Ancient Roman Oysters and Shellfish with Cumin Sauce


This week we present a recipe from the 1st book of De Re Coquinaria, the most extensive source of ancient Roman recipes. Actually, the recipe is just for the sauce, as quite common in this cookbook, called cuminatum in ostrea et conchylia, which means cumin sauce for oysters and shellfish.
There are no directions about which kinds of shellfish to use, except for ostrea, or which cooking method to use for them. From Galen’s De Facultatibus Alimentorum, written in the 2nd century, and Anthimus’ De Observatione Ciborum, dating to the 6th century, we know that oysters were eaten both raw and cooked (according to Galen, boiled or fried), exactly as we still do in Italy. Oysters, however, are good raw, but the other mollusks we chose are better cooked, so we decided to cook all of them. In any case, it is up to your taste: if you prefer, pour this sauce on raw oysters or mussels, and it will be delicious.
Oysters are presented in the Roman sources as a costly food. In an epigram by Martial, for example, we read about a stingy host who offers his guest mussels instead of the oysters he eats, with a list of other rich foods in contrast with a series of poor dishes.
A variant for this dish suggests the use of folium and malabathrum, which are Eastern spices known as cinnamon leaves or Indian bay leaves, used in ancient and medieval recipes.
To prepare this sauce, it is important to remember that it is called cuminatum, so it is a cumin-based sauce. As the author of this recipe writes clearly, it is necessary cuminum plusculum, a good quantity of cumin.
For this reason, we recommend using just a part each of pepper and lovage (that can be substituted with anise seeds according to Pliny or fennel according to Dioscorides), for example one pinch each, with four or five parts of cumin. This may be a good ratio, but for the exact quantities, we recommend tasting the sauce and following your taste.
Use a good amount of parsley and mint leaves and keep a reasonable ratio among the liquid ingredients, for example one part of honey and garum and two of vinegar not to unbalance the sauce. A proper unit of measurement could be a teaspoon. The text specifies to use dry mint, but we preferred the fresh herb.
Remember that garum may always be substituted with salt. If you prefer, use colatura di alici, or muria, or a South-East Asian fish sauce, produced in the same way as some kinds of garum.

To know more about foods in ancient Rome, check out our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources (Italian edition here), available on Amazon in e-book and printed editions. On our Patreon page, you find articles about historical foods and translations of ancient and medieval sources of cooking and dietetics, among which the first four books of De Re Coquinaria and De Observatione Ciborum.
If you are interested in medieval foods, check out our new book, with the translation (into English and Italian) and a commentary of the Registrum Coquine, written in the 15th century by Johannes Bockenheim.
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1,5 kg oysters and other shellfish
spices (black pepper, lovage, cumin)
dry or fresh mint
white wine vinegar

Cook for a few minutes the shellfish, depending on the size. If you want, add a bit of water or olive oil.
Mince the mint and parsley, then pound them in the mortar with pepper and lovage, adding a good amount of cumin. Mix with a bit of honey and garum, diluting with vinegar.

Original text
Aliter [cuminatum in ostrea et conchylia]: piper, ligusticum, petroselinum, mentam siccam, cuminum plusculum, mel, acetum, liquamen.

Another recipe [for cuminatum for oysters and shellfish]: pepper, lovage, parsley, dry mint, a good quantity of cumin, honey, vinegar, garum.

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Registrum Coquine by Johannes Bockenheim. A medieval cookbook
Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes

Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-4
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus (6th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum (11th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Anonimo Venezianofirst and second part (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)

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