Thursday, October 19, 2023

Cuminatum in Ostrea

I love reading about history, including culinary history. My travels through books and along the Internet take me to a lot of recipes. Many of those recipes, along with the resulting dishes, have long histories that date back decades, centuries and, in a few cases, perhaps a millennium or two. Yet, the recipes I find are usually the present day versions of those recipes, with little to no discussion about how we got to this point or that recipe.

Every once in a while, I will stumble upon someone who takes the time to find and talk about those recipes. In this case, it is the Historical Italian Cooking blog. The recipe that caught my eye is called cuminatum in ostrea et conchylia, which is Latin for cumin sauce for oysters and shellfish. The recipe dates back to at least the 5th century C.E., during which the Roman Empire collapsed (476 C.E.). We can go this far back because the recipe was found in the midst of a collection of recipes compiled in De Re Culinaria, also known as Apicius. The only surviving version of the Apicius dates back to the 5th century

Yet, cookbooks are sometimes akin to history books: they recount the recipe at the time of publication. This particular recipe may be much older, perhaps dating all the way back to the 1st century C.E. Some have attributed the Apicius to Marcus Gavius Apicius, who noble who was renown for his love of luxury foods. The Roman philopsopher Seneca once remarked that Apicius "proclaimed the science of the cookshop" (Seneca, Consolatio ad Helviami 10) and then corrupted the age through his example.

As the Historical Italian Cooking blog explains, Romans considered oysters to be a "costly food." Oysters may have been a luxury to the point that there was a reluctance to share them. The Roman poet, Martial (known as the father of the epigram, after all, he wrote 1,561 of them) recounted the following interesting epigram about a guest's response to the host's dinner: 

I dine with you at my own cost,

So why not fare the same, both guest and host?

You swallow Lucrine oysters large and fat,

I suck a whelk and cut my lips at that.

You're served with mushrooms, I chew fungus still,

You have to do with turbot, I with brill

Plump yellow doves your appetite assuage, 

I have a magpie starved within its cage.

I am by your side and yet I'm far away.

The dole has gone. Let's fare the same, I say.

Clearly, oysters ranked with other luxurious food items, such as mushrooms, turbot, and "plump yellow doves." (By the way, the underlying message in this epigram is as timeless is as true today as it was when Martial wrote it back in the first century A.D.) Other epigrams and poems by Martial underscore the oyster as an expensive food for Romans. 

Yet, even a costly food item like oysters has its limits. In another poem, Martial wrote, in part: 

I WILLINGLY accept your dainty fare

If hospitality be undesigning: 

Not so, if you imagine that I care

For nothing in the world so much as dining; 

A dozen oysters will not make you heir

To my reputed wealth for which you are pining; 

The feast is elegant; that I admit

But on the morrow what is left of it? 

Upon the morrow? Where is it to-day

The moment after it has passed your gullet?

Thus, oysters won't make you rich during Roman times, but they were certainly enjoyed by the rich.

This leads me to how Romans ate oysters. For that, I turned back to the Historical Italian Cooking blog. The author writes that in books wrote in the 2nd century, Galen's De Facultatibus Alimentorium, and in the 6th century, Anthimus' De Observatione Ciborum, recount that Romans ate oysters both raw and cooked (either boiled or fried). 

However, the recipe in Apicius provides for the oysters and shellfish but did not provide a cooking method. it provided only a sauce, and one that has its base in cuminum or cumin. In fact, the sauce requires a good amount of cumin (or cuminum plusculum). The recipe also calls for other spices (black pepper and lovage), herbs (fresh parsley and mint, the recipe calls for dried mint but you can use fresh mint), and a liquid mixture that consists of honey, garum and vinegar. If you do not have lovage, Historical Italian Cooking advises that, according to Pliny, you could use anise seeds, or according to Dioscorides, you can use fennel seeds.

For this recipe, I decided to prepare the sauce to serve with raw oysters. While I do not have authentic Roman garum (check out this post by Historical Italian Cooking on how to make it), I do have a significant amount of Vietnamese fish sauce (check out my post with a brief discussion of the history of fish sauce, including a reference to garum). I have modified the recipe slightly from the one provided by Historical Italian Cooking to show both how the writer described the preparation and how I prepared this dish. 

In the end, I have to say that I was not a big fan of this sauce. While I like cumin as a spice, I came to the realization that I am not keen on cuminum plusculum. The large amount of cumin overwhelmed the flavors of the oysters, with the brininess being lost in the loud notes of the spice. 


