Shrimp Isicia

The concept of fast food is nothing new — the Romans were preparing ready-made snacks and meals centuries ago. Here is a recipe for minced shrimp cakes you might’ve been able to find at one of these early fast food joints.

A photo of the shrimp isicia I cooked, garnished with a sprig of sage.

McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Burger King: all modern restaurant chains. The concept of fast food has revolutionized cuisine and eating habits in recent decades, but is it, too, entirely new? Well, not exactly.

Nearly two millennia ago, the Romans had the idea of eating on the go — essentially ancient fast food — down to a science. By way of establishments called popinae (or thermopolia in Greek) that cropped up in fora around the empire, ready-made food became accessible to hordes of hungry people. In fact, fast-food-esque establishments became the foundation of most ancient diners’ breakfasts, or ientacula.

So what was served at popinae? It’s likely that inexpensive staples like bread, cheese, and fruits were sold, but I would think other small portable treats could be expected. As I was reading through the cookbook Apicius, I came across a series of recipes called isicia. They all involved some combination of spices and minced meat or fish, and were formed into small shapes.

Now, I’m not entirely sure if these cakes, or isicia, would’ve been on the menu at your average popina, but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched: they seem to have been small, and, again, there’s a whole family of minced dishes like this in Apicius (they make up an entire chapter). This leads me to expect these cakes and their relatives were presumably well-liked, or at least oft-served. Here’s the authentic recipe for isicia marina, or seafood cakes:

Isicia fiunt marina de cammaris et astacis de lolligine, de sepia, de locusta. Isicium condies pipere, ligustico, cumino, laseris radice.

Seafood isicia are made from shrimp and crayfish, from squid, from cuttlefish, or from lobster. Season the isicium with pepper, lovage, cumin, and laser root.

For this recipe, there appear to be quite a few acceptable options for seafood. I can’t get crayfish, squid, or cuttlefish at my grocery store, so those were out of the picture straight away.

Lobsters used to be considered “poor” food, reserved for servants and laborers (probably because most “proper” diners wouldn’t want to eat creepy bottom-feeding crustaceans!). For some odd reason, attitudes have changed and they’re now prized critters with high price tags, so I decided to go with shrimp.

Also, no shape is given in the recipe itself. In modern interpretations, isicia are variously described as being like meatballs, croquettes, and patties. It was ultimately up to me to pick a shape, so I decided to try round meatballs. As it turns out, the first one got squished in the pan, so I decided to flatten the rest of them for consistency.

Finally, I wasn’t sure how the shrimp alone would stay together during cooking, so I added flour and an egg, plus a bit of liquamen for good measure. Though it may be an inaccurate addition, Roman cooks would’ve had access to both ingredients and arguably could have used them at their own discretion. I digress, though — here’s my version of shrimp isicia that you can cook in your own kitchen:

1 pound of peeled and deveined shrimp

¼ tsp of peppercorns

A pinch of celery seed

½ tsp cumin

¼ tsp of asafoetida

1 large egg

2 tbsp of flour

1 tsp of liquamen

Pull the tails off the shrimp and mince the meat. In a mortar, grind the peppercorns and celery seed and mix in the cumin and asafoetida. Combine the shrimp and spices in a separate bowl, stirring in the egg and flour to form a thick paste. Barely cover the bottom of a skillet with oil and set to medium-low heat.

Scoop the shrimp mixture into the pan and flatten them into round-ish shapes (for the scooping, I used a ¼-cup measuring cup and cooked them two at a time). Fry the cakes, flipping them after about 3 minutes. Once both sides have been evenly cooked, take them out of the pan and pat dry to get rid of any excess oil. Let the cakes cool, then serve. I would say this recipe makes 6-8 cakes. I ended up with 7 but some were a bit bigger than others.

The ingredients for the isicia (minus the sage garnish) and the finished cakes on a plate.

This is the first recipe I’ve made that includes silphium as an ingredient. It’s called something different in this instance — laser — but the Latin text is still referring to some form of the now-extinct plant’s root. I’ve swapped this with asafoetida, a pungent, cheesy sort of spice that smells a bit like a combination of socks and onions. Fortunately, I couldn’t taste it at all! The most prominent flavor was actually the cumin, which has a really pleasant taste, though the other spices helped add richness.

I can’t say these isicia are like anything I’ve had before — though I could liken them to crab cakes, the Roman dish doesn’t have mayonnaise or some of the other more standard ingredients of its modern counterpart. This is a great dish — I can understand why the Romans enjoyed it in many iterations. It’s simple, portable, and (though anachronistic) excellent with a bit of tartar sauce!

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