For her book Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece, author Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti had to become something of a food detective. The Greeks didn’t have cookbooks as we do; instead, hints at their cuisine exist in their literature, in poetry and dramas.
Many of the recipes in this book derive from a single text written by Athanaeus in Rome in the third century, The Deipnosophists—also known as The Gastronomers or The Banquet of the Learned and as Philosophers at Dinner.
While some recipes—say, stuffed suckling pig—might challenge the modern cook, this lentil soup recipe from Zeno of Citium is quite easy, and makes a cozy winter meal. Lentils were then, as they have remained, cheap and widely used. “You men of fair Alexandria,” Athanaeus wrote, “have been brought up on lentil food, and your entire city is full of lentil dishes.”
Zeno’s Lentil Soup
1 lb. lentils
8 cup broth
1 large minced leek
1 carrot, sliced
1 stalk of celery, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
2 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
salt and pepper to taste
12 coriander seeds
Rinse the lentils thoroughly, then put them into a pot with the broth to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for one hour. When the hour is up, skim the top, add the vegetables, and simmer until cooked through, about 30 minutes. If the soup seems too watery, pass some of the lentils through a sieve. Now add the vinegar and honey. Pour into serving bowls and add a good dollop of olive oil (about 2 tablespoons per serving), sprinkling on coriander seeds and salt and pepper to taste.
The soup is surprisingly rich and flavorful, even though the aromatics go in the pot without being sautéed. A good-quality, fruity olive oil makes for a luxurious first spoonful.
If you’re wondering if you’re really supposed to count out exactly 12 coriander seeds—no more, no less—you’re not alone. “This commendable precision regarding a quantity is not common in ancient recipes,” Ricotti writes, “but assuredly these 12 coriander seeds radically change the flavor of the soup.”