Recipe adapted from Historical Italian Cooking

Serves several


  • 1.5 kilograms (about 3 pounds) of oysters
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper; 
  • Pinch of fennel seeds; 
  • 4 tablespoons of cumin;
  • 1 bunch of parsley, minced finely
  • 1 tablespoon of dried mint leaves
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar


1. Prepare the sauce. Mince the parsley (and mint, if you use fresh mint). Pound them in the mortar with the pepper and the fennel seeds (or anise seeds or lovage), adding the cumin as you work. Move the mixture to a bowl and then proceed to mix in the honey and fish sauce (or garum), diluting it with the vinegar. 

2.  Finish the dish. Shuck the oysters and reserve the liqueur. Add some of the liqueur to the cumin sauce. Spoon some of the sauce over the shucked oysters and serve immediately. 


Thursday, October 12, 2023

The Long History Told by Bones

Salmon are an intrinsic part of us. They're in our blood. They're in our being.

- Hereditary Chief Don Svanvik, 
Namgis First Nation, 
Alert Bay, British Columbia

Recently, an online article caught my eye. The article's title was "Salmon Bones Confirm Sustainable Chum Fishery for 2,500 Years Under Tsleil-Waututh Nation."  That title represented a ray of light, a little bit of good news, that brightened what is becoming an otherwise dark picture.

It seems - to me at least - that much about what I have been reading about Pacific salmon has ranged from bad to ominous. This sense seems particularly the case for the salmon in the Pacific Northwest.  For example, a report in 2019 found that, while the preliminary forecasts for chum salmon in the Puget Sound hovered around 550,000 fish, the actual amount may have been more along the lines of 243,000 fish. That statistic is particularly alarming given that the chum salmon has traditionally been the most abundant of all the different types of salmon. 

There are many reasons for the population declines. At first, the culprit was overfishing in the 19th and 20th centuries. The loss in fish numbers was compounded by the loss of their habitat, which was primarily due to the construction of dams that blocked the rivers used by the salmon, along with the timber industry, which damaged the rivers and streams.  And then there is climate change and, in particular, the warming of the Pacific Ocean. As it turns out, just a few degrees of increased temperatures can have a significant impact on salmon populations. As the oceans warm, it favors subtropical zooplankton, which are not eaten by juvenile salmon. Warmer water also has less oxygen, making it harder for the fish to breath.

Yet, this is all the bad news; and, I started out this post noting a ray of light. Research has shown that one of the Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest - the Tsleil-Waututh - have a long history of managing the chum salmon populations where they live. The story actually explains that the Tsleil-Waututh have a much longer history of managing that important resource.

Archeologists had already known that the Tsleil-Waututh, who live in the Burraud tribal territory, have been sustainably fishing chum salmon for about 1,200 years, from approximately 400 BCE to 1200 A.D. However, recent finds at an archeological site at təmtəmíxʷtən, a very important site for the Tseleil-Waututh, have revealed that this fishery has existed for an additional 1,300 years. This history is important because of one fact: chum salmon are especially vulnerable to overfishing. 

This story has led me to think about how we develop our guidelines for sustainability. Often times, those guidelines are dictated from the top down, from the government to the people, with a healthy disdain for guidelines coming from the reverse direction. As long as people are motivated by capitalistic desires, such as the private ownership of resources and maximizing profit for personal gain, that disdain is warranted. But, what if the people are motivated by something else. What if, like the Tsleil-Waututh, the people are motivated by preserving the resources for future generations to enjoy. Resources that are able to thrive in a larger, more balanced ecosystem. 

All of the foregoing also got me thinking about the salmon recipes that I have made over the years. This is perhaps my most favorite recipe on my blog: 

Adapted from recipe by Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
Serves 4

Ingredients for the Orange-Saffron Sauce:
1/2 cup of white wine
1/2 cup orange juice
A healthy pinch of saffron, crumbled
A healthy pinch of sugar
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter

Ingredients (for the fish and greens):
1 1/2 pounds of tender spring greens, such as spinach
5 tablespoons of unsalted butter or vegetable oil, divided
A splash of water (no more than 3 tablespoons)
Grated zest of an orange
1 1/2 pounds of Copper River Salmon (or any wild salmon)

1.  Make the Orange-Saffron Sauce.  Make the sauce by bringing the white wine, orange juice, saffron, sugar and shallot to a boil in a small pot.  Simmer strongly for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and puree the sauce in a blender.  Return the sauce to the pot and turn the heat to low.  Add salt to taste and keep warm, but do not boil it or simmer it any further.

