Modern Rome feels like a long way from China, but Ancient Rome’s boundaries stretched to the edges of the Persian Gulf, which may help explain why the civilization’s cuisine was distinguished by flavors now associated with Asian cooking.
“Speaking generally, Roman food is remarkably sweet -- they rely heavily on fruit and honey -- and quite acidic,” says Neill George, the blogger behind Pass the Garum, a site devoted to ancient Roman food. “The thing I liken it to most is an Asian sweet-and-sour sauce.”
The overlaps between ancient Roman and contemporary Asian palates inspired tonight’s dinner at Xiao Bao Biscuit, a five-course meal intended to conjure the height of the Roman Empire. Edmund’s Oast sous chef Reid Heninnger and XBB sous chef Evan Gaudreau, both alums of The Ordinary, are preparing the meal. They’ll be assisted by JR Bearden of The Florence and Nate Hood, Coda del Pesce’s chef de cuisine.
Thus far, the exact menu is unannounced: XBB co-owner Joey Ryan promises only an “adventurous style.” But George was willing to make a few educated guesses about what guests can expect on their plates.
“In terms of dishes, the most stereotypically Roman dishes are probably peacock and dormice, so I would expect something disguised in that way,” he says. “Doubtless they’ll have a go at garum, but care needs to be taken. It should taste like a slightly sweeter version of Vietnamese fish sauce, with meat and cheese flavors and smells. Some people liken it to Worcestershire sauce, but that’s much too spicy.”
To drink, George says, wine is the rule. Conditum Paradoxum -- a wine spiced with honey, fennel seeds, saffron and dates – was especially popular.
“Romans could go through five-plus liters of the stuff, but that’s because it was watered down,” he says.
Finally, the meal should proceed from “eggs to apples,” meaning vegetables are served first, with the supper finally ending in a frenzy of fruit. The fruit and vegetables courses were assembled without the benefit of the New World, which later contributed tomatoes and corn to the Italian canon.
“(Ancient Roman food) is often accused of being over-seasoned,” George concludes. “But if prepared correctly, you can expect a real journey of flavors.”
Tonight’s menu is priced at $48, and will be served from 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. at Xiao Bao Biscuit, 224 Rutledge Ave. No reservations are accepted.