History & Culture

4 Modern Foods That Are Actually Ancient

Did you know that hot dogs and ketchup were invented in Ancient Rome? And that popcorn and pancakes are over 5000 years old? Lots of foods and recipes that we all take for granted have had long and tortuous paths through history to become what we know and love today. Thankfully, a dive into “Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things” sparked our curiosity about where our food comes from, and we’ve collected the most jaw-dropping examples of ancient foods for you!

1. Popcorn: 3000 B.C.E. in the Americas1

“Popped corn” is now a movie-night staple, but it was originally a Native American dish. Columbus and his men purchased popcorn necklaces from native Americans, while Hernando Cortés discovered that the Aztecs wore popcorn amulets in sacred ceremonies. Some even say that popcorn was consumed at the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621!

Native Americans perfected the art of popping corn without pots, stoves, or specialised machines. At first they would roast corn on a stick, or simply throw the kernels directly into the embers of a fire -  but this way they could only manage to eat the kernels that happened to jump free of the fire. Eventually they created a more sophisticated method: they heated a clay vessel filled with sand, creating a makeshift oven. When the sand was hot enough, they’d throw the kernels in, and popcorn would simply pop out of the surface of the sand.

It was only in the 1880s that popping corn was made easier thanks to the first popcorn machines in the US. However, popcorn wouldn’t become truly popular until the 1950s, when the invention of television catapulted this ancient food into the hall of fame as the world’s favourite TV snack.

2. Pancakes: 2600 B.C.E. in Ancient Egypt2

The modern pancake is a thing of beauty, but it has age on its side too - its ancestors have their roots in Ancient Egypt. Before humans started using yeast to raise dough, the Ancient Egyptians cooked unleavened wheat flour patties on flat hot stones. These ancient pancakes could have disappeared once yeasts were introduced around 2600 B.C.E., after the Egyptians invented the oven and started baking bread. However, pancakes continued to be an Egyptian favourite and made their way through the ancient world.

Later, they became a popular food in the Christian world: “Shrove Tuesday” was marked by the eating of the “Shriving cake” which was, in fact, a pancake. Each ingredient in these pancakes was highly symbolic - its flour symbolised the stuff of life; its milk, innocence; and its egg, rebirth. For Christians, pancakes even became an early plant-based substitute for meat, when the Christian law prescribed abstinence from meat in the 9th century C.E.

3. Hot dogs: 1500 B.C.E. in Babylonia3

The history of the humble hotdog goes back at least three millennia, when the Babylonians started stuffing animal intestines with spiced meat. Hundreds of years later, the Romans adapted this dish and called it “salsus” (which is where our word “sausage” comes from).

The oldest Roman cookbook reveals that sausages were a popular ancient  food during the annual pagan festival Lupercalia. Lupercalia was also famous for its sexual initiations, so some historians have even suggested that the sausage might have been used as, let’s say, more than just a food... Perhaps in response to such lewd practices, one of the first actions of the Christian Church was to outlaw the eating of sausages; but because the Romans still wanted them, making sausages illegal simply encouraged the growth of a flourishing blackmarket sausage trade. 

Eventually, illegal sausage eating became so common that officials realised that it was becoming impossible to force the ban, and decided to revoke it. Having triumphed over the Church, the sausage would go on to spread all over Europe. It became a food chameleon, changing shape, size and colour depending on the local availability of ingredients and the local climate - but always remaining, at its core, a sausage. In the 1900s, German immigrants brought their “frankfurter” sausages (spiced and smoked meat packed in a thin, curved, transparent casing) to Coney Island in the US, where it finally received its modern name: the “hot dog.”

4. Ketchup: 300 B.C.E. in Ancient Rome4

Spoiler alert: when it was first invented, ketchup wasn’t made of tomatoes. The oldest ketchup on record was instead a Roman recipe from around 300 B.C.E. - a seasoned puree of vinegar, pepper, oil, and anchovies called liquamen. It was very widely used as a condiment to enhance the taste of meat and fish (or perhaps cover the taste of meat that was past its best).

By 1690, the Chinese had developed a similar sauce, where anchovies were replaced by picked fish, shellfish, and spices. Its name was ke-tsiap, which became kechap in Southeast Asia. Ketchup’s modern name is actually just the result of a spelling mistake: when British explorers discovered kechap in Malaysia and Singapore, they brought samples back and asked English chefs to reproduce this mysterious “ke-tchup” sauce. Unaccustomed with Eastern spices, chefs tried to achieve a similar taste and texture by using ingredients that were available in England: mushrooms, cucumber and walnuts. In just a few decades, ketchup became so popular that it was regularly featured in cookbooks, as well as cultural works like Charles Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge and Lord Byron’s poem Beppo.

You may have spotted the problem - as recently as the 1700s, the recipe for ketchup didn’t include any tomatoes. The reason for this is that for many years tomatoes were thought to be poisonous. It was only after the colonists in America discovered  in the late eighteenth century they were safe to eat that tomatoes entered the ketchup recipe, and it soon became a kitchen staple. The problem was that preparing it was very time consuming, as the tomato puree had to be stirred constantly- so households were delighted when the first mass-produced and bottled ketchup, made by German-American chef Henry Heinz, appeared on shelves in 1876. The rest, as they say, is history.

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