2.  Make the Greens.  Cook the greens in 2 tablespoons of butter or oil over high heat in a large saute pan, stirring constantly until they wilt. Add a splash of water, the orange zest and some salt and cover the pot. Lower the heat to medium-low and steam the greens for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat.

3.  Sear the salmon.  Heat the remaining butter in a pan large enough to hold the fish.  (If you don’t have such a pan, put a baking sheet in the oven and set the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit so you can keep the fish warm as you do this in batches.)  Heat the butter over high heat until it stops frothing. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and set it skin-side down in the hot butter. Turn the heat down to medium-high for a typical fillet  or to medium if you are working with a thicker piece of fish.

4.  Continue cooking the salmon.  Let the fish cook undisturbed for 2 minutes, then use a large spoon to baste the meat side of the fish with the hot butter. Baste the salmon for 90 seconds, then give it a rest. A thin fillet will only need one quick basting, but thicker pieces of fish will need a second or even third round of basting.  It took about four to five rounds of basting for the fillets that I had.  When the basting is done, salt the meat side. The skin side should lift off the pan easily after about 4 to 5 minutes of steady cooking. The moment you take the fish off the heat, salt the skin side.

5.  Finish the dish.  To serve, swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into the sauce, one tablespoon at a time. Pour some sauce on everyone’s plate. Top with the greens and then with a piece of fish. Serve immediately.


If you are looking for other recipes to honor the salmon and its place in the foodways of different cultures, or if you are just looking for a delicious recipe, I suggest these possibilities:

Smoked Sockeye Salmon:
 This is about as close as I can get to trying to pay homage to how Native Americans and First Nations would prepare their catches. You can check out the post and learn about the Legend of the Lost Salmon. This is one of the recipes that I wish I made more often, if only I had the time and the memory to remind myself. 

"Imperial" King Salmon:
This dish features king salmon grilled on an alder plank. It also features a crab imperial over the top. The imperial literally places this dish over the top. 

Cedar Plank Salmon:
 This recipe was truly an educational experience for me. The "smothering" of the salmon with onions serves an important purpose. The water in the onions help to keep the salmon moist.

Pike's Place Salmon Burgers: 
The final recipe comes from one of my Super Bowl parties, when I prepared a dish from the city of one of the Super Bowl contenders. Back in 2014, that contender was the Seattle Seahawks. So, I prepared a salmon burger recipe that comes from the city's iconic Pike's Place market. 

These are just some of the salmon recipes on this blog. If you want to see the other posts, just click on "Salmon" in the word cloud in "What's in my Fridge + Pantry." Until next time, 


Sunday, October 1, 2023

A Casualty of History

When the people don't give a damn about reason, they can be manipulated quite easily - and in such cases the perception of the people are manufactured by those controlling the narratives. As a result, ask an Azerbaijani, "who do you think is at fault for the conflict at Nagorno-Karabakh" and they'll say, "Armenia of course" .... Hard as it may sound, whoever controls the narrative, controls the people. And the only way to break that spell is to practice reason, but without losing your warmth.

-- Abhijit Naskar

It is often hard to find a narrative that is not tainted by whoever wields it, especially when it comes to culture, history and/or politics. There are often multiple narratives, some of which are irreconcilable. Yet, even in the fog of conflicting narratives, some facts shine through. Those facts cannot be denied, because they unfold before our eyes or the sounds reach our ears. This has been the case for the past days, weeks and indeed months as a so-called "breakaway republic" will now fade into the pages of history books. The consequences of what happened will live on, not only in those who suffered in the past, but in the suffering of untold numbers in the future. 

The "breakaway republic" that I am referring to is known as the Republic of Artsakh, more commonly known as Nagorno-Karabakh. The latter name is a combination of Russian (Nagorno) and Turkish/Persian (Karabakh) that translates roughly into "mountainous black garden." The Armenians living in the region preferred to call it Artsakh, because that lacked any reference to Russians, Turks, Persians or Azerbaijani. I will refer to Nagorno-Karabakh and Artsakh interchangeably. No country has recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state; instead, it has been considered to be part of Azerbaijan. Yet, the people who live within the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh are overwhelmingly Armenian. 

