and pepper
- Fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro, chopped
- Onions, chopped
- Mushrooms, sliced
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Other potatoes
- Frozen peas (use at the very end, do not cook only thaw)
- Cabbage, shredded
- Put the water in a saucepan and put on medium heat.
- Once it starts to simmer, add chopped carrots. [Add any other fresh vegetables of your choosing to the pot here.]
- Cover and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Add the lentils, cauliflower, spinach, and spices. [Add any other frozen vegetables of your choosing here.]
- Simmer (uncovered) for 15 minutes.
- Garnish with nutritional yeast, salt, pepper, and fresh herbs of your choice
Here is the original ancient Roman soup recipe. I have filled in some steps I found to be missing to make it more enjoyable to modern palates, but all the same flavors are still there. Tasting the foods from different cultures and different eras is a really awesome experience, so I very much encourage you to try it out!
- 1/2 cup dried chickpeas (or 1 cup cooked, 3.5 oz if using canned)
- 1/2 cup dried green lentils (or 1 cup cooked, 3.5 oz if using canned)
- 1/2 cup dried split peas
- 1/3 cup pearl barley, soaked overnight, drained
- 10 1/2 cups of water
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- Pinch ground anise (may use star anise or fennel seed instead)
- 2 leeks, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup cabbage, shredded
- 1/2 bunch cilantro leaves, chopped
- Small bunch of fennel leaves, chopped
- Small handful of beet greens, shredded
- 20 leaves of spinach (in place of mallow leaves)
- 1/4 cup cornstarch (also in place of mallow leaves)
- 1/4 cup cold water
- 1/2 tsp ground fennel seeds
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- Pinch of garlic or onion powder [originally asafetida]
- 1/2 tsp ground celery seeds (or extra ground fennel seeds) [originally lovage seeds]
- 1/4 - 1/3 cup of Braggs Aminos/soy sauce or generously salt the soup to taste [originally 4 Tbs liquamen or Thai fish sauce]
- 1/4 cup cabbage leaves, finely shredded
- For faster cooking soak the chickpeas, lentils, and peas overnight (about 12 hours).
- Pour the chickpeas, lentils, and peas into a pot.
- Crush the barley and add to the legumes.
- Add the water and bring to a boil.
- Reduce to simmer and cover to cook for 2 hours (make sure the chickpeas are cooked through)
- Put another pan on the stove and add the olive oil.
- Once the oil has warmed, add the anise.
- Once you can smell the spice become fragrant, add the chopped leeks and shredded cabbage.
- Sauté on medium heat.
- Once browned, add the chopped fennel leaves, cilantro, beet greens, and spinach.
- Sauté until the greens have wilted.
- Add these to the pot of soup.
- Take the cornstarch and cold water and mix them together in a separate dish. Once all the lumps are out and a paste has been made, stir into the soup.
- Simmer for 20 minutes.
- Combine the ground fennel seed, oregano, garlic or onion powder, ground celery seed, with the soy sauce or salt. Stir into the soup.
- Once dissolved, finish cooking. Finish off with salt if needed.
- Serve in warmed soup bowls and garnish with final shredded raw cabbage.