The History Dish: “Barida,” A Medieval Arab Recipe with Ancient Roman Roots

Barrida, an herby-chicken dish.

This is a special guest post from Intern Andrew! We just wrapped working together for the past five months, and as a result, he’s launched a new blog: Pass The Flamingowhich focuses on ancient cuisine. Read on to learn more about a unique recipe from the Islamic world.

Over its long history, the Arab world has become a unique crossroads, the site of centuries of influence and exchange between cultures indigenous and foreign. One example of this influence is in foods like barida: an Islamic-era chicken dish that carries on the traditions of Ancient Rome.

Much of what we now call the Arab world was at one time also the Roman world. In the third century BCE, two great rival nations stood on opposite shores of the Mediterranean Sea: the Roman Republic and the kingdom of Carthage. A century later, Carthage was no more and Rome had overtaken its territory in Spain and North Africa. From there, Roman power would swiftly circle the coastline as the Romans conquered first Syria, then Egypt, then the Levant. By the first decade of the first century, the Romans ruled every land touched by Mediterranean waters.

Wherever Roman power extended, so did Roman culture. The Romans introduced their gods, language, laws and food to every land they conquered, while also picking up new habits and customs from the people of those lands. One of the ways this history shows itself most clearly is in food. Reading the book Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World by Lilia Zaouali (2009), I was struck by the various similarities between Ancient Roman cuisine and the cuisine of the medieval Arabs, Berbers and other North African and Middle Eastern peoples.

One of the most central ingredients in Roman cuisine is the fermented fish sauce garum. Savory, salty and rich in B-vitamins, garum is used in almost every Roman recipe. Zaouali describes a fermented sauce called murri as essential to medieval Islamic cuisine. In its role in cuisine as well as its flavor and nutritional profile, murri is identical to the garum of Ancient Rome, except for one key difference: garum is made from fermented fish, and murri from fermented barley (although Zaouali also records a variant made with grasshoppers). Some scholars believe murri evolved directly from Roman garum, connecting the name to Latin salmuris, which means “brine”, or to muria, one of the byproducts of garum production. Zaouali connects both sauces to a common origin in the ancient Middle East; perhaps analogous to soy sauce and fish sauce in Asian cuisines, which also diversified from a common point of origin.

The first Arabic-language cookbook, Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ (The Book of Dishes), was written in 10th-century Baghdad by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. Sarah has made