That one fact -- a region populated by Armenians that is part of a larger country whose majority is Azerbaijani -- provides the starting point. The mapmakers who created this issue were colonialists, but of a Russian kind. The Russian Empire obtained territory throughout the Caucasus Mountains, including both Armenia and Azerbaijan, as part of treaties that ended the Russian-Persian war in the early nineteenth century. Wars erupted between the Armenians and Azerbaijani in 1917 over various parts of their territories.  It was not until the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks occupied Azerbaijan (including Nagorno-Karabakh) and Armenia, that the borders began to become fixed. The resulting Soviet Union decided that the Nagorno-Karabakh region would remain in Azerbaijan, but the region would retain significant autonomy. That seemed to settle the matter ... until the Soviet Union ceased to exist. 

Azeri poster about Karabakh,
saying "Stand up, son of a Turk" 

As the Soviet Union crumbled, tensions increased within Nagorno-Karabakh. The majority Armenian population wanted the region to be transferred to Armenia. However, they could not get anyone to support their calls. In August and September 1991, both Azerbaijan and Armenia obtained their independence from what was the Soviet Union. Thereafter, the situation began to deteriorate precipitously.  On November 26, 1991, Azerbaijan ended the separate structure of Nagorno-Karabakh (officially known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast) and placed the entire region under Azeri control. The region conducted a referendum on December 10, 1991 (boycotted by Azerbaijanis) that resulted in a call for unification with Armenia. The lines were drawn. War broke out. 

The war killed approximately 30,000 people and made refugees out of hundreds of thousands more. A ceasefire was negotiated in 1994 and relative peace was achieved. I say relative because fighting would take place over the coming years and decades, including as recently as 2020. During that conflict, Azerbaijan not only attacked positions within Nagorno-Karabakh, but also Armenia. Those hostilities ended with another cease fire, but it seemed that Azerbaijan was gaining the upper hand.

But it is the events of the past few weeks that gave rise to the casualty of history. For some (additional) context, the predominantly Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was connected to the country of Armenia by one road, known as the Lachin corridor. Initially, a group of "environmentalists" blocked the corridor. I use the term in quotes because many of those "environmentalists" had connections with the Azerbaijani government. That government also cut off all gas supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Lachin checkpoint
Azerbaijan escalated the issue by establishing a checkpoint in the Lachin corridor. Perhaps the more appropriate term is a "chokepoint." The Azerbaijani military has used the checkpoint to restrict the passage of goods, materials and commodities between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan imposed a blockade in April 2023, depriving the people of Nagorno-Karabakh of what they needed to survive, like food, gas and medicine. The blockade soon extended to anything and everything by June 2023. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh were cut off from not only Armenia, but the entire world.  

On September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan commenced a military offensive, which ended one day later with a ceasefire, along with subsequent violations of the ceasefire. Azerbaijan then commenced its efforts to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh into the country. The violence, along with the seeming end of any autonomy, led to a mass exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. As of the end of September 2023, more than 100,000 Armenians have fled to safety in Armenia. The population of Nagorno-Karabakh was approximately 120,000 prior to the recent Azerbaijani military offensive. Those who remain would be forced to accept Azerbaijani citizenship.

Ethnic Armenians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh. Source: Vasily Krestyaninov (AP)

So, here we are, after months of an economic blockade, Azerbaijan used overwhelming military might to force the surrender of the governmental authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh. The military victory paves the way for the former Republic of Artsakh to be fully incorporated into Azerbaijan. The treatment of the Armenian people has led to a mass exodus that could, at the very least, be described as an act of ethnic cleansing.  Alternatively, Azerbaijan's conduct could be described, as it has by several legal experts, as a crime against humanity

The objective of the crime is two-fold: (1) to eliminate the Republic of Artsakh; and (2) to eliminate the Armenian culture that developed within its borders. As Azerbaijan has largely achieved both goals, feelings of powerlessness and meaninglessness may seem too much to overcome. Then again, remember who controls the narrative. In the face of violence and inhumanity, we can break the control over the narrative. So that no one will forget who lived in the mountainous black garden that the Armenians called Artsakh.

That is the purpose of this post. My goal is to make the one food that indisputably comes from the Armenian community that lived in Artsakh. That food is called Zhingalov Khats. The recipe embodies the principle of "Karabaghstin sovadz chi mnoum" or "the people of Karabakh do not remain hungry." During the wars with Azerbaijan, the local populace would gather greens from the forest and elsewhere to prepare this dish, as well as a broth of wild greens. 

