Egyptian culture was idolized by the Romans, so it seems obvious that a recipe would crop up in the largest ancient cookbook. However, the main ingredient’s identity is uncertain. Here is a recipe you can make, plus an account of my hunt for the lost gourd!
A picture of the dish of Alexandrian gourd I prepared, served with a bit too much pepper.
By the time of the beginning of the empire, Egyptian civilization (at least dynastic rule) had already been around for around 3,000 years! In fact, the infamous Cleopatra lived closer to the present than she did to the construction of the pyramids at Giza. Egypt’s stability and longevity as a civilization are remarkable, but even its enduring authority couldn’t last forever. By 27 BC, the year Rome annexed Egypt, the power and influence of the ruling Ptolemaic dynasty had waned massively as a result of Cleopatra’s death.
However, some of the landmarks and institutions constructed by the Ptolemies survived well into the era of Roman rule. The Musaeum, or Library, of Alexandria, with its adjoining Serapeum, was a bit like an early university. Erected by Ptolemy Soter, this establishment was likely home to countless ancient texts and some of the best scholars of the time. And the Pharos, or Lighthouse, of Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, towering over the city’s harbor.
All of the marvels of Alexandria got some Romans hooked on Egyptian culture, and they soon became obsessed. Emperors like Augustus looted obelisks from temples to keep for themselves, women wore perfumes and makeup from Egypt, and some deceased Romans were even mummified!
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Apicius, a Roman cookbook containing some obscenely extravagant recipes, would include a recipe from the cosmopolitan Egyptian capital. The following recipe for spiced gourds is one of the few known descriptions of contemporary Alexandrian cooking, taken from the pages of Apicius:
Cucurbitas more alexandrine: elixatas cucurbitas exprimis, sale asparges, in patina compones. Teres piper, cuminum, coriandri semen, mentam viridem, laseris radicem, suffundes acetum. Adicies caryotam, nucleum, teres, melle, aceto, liquamine, defrito et oleo temperabis, et cucurbitas perfundes. Cum ferbuerint, piper asparges et inferes.
Gourds in the Alexandrian style: press the moisture from the gourds, sprinkle with salt, and place in a patina. Grind pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, fresh mint, laser root, and pour vinegar over. Add dates and pine nuts and grind. Blend honey, vinegar, liquamen, defrutum, and oil, and pour over the gourds. While hot, sprinkle with pepper and serve.
The recipe seems to emphasize the preparation of multiple gourds, possibly alluding to this dish’s place on the table at a large dinner party. For our purposes here, I’ll only be working with one gourd. But this leads me to the biggest dilemma with this recipe: what type should be used?
In my reading, I found the meaning of the word cucurbita, as used in the text from Apicius, to be very vague. It’s generally translated as “gourd,” which I chose to use, but is also interpreted as “pumpkin” or “squash.” These other translations highlight a historical problem that makes this recipe an especially tricky one. Pumpkins and squash like zucchini, along with dozens of other types of gourds, are native to the Americas, so they definitely weren’t grown in Roman or Egyptian gardens. And cucumbers, which were eaten by the Romans, were given the name cucumis. That rules out a good many options, but it doesn’t prove anything.
Now, we have to remember Apicius described this recipe as “Alexandrian.” Whether it was truly Egyptian in origin or it was only given this name to evoke some sort of exotic allure remains unsolved.
It’d make sense to lean toward the latter, but what if this dish really was popular in the city, frequently eaten by wealthy Alexandrians? As Alexandria is in Egypt, which is on the continent of Africa, it’s possible that the gourd was a plant not familiar in the Roman dominion but among the native Egyptians and peoples of lands much farther south.
If this is the case, the cucurbita could refer to a particular species of gourd that’s native to sub-Saharan Africa: the bottle gourd, or calabash (Lagenaria siceraria). Columella described in his book De re rustica that “Alexandrian gourds” may be used as vessels when they are dried, a use for which the calabash is well known.
Because of this reference, the gourd mentioned in Apicius’s recipe would likely have been this species. I’m not so sure you’ll be able to find this gourd at your average supermarket (I couldn’t), so I had to find a close alternative.
Columella also writes that the best eating gourds were longer and smaller — many cultures that cook with the calabash choose to eat the immature fruit, which happens to be thinner than the fully grown gourd. The young calabash also happens to be green and isn’t sweet, so I decided to use zucchini. Sure, it’s from the Americas, but it fits the bill for a calabash substitute.
This explanation has been a very long one — for one silly vegetable, after all — but I think it helps us understand why a seemingly out-of-place ingredient, coincidentally, turns out to be the best choice for another’s substitute. But without further ado, here’s the recipe I prepared for Alexandrian gourd:
1 large zucchini
¼ tsp of peppercorns, plus some to taste
¾ tsp of cumin
¾ tsp of coriander
2 mint leaves, finely minced
A pinch of asafoetida
4 tbsp of red wine vinegar
1 tbsp of honey
3 tbsp of liquamen
1 tbsp of defrutum
2 tbsp of olive oil
Salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Cut the zucchini into thin slices. Fill a saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, drop in the zucchini and let cook for only about two minutes — the slices should still be fairly firm. Drain off the water and let the zucchini cool, then arrange in a round pie dish and lightly salt.
Pour the peppercorns, cumin, coriander, and asafoetida into a small bowl. In a mortar, grind together the dates and pine nuts, slowly adding in the spices. Mix the vinegar, honey, liquamen, defrutum, and oil in a separate bowl, then add the date paste and stir until smooth. Pour this sauce over the zucchini and put the dish into the oven to heat, about 5 minutes. Remove the food from the oven, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.
Photos of an immature calabash, a zucchini, my ingredients, and the finished dish.
I’d have to say this recipe doesn’t match my definition of fine dining — it’s just zucchini — but it actually wasn’t too bad. The sauce had an unusual (but palatable) flavor, but the base was essentially a vinaigrette. I would recommend going easy on the pepper at the end — I got a bit carried away with cracking, so I sneezed when I took the first bite. In my opinion, this wasn’t the tastiest recipe I’ve made, but it certainly was alright.
With expensive and unusual ingredients like laser root or silphium, liquamen, and, of course, the gourds, it’s no wonder that this dish would’ve been a treat for Romans and Egyptians alike in its day. The recipe highlights Alexandria’s prominence as the cultural capital of the ancient Mediterranean at its peak, and gives a unique but very peppery taste of ancient Egypt!