Bonus Episode! We have a running joke on this podcast about Demetrius Poliorcetes, Besieger of Cities. Despite having failed spectacularly at besieging Rhodes, he left a remarkable legacy across the Hellenistic world. Well, as a Christmas treat, I give you his full story.
There is no full-length modern history of Demetrius, and there ought to be. He went from young upstart general to savior-god of Athens to death in a prison cell. Very few people had the ups and downs of this man, and in the process, he experienced many of our wonders in a way that few people have. And in a very real way, his story is our story, for good or for bad.
Many thanks to Plutarch for the primary material. And Happy Holidays!
Moutabel* is a smoky eggplant (or aubergine) dip from the Levant which is particularly popular in Jordan. You would enjoy this with warm pita bread as part of a mezze, a large spread of appetizers like hummus, tabouleh, and other delicious taste sensations.
What makes moutabel different from baba ghanoush is the addition of tahini, that almost peanut buttery sesame paste. This makes moutabel significantly smoother in texture, which I like, without overwhelming the eggplant and garlic.
The key to successful eggplant spreads is the cooking. Flame-grilled is the best way to go, but roasting in an oven is fine too. It’s important not only to make sure the skin is blackened all over but that the eggplant has basically been cooked into a soft goo. If you think it’s done, it’s probably not done. The more you cook out the liquid and break down the fibers, the better your dip will be.
I’ll be honest - I’m giving this recipe now, but I won’t try it myself until the summer. Getting a perfect ripe eggplant makes a huge difference, and this is really a summery dip, with the bright lemon and garlic. So save this for later, OR if you’re one of my Australian or New Zealander listeners, enjoy RIGHT NOW! And then, let me know how it is!
Photograph from: http://bennydoro.com/chef/recipes/moutabal-roasted-eggplant-dip/ since I haven't made it myself yet.
* Moutabel, or moutabal, or muttabal, or mutabbal - I’ve seen all of these, and if anyone can tell me a really good transliteration, I sure would appreciate it.
Lost city of the Nabataeans, the rock-cut city of Petra has been rightfully celebrated as a Wonder of the World, at least since that Indiana Jones movie. But the story is well worth telling. We'll talk about the Nabataeans, their caravans, and their run-ins with the Greeks, Romans and Judeans. We'll meet Pompey the Pompous. And we'll eat Bedouin classics from underground pit ovens.
Stephanie Craig from the History Fangirl podcast shares her experiences traveling in Jordan. For such a small country, there's so much there. You will have chosen wisely to download this episode. Enjoy!
This is the easiest pasta to make, and the easiest pasta to mess up. There are four ingredients:
You’d think this would be so easy. I mean, it’s basically Roman mac n’ cheese. But you’d be surprised how easy it is to get really greasy or clumpy or both. You’re trying to make a creamy sauce from a hard cheese. But it can be done!
Here’s secret one: grate the Pecorino as fine as you can. The finer it is, the easier it will emulsify into your sauce.
Secret two: save a little pasta water - that’s the water you cook your pasta in. Makes a huge difference in making your sauce silky since the water contains starch, which will again help to emulsify.
Secret three: don’t try to make this a one-pot dish. You’ll end up overcooking the cheese, which leads to lumps. Instead try this. Cook your spaghetti in well-salted water. And yes, spaghetti really is the winner here. Not so thin that it falls apart, but not so thick that portions get uncovered in sauce. Short pastas would be less appealing here too. Before you drain your pasta, be sure to save a cup or so of your pasta water.
OK. Now add the warm pasta water to a separate pot with your finely grated cheese, about 2 cups or 110 grams. Stir until it’s all completely melty and beautiful. If it looks as though it’s breaking, add a little more pasta water. Then tong in the pasta and mix it all up so it’s all coated. Buon appetito!
Back for Part II! Nitin Sil from the Flash Point History podcast joins me to discuss the Second Punic War, Hannibal, and Scipio. Was Hannibal crossing the Alps really a big deal? How did Rome win in the end?
I also talk about mathematician and defense contractor extraordinaire Archimedes and his antique death ray!
Plus, finally, a play-by-play of the Roman Forum, how to stroll the streets of modern Rome, and enjoying pecorino romano cheese. If you don't crave spaghetti cacio e pepe now, you will!
An episode so big I had to break it in half! Here comes Rome, both the vibrant, chaotic, eye-catching capital of Italy, and the civilization that made that capital possible. This episode looks at the rise of Rome and the first Punic War with Carthage, that other great Mediterranean Empire.
We'll take side trips to Sicily as well as Tunisia to talk about cannoli and harissa. Worth it. In fact, I get so caught up talking about Rome vs Carthage that I don't even get to the Roman Forum itself. That's OK - there's always next week, when Part II will take us to the Eternal City for a sunset look at the ruins.
It's our FIRST ANNIVERSARY. To celebrate, let's explore EPCOT: a place you can visit many wonders of the world, all at once. Sort of. What you might not expect is its fascinating history and the weird vision Walt Disney had for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
There's also a "state of the podcast" bit at the end and a giant thank you to you for listening to me ramble all these months.
Xi’an, being on the silk road, sits at a fascinating middle ground between east and west, only in this case, west means not Europe but the steppes of Central Asia.
This soup reflects that heritage: it blends Chinese spices and flavors (ginger, star anise, sichuan peppercorns) with lamb, a very Central Asian meat, and bread. The bread is almost a homestyle flour tortilla or naan, meant to be ripped apart and doused in the soup, to thicken and dissolve in the broth.
Noodles make an appearance as well, and the entire experience is one of warmth, both temperature, spiciness, and soul-warming home-ish-ness. That’s not a word.
I think I’m going to try this with chicken, since my wife will go for that. Its won’t be the same! But at least it’s close. Try this out and let me know what you think!
Recipe adapted from All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China but Carolyn Phillips and from https://liviblogs.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/yang-rou-pao-mo-recipe.html
They stand row on row in silent guard of a long-dead autocrat. The Terracotta Army, built to defend the tomb of China's First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, are the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century.
Joined by Abel Kay, we look into the story of the Emperor who unified China, and the ruthless path he took to do it.
We'll talk about scheming merchants, pretend eunuchs, beheaded generals, assassins, scholars buried alive, rivers of mercury, and the secret to immortality. Sound like enough for you?
We'll also explore Xian, imperial city, and sample some biang biang noodles and lamb bread soup.
On the way, there might be a detour to Indianapolis, because why not?
One of the special pleasures in life is a cold spread coating a piece of warm, fresh-from-the-oven bread, and this one from Greece is my favorite.
It’s fiendishly easy and magnificently garlicky. If you don’t like garlic, then give this a pass. Not for vampires.
Basically, you boil potatoes, and mash them until they’re smooth. I find it a lot easier to boil potatoes you’ve already cut into chunks.
In the meantime, you make a puree of garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and an additional thickener. Almonds are standard, but if you’re nut-free, bread crumbs will do in a pinch. Puree the garlic in the lemon juice - the acid will remove some of the garlic bite while keeping the flavor.
Then spoon it all together. If it’s too thick, a little water will do, but not too much. You want this to be thick enough to spread onto something, but not thin like mayonnaise or anything like that. Slather it onto bread or fish or basically whatever you want. It will be worth it.
All the world is a stage, and the first stage was in Athens, the birthplace of tragedy. With Darby Vickers from the History of Greece podcast, we visit with the great playwrights, as Athens hits a great turning point: the Peloponnesian War.
That doesn't go well, and who's to blame? Surely not a homely old teacher in the Agora? Indeed. But his student will have the last laugh.
All this plus skordalia!
So I have searched every website out there to find an acceptable spanakopita, sorry, I mean spanakotripita, recipe, and I think this one will work.
Here’s the thing: phyllo dough is an absolute pain in the backside to work with. It freaks me out every time. So kudos to those who choose to make their own. Even the frozen kind is challenging for me.
I found this recipe at https://www.themediterraneandish.com/spanakopita-recipe-greek-spinach-pie. The best thing about this site is that they have many photographs and even videos really documenting each step.
Check their website out. Honestly - it’s so well done. They make it look actually easy to do.
Another note: I got into a significant argument with a Greek-American colleague about whether a spinach pie with feta was spanakotiropita or just spanakopita. He was insistent that all spanakopita included cheese - it didn’t need to be mentioned specifically. Note that this is counter to the point that Darby made in the episode. We ended up at a Greek restaurant in Chicago (Greek Islands!) and they listed their spinach and cheese pie as… spanakotiropita! Victory. Nike.
Just go to https://www.themediterraneandish.com/spanakopita-recipe-greek-spinach-pie and follow the step-by-step there. It’s brilliant.
Athens has won the war against Persia, but now what? The Golden Age of Pericles, that's what! He's building temples, making money, enlarging an empire, all in the name of democracy. Darby Vickers from the History of Greece podcast stops by to talk about the Great Democrat as well as what it's like to visit the Parthenon today. The one in Athens, not the one in Nashville. She also talks about Greek bakeries and the joy that is spanakotiropita.
The intro today (my first one ever!) is from Lynn Perkins of the History of the Ottoman Empire podcast. He does fine work, and I can't wait to bug him when I get to Topkapi Palace.
There are few dishes as stereotypically Greek as roast lamb. With the weather starting to get cold as we move towards Autumn, what better way to celebrate stick-to-your-ribs comfort food?
If we were REALLY doing this right, we would roast a whole lamb on a spit in your front yard. But that might upset the neighbors, the police, and the homeowners’ association, so we’ll do something in the oven
Arni sto Fourno (αρνι στο φουρνο), which means “oven-roasted lamb,” is a recipe I’m using from the restaurant where I met my wife 15 years ago. In fact, this is the very dish I had that night, which is a good way to know that it’s the real deal - I mean, it was fifteen years ago.
The restaurant, the Greek Islands, calls it Arni Fournou, but whatever you call it, it’s super simple. Chunk up some potatoes, throw in chopped tomatoes, garlic, oregano, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Then nestle in four lamb shanks, of about a pound each (500 g).
This recipe (http://checkplease.wttw.com/recipe/arni-fournou) comes from the Greek Islands, via the files of Check Please!, a public television staple in Chicago, in which each of three average viewers invites the other two to their favorite local restaurant. I wish every town had that show - it does a terrific job in introducing viewers to cuisines, neighborhoods, and establishments they would never have considered otherwise. (http://checkplease.wttw.com).
The priestess of Apollo will answer your questions, if not how you expect. Will Athens survive the war with the Persians? Should Sparta march to help? Will you enjoy this episode on the Oracle of Delphi in Greece, featuring the brilliance of Alison Innes and Darrin Sunstrum from the MythTake podcast and Lantern Jack from Ancient Greece Declassified? Yes. Yes you will.
We'll talk about the Oracle, how it came to be and how it worked. We'll follow the Greeks in their war with the Persians. We'll visit Delphi and eat roast lamb and greens. You won't need gas rising from the temple floor to enjoy this one!
Sesame halva is well known throughout the world, and can be purchased at most Middle Eastern stores or Jewish delis. I don’t care for it though, so I’m trying out a different version: one based on flour rather than sesame.
It's smooth, sweet - but not too sweet, with a nuttiness that comes from toasting the flour after blending it with butter. I omitted the almonds because my kids are allergic, but they would probably give an amazing added crunch.
This recipe comes from the New York Times: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017926-turkish-flour-helva
1. In a medium pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour, a little at a time to prevent clumping; reduce heat to very low and cook, stirring often with a heatproof rubber spatula or wooden spoon, until the flour is deep golden brown and butter separates and floats to the top, about 1 to 2 hours. The higher the flame, the quicker it will cook, but the more you will have to stir it.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium pot, combine sugar, 1 1/2 cups/355 milliliters water, and milk; bring to a low simmer over medium heat. Turn off heat, cover to keep warm, and reserve.
3. When flour mixture is toasted and browned but not burned, slowly whisk in the warm milk mixture and a pinch of salt if you like. (It's O.K. if the milk has cooled to room temperature; it should not be cold.) Raise heat to medium-high and cook, stirring with a heatproof rubber spatula or wooden spoon, until mixture comes together in a paste-like texture and no longer sticks to sides of the pot. (Make sure to stir in the corners and bottom of pot.) Whisk the mixture occasionally, if necessary, to create a smoother texture and get rid of any lumps. Cover pot with a cloth and a lid, then let cool.
4. In a medium skillet, toast the almonds in the dry pan over medium heat. Sprinkle almonds and cinnamon over cooled helva. Spoon onto plates or into small bowls to serve.
Involved? Yes. But worth it. Really worth it. Here's a couple of tips:
Is this burning an eternal flame? Why yes. Yes, it is. Nestled in the hills of Lycia in southwestern Turkey, the Yanartaş of Mount Chimaera is a series of methane-fueled fires that have burnt for at least 2500 years. Lycia has a fascinating history and is well worth a quick detour from our narrative, so let's take a look.
Joining us is Roxanne from Mythology Translated, to share the myths of the chimaera and other fine folks. We'll also talk Ionia, to set us up for the great conflict between Persia and Greece.
And we'll have some sweet, sticky halva! Oh, and Santa Claus shows up. Sort of.
Chicken, skewered and grilled, is a classic Persian dish, one that has been cooked for centuries. And it’s magnificent. The key is two-fold: 1) the marinade: a tangy blend of yogurt, lime juice, olive oil and saffron, which does wonderful things to the chunks of chicken breast, and 2) the charcoal grilling, which lends that lovely char that so nicely offsets the tenderness of the meat.
Chicken alone is nice; I like to pair with vegetables like onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Make sure you cook those on different skewers, as they and the chicken take different times to cook.
Above all, you need a starch to go with this, and the best without doubt is the chelo, the rice. It’s officially just a standard steamed basmati rice, but if you do it right, you get this lovely crust (or tah-dig) at the bottom of the pan that is so mind-blowing.
This recipe comes from Azita from the top-notch Persian food blog Turmeric and Saffron (http://turmericsaffron.blogspot.com/).
Start with marinating the chicken (6-8 hours before meal)
Move to rice (3.5 hours before meal)
As the rice steams, heat the grill and get the chicken ready to go.
Involved? Yes. But worth it.
This week’s recipe comes courtesy of Vivek Vasan, our special guest and host of the Historical India podcast. The recipe is based on his mother’s recipe, so you know it’s gotta be good. I haven’t been able to try it yet, mainly because finding many of the ingredients require a special trip to the local South Asian grocery, but I will be trying it soon.
It sounds complex, but each of the four major steps require some rest time, leaving plenty of time to proceed to the next. Start with making the dough, then build the filling while the dough rests. While the litti cooks, you can make the baigan chokha. To bake the chokha, you can bake in a conventional oven, since you’re likely not to have either a Tandoori oven nor to fuel said oven with upla (animal dung). While they bake, chop, sauté and season the eggplant. Then all will be ready.
To make dough:
For Stuffing (Pitthi)
For Chokha – this is one option for the accompaniment - Eggplant or you can try the Potato one
Prepare dough for Litti
How to make Stuffing for Litti
How to make Litti
How to make Chokha for Litti
Aaloo (Potato) ka Chokha
Courtesy of Vivek Vasan
The prince who became an enlightened holy man, the Buddha took India by storm. We'll cover him and his contemporary Mahavira and two kings who followed their teaching while building India's first great empire: Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka. It's storytelling time! Vivek Vasan helps out again and shares his mom's litti chokha recipe as we visit Bihar to see the great temple by the Bodhi Tree.
This recipe comes from the excellent Indian Home Cooking, co-written by Suvir Saran, who is a friend of a friend, and who has been personally kind and generous to me for years now. Buy his book(s).
Indian cuisine is fantastic if you are a vegetarian, and one of the hallmarks of typical Indian cooking is dal, or lentils, stewed up and served over rice or with quick-fired bread.
This recipe is great for weeknight dinners. It’s easy, flavorful, a little spicy, and totally good for you. My 10-year-old son loves it. I don’t have mango powder, but I find that the lemon works really well to bring that bit of acidity to balance the turmeric and cumin.
Try this out with rice - I like to use basmati and to do a pilaf (toasting the rice in cumin-studded oil before rehydrating). I think you’ll enjoy it!
Recipe from: Indian Home Cooking, Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness
(I forgot to take a picture - I will next time)
Holiest site in Hinduism, Varanasi's riverside ghats are a swirl of color, faith, life, and death. We discuss the vedas, the great epics, and the development of Indian civilization with Vivek Vasan from the Historical India podcast.
Traditionally, this dish requires carp caught from the Yellow River. You won’t have access to that in all likelihood, so use any good firm mild-flavored fish. Whole fish looks really cool, but if you’re not trying to impress, filets work just as well. Bass, trout, halibut, all would work fine. I used grouper, which worked fantastically well. The recipe is for the whole fish, but cooking a filet is easier.
Basically, score the skin of the fish if you’re using whole fish, coat it with cornstarch and then flash-fry it in a very hot wok. Then drain the oil, and make a simple lightly sweet and vinegary sauce in the wok and serve with rice and veggies. The sauce is not fluorescent orange. The key is the black vinegar. I had never heard of this. It’s a rice-based vinegar, but aged so it becomes dark and umami-rich. It’s kinda like balsamic but more magical, and the way it mingles with the sugar, garlic, scallions and ginger… wow. You can use the sauce on chicken, tofu, pork… I bet it’s really good with strips of lean beef stir-fried. Try it. You will like it.
1 whole or filleted fish (1 1/2 lbs)
1 tsp salt
oil for frying (peanut or vegetable or similar)
2 green onions, chopped fine
2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup black vinegar
3 tbsp sugar (preferably turbinado)
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 chicken stock (unsalted)
1 tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 3 tbsp cold water
Adapted from All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China by Carolyn Phillips
Looming over Confucius' home province of Shandong, Mount Tai is the holiest place in Daoism, which means we can tackle both great philosophies while discussing feudal China and Shandong cuisine.
An incredibly delicious dish of North African origin, shakshuka is eggs poached in tomato sauce, but it’s so much more than that. Brought to Israel by immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya, shakshuka has been throughly embraced by Israelis, and it’s easy to see why. I like it as part of the breakfast meal that’s traditionally served at sundown on the day after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the fast day in September or October.
Basically, start by sautéing onions and pepper in a cast-iron skillet. Get them brown and even a little charred, then add a bit of garlic. Paprika, cumin, coriander come in. Canned whole tomatoes, mashed up as you cook them. Then whatever else you want: olives, feta, greens, beans, artichokes, whatever.
Once you’ve got a crazy good sauce, use a spoon to make indentations in the sauce and then crack the eggs into those holes. Finish it in a preheated oven until the egg whites are just set. Then Woot! Dig in!
Again, play around with this. Once you have the basic down, add other stuff: olives, artichokes, greens, mushrooms, cheese, chorizo, you name it. If this doesn't become your go-to brunch standard, I'll eat my new hipster hat.