The recipe starts with an unleavened dough, which is rolled out into a thin circle. A filling is then prepared by chopping various herbs very finely. If one were preparing this dish in Artsakh, they would be looking for herbs that go by the name of k'ndzmendzyuk, chercheruk, s'msemok and mokhratal. These are just some of the at least seven herbs that are used to make zhingalov khats. Some recipes call for as many as twenty herbs for the filling. Regardless of the number of herbs used, the other ingredients include lemon juice, paprika and some salt. The dough is then folded over and sealed. The packet is then pressed slightly so that it looks like a deflated American football. Once the bread is ready, it is cooked over a saj, which is a specialized domed griddle.

In my case, I prepared a filling that consisted of cilantro, spinach, kale, Swiss chard and scallions.  I could not reach the threshold of seven ingredients because I had some difficulty in finding the other greens at my local grocery store. These greens and herbs included chervil, turnip greens, tarragon, radish tops, sorrel and watercress. Nevertheless, I kept those ingredients in the recipe below in case you are able to find them in your local store. As for the preparation, once I placed the stuffing and sealed the dough, I used a standard griddle to cook the bread.

One final note: it is said that zhingalov khats is best enjoyed with a fine red wine. I definitely have a suggestion, namely, the Karas Classic Red, which comes from Armenia.


Recipe adapted from Cafe Osharak and New York Times

Serves 4

Ingredients (for the Lavash):

  • 2/3 cup lukewarm water
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups of all purpose flour, plus 200 grams more for dusting

Ingredients (for the filling):

  • 2 pounds chard, tough stems discarded
  • 4 packed cups fresh cilantro, chervil and dill leaves and tender stems
  • 4 packed radish greens and sorrel
  • 6 spring onions or 10 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons sunflower oil or other neutral oil
  • Lavash dough


1. Prepare the lavash. In a medium bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups of flour and the salt. pour the lukewarm water into a large bowl, then gradually add the flour mixture, using your hands to incorporate. The dough will be sticky. Dust the counter with flour, turn dough onto it and knead gently until the surface becomes smooth and the dough stops sticking to your hands and counter, about 5 minutes. Roll the dough into a ball, place it in a lightly oiled bowl, turn it to coat, then cover it with a kitchen towel. Let it rest at room temperature for 20 minutes to 1 hour.  

2. Prepare the filling. Wash and dry all of the greens. Chop the greens finely. Mix with spring onions, lemon juice and salt. 

3. Prepare the bread. Spread flour over the work surface. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces and roll into thin 8 inch ovals using a rolling pin. Place about 2 cups of the filling in the center, then use your hand to pat it down into a round, leaving about a 1 inch border of dough. Pick up the two opposite sides of the dough and pinch them together over the center of the filing, from top to bottom so the middle is wide and the ends form points. 

4. Continue to prepare the bread. Firmly pinch the seam to make sure it's sealed, then turn the dough over and gently flatten it out with the palm of your hand so it resembles a deflated football, sealing any holes in the rough. It should be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. If it is thicker, use a rolling pin to smooth it out aa little. Pinch shut any holes in the dough and then place it on parchment. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with the remaining dough.

5. Cook the bread. Heat a large cast iron pan over medium high. Working with one dough portion at a time, place the dough seam-side down in the center of the pan. Lower the heat to medium and cook for about 3 minutes, until cooked and lightly browned in places. Flip, and cook the other side for 2 minutes. If the dough seems raw in places, flip and cook evenly. Repeat for the rest of the zhingalov khats and serve warm or at room temperature.

*    *    *

Nagorno-Karabakh has become a casualty of history. A history of artificially drawn borders, dividing communities with political boundaries that, sometimes, bind those communities with larger groups of people. When one adds the worst of humanity - distrust and hatred of those who are different - with the desire for power and control, then the scene is set for the events of Nagorno-Karabakh. The only question is when the final act will play out. It has unfolded while the world has watched. It did so silently as brutality, inhumanity and violence caused Artsakh to fall and to force over 80% of the population to flee their homes. 

I leave you with one last note: there are many more Nagorno-Karabakhs across the globe. As you read this post, the military forces of Serbia are amassing along the border with Kosovo, a breakaway republic in the Balkans that is only partially recognized. My guess is that the Serbian government has made a bet: if the West sat silent as Azerbaijan ethnically cleansed Nagorno-Karabakh, then it is unlikely to do anything if the scene repeats itself in Kosovo. 

Only time will tell.