Ancient Roman cooking brought back to life

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Eggs poached in wine and garum.

It might seem odd for a pair focused on Filipino and Hawaiian street food to dabble around ancient Rome for culinary inspiration.

But Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca, co-owners of the Hawaiian-fusion food truck Poi Dog, each majored in classics at Bryn Mawr. So, for them, it's a sensible step in their evolution as chefs, using food to tell personal and political stories.

Though Poi Dog's street fare tells the story of Aranita's heritage (she grew up in Hawaii and Hong Kong), this latest endeavor looks at not only what ancient Romans were eating, but why this food was only available to the elite class in their society.

The idea to explore ancient Roman cuisine had been simmering for nearly a decade. Aranita and Melanie Subacus, now a classics professor at Villanova and Temple, first toyed with the notion in 2008, when, still in school, they tossed together an impromptu ancient beer-drinking night, which encouraged guzzling anything with a classical-sounding name.

Drinking Dogfish Head's Midas Touch and Pliny the Elder beers gave them a fuzzy feeling they couldn't shake. And it wasn't the buzz of the alcohol; it was the thrill of fusing their classical studies with their taste buds.

Back then, they didn't have much of a framework to dig deeper into the particulars of ancient Roman food. But now, thanks to Aranita and Vacca's robust food truck following, they have the ability and means to bring their passion to the plate.

Having traveled extensively to Greece and Rome through the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the American Academy of Rome, they are uniquely qualified to develop a menu highlighting ancient Roman cuisine.

"We're not trained as cooks," Aranita said. "We're trained as scholars."

They weren't sure Philly would be receptive to ancient Roman food. But their first ancient cooking class sold out within two hours at Cook, the Rittenhouse demonstration kitchen. So they booked a class at the Free Library of Philadelphia for April 4, in hopes of reaching a larger audience.

Fans of Italian cooking take note: tomatoes, basil, and garlic weren't found in an ancient Roman kitchen. Tomatoes were a New World treat, basil was considered poisonous, and garlic was seen as a medicinal ingredient.

Re-creating an ancient menu didn't come easy. For one thing, there were no measurements in the recipes they found, which led to several trial-and-error attempts.

Using recipes from historical sources like Apicius, the oldest collection of recipes to survive from antiquity; Galen, an ancient physician who also wrote about food and diet; and Columella, the most important writer on agriculture of the Roman empire, the class will focus on exposing participants to the popular food profiles of the time, which relied heavily on garum (a fermented fish sauce), wine, vinegar, and black pepper.

Sourcing ingredients required equal amounts of ingenuity and creativity. Some swaps were easy, like replacing dormice and ostrich meat with chicken and pork. But some adjustments took a little more work. They turned to the Internet to find a suitable stand-in for garum and to source asafoetida, a pungent yellow spice.

Adapting the food for modern palettes proved tricky, too. "If we just followed the recipes in the ancient cookbooks to the letter, it wouldn't be very good," Aranita confesses. That's where their experience as chefs shined the brightest, as making the taste, texture, and smell appealing took some finesse.

In updating the Parthian chicken recipe, Vacca added a modern twist: the flash-fry.

"We weren't happy with the chicken skin being flabby due to the braising process," he said. "So we braised it to get it par-cooked, then dredged it in flour and gave it a quick flash-fry to keep it nice and moist, and give it some crisp on the skin."

For their pork-and-fruit ragout, they leaned on their knowledge of Filipino cooking to fill in the gaps.

"We followed the ingredients in an Apicius recipe, but we lechon-ified it." (Lechon is a pig slow-roasted over fire, Filipino-style.) "We rolled the pork belly up, tied it with string, and Chris basted it every 15 minutes or so," Aranita explained. The result was crispy pig skin with the suggested fruits in the recipe - apricots, figs, and dates - in a sauce spooned on top.

The two business partners (not a romantic couple) don't have any intention of starting a Roman-theme food truck anytime soon, but they have been fielding inquiries from local colleges' classic departments to demo their food. And they'd love to explore more food from ancient literature and bygone eras.

"I think it'd be fun to try to make Circe's potion from The Odyssey as part of a Greek-myth dinner," Aranita said. "That's the one that turns men into swine."

Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca will teach from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia Culinary Literacy Center. $35 includes the ancient Roman banquet. Melanie Subacus will offer context and answer questions.