Romans across the empire loved to spend a whole day in the amphitheatre, and that kind of spectator stamina required snacks!
Enterprising cooks would set up temporary fast food stalls around the outside of the amphitheatres to tempt spectators, as you can see here in the fresco of the Pompeii Amphitheatre Riot:
In 2004-5, English Heritage and Chester City Council launched the Chester Amphitheatre Project, and the archaeologists found evidence for these snack stands. Primarily, they found beef ribs and chicken bones.
I thought it might be fun to combine Roman flavours with modern snack foods that you might eat whilst watching a football match. Here are three recipes for you to try at home, using the Chester excavations as an inspiration.
So, we’re going to make a Parthian dipping sauce for fried chicken, sticky glazed chicken wings and drumsticks, and Roman smash burger sliders!
Before we start, an important disclaimer:
These recipes are not authentic recreations. They’re not supposed to be! They are adaptations for a modern kitchen and simple enough for even a novice cook. These are meant to be fun experiments, not scholarship.
Parthian Sauce for Fried Chicken
Apicius has a recipe for a spatchcocked or quartered chicken roasted in an oven half submerged in a poaching liquid. I’m not going to do that because whole chickens are expensive right now, and if you don’t like this recipe it’s a hell of a waste. So I’m transforming that poaching liquid into a dip for fried chicken (though in my house we have a seven year old in residence and as such will always have goujons or chicken dippers on standby.) If you don’t want to fry up your own chicken, grab a bucket from [redacted] or just use nuggets! This makes enough sauce for a ramekin, if you try it and like it you can scale up as desired. Or, find a traditional Parthian chicken recipe on YouTube and attempt the full roast chicken!
100ml wine - Apicius doesn’t specify red or white. Pick your favourite!
1 spoonful of butter or ghee
¼ tsp asafoetida powder - our silphium substitute. Cowards may use ½ tsp of powdered garlic or dried onion
1 tsp caraway seeds or 1 tsp cumin seeds - I prefer to grind them but you can leave them whole
¼ tsp lovage/ajwain seeds - OR 8 drops of Maggi Liquid Seasoning*
At least ¼ tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1 tsp thai fish sauce - our garum substitute
Optional - a splash of chicken stock for a less intense sauce
Take a small pan and melt the butter/ghee over a medium heat.
Add the asafoetida and let it cook out for at least 30 seconds - this is what kills the foetid stench and turns it into a lovely oniony-garlicky hybrid. I cannot stress this enough, do NOT add asafoetida to the sauce without tempering it in a fat first. It will taste horrific.
Add your seeds and let them hang out in the butter for half a minute
Now add your liquids, bring to a boil and then turn down the heat. After five minutes of simmering, the sauce should have reduced and thickened. (Add a small amount of cornstarch/flour slurry if your sauce just won’t thicken.)
This works hot or cold as a dip, and can even be (!PURISTS LOOK AWAY NOW!) whipped into some sour cream, greek yoghurt or mayo. My second tester (Dad) sat and ate it this way with a spoon…
Now, it’s not a flavour combination you’re likely to be familiar with, but it’s well worth trying. This is really unusual to the modern palate, but it’s pretty darn good. Unadulterated, it’s too intense to dig in with a spoon, but when drizzled on fried/breaded chicken it’s got a welcome kick, and is intensely savoury. Mixed in with sour cream, its intensity has the rough edges smoothed off a little, so this is worth a try if the initial taste punches you in the tongue. I suspect that Parthian Chicken is the Marmite of ancient recipes - you will either love it or hate it. If you like umami, you’ll love this.
For the sake of experimentation I prepped two versions: one with red wine and caraway and the other with white wine and cumin. My taste testers agreed that both were comparable and there was very little difference between the two - personal taste should therefore influence your decisions.
*I’ve given you recipes using lovage before. It’s not easy to find, either as seeds or leaves. You can substitute with celery salt or leaves, but then I discovered that in Germany, lovage is called Maggikraut - the Maggi herb. Maggi Liquid Seasoning tastes uncannily like lovage, despite not containing any at all. It’s easier to find, cheaper to buy and a fantastic substitution, particularly in sauces.
Sticky Sweet ‘n’ Sour Chicken
I used this glaze on chicken wings and drumsticks, which are such great finger foods when watching your favourite sports. It’s completely credible to think that a Roman concession stand sold chicken with this glaze.
You may find it odd to put mint on chicken, but I’ve heard that many of you animals put pineapple on pizza, so stranger things have happened.
I’m going to give you a recipe for the glaze and leave it up to you as to which cuts of chicken you choose and how you decide to cook it (barbecued, baked or grilled all work well! Glaze the chicken and cook according to pack instructions…) This is enough for about 1kg of chicken - plenty to share
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp thai fish sauce
½ teaspoon of anchovy paste OR oil from an anchovy tin
1 tsp caraway, fennel or cumin seeds, preferably ground
1 tsp dried mint. Dill could be substituted at a pinch
2 tsp date molasses OR 1 date, finely chopped
1 heaped tbsp whole-grain mustard
2 tsp white or red wine vinegar
1 tsp wine (optional)
All you have to do is combine these in a bowl.
Technically, Apicius says you can use this as a dip for leftover cooked meat, but he does use this as a cooked glaze too. You can use this to marinade the chicken beforehand but it’s not essential if you don’t have time. Otherwise, just bung it on the chicken rather liberally and cook in your preferred way.
This is sweet and sour but not as you know it - the mint lends a certain fresh, even floral, note to the chicken that’s unusual but really summery - this is perfect barbecue food!
Roman Smash Burger Sliders
I’ve adapted this from an Apicius recipe for veal escalopes served in sauce. We’re going to take those ingredients and turn them into burger patties, which are strongly flavoured so don’t require a heap of condiments. You can shape the burgers how you like (I prefer smashed sliders) or alternatively make meatballs to serve alongside some polenta. This makes 10 large burgers or 16 sliders.
750g minced/ground beef - don’t go too lean…
1 tsp ground cumin
1 ½ tsp celery salt
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 ½ tsp oregano
10 drops of Maggi Liquid Seasoning
1 tbsp onion granules or powder.
Small handful of raisins
Small glass of red wine
1 tsp White or red wine vinegar
1 tbsp Thai fish sauce
The day before you plan to eat the burgers, put the raisins in a ramekin and pour over enough red wine to cover. Leave for a few hours to plump up.
Add the plumped raisins and leftover wine into a large mixing bowl.
Add the other ingredients (except the beef) and combine well. You can taste now if needed but be aware the fish sauce won’t be as prominent when cooked out
Now add the beef and stir it into the mixture, evenly distributing the flavours. Try not to handle the beef too much, it’ll make your burgers tough
Cover and refrigerate overnight. The red wine will darken the meat, don’t panic…
When you’re ready, form into patties and cook as required. We fried, but a barbecue would be ideal to add a smoky flavour
These are highly flavoured, and that tiny splash of red wine make them lovely and rich. If you need a sauce, choose something mild. We just added a few salad leaves because the burgers already have all the flavour they need. Raisins may seem like an odd addition, but they work beautifully and keep the burgers juicy, although you could blitz them with a hand blender if you don’t want to keep them whole.
So there you have it, three Roman flavour profiles in three handily modern snack foods. Whether it’s Wimbledon or the Superbowl, these recipes are the perfect accompaniment to your next big sports match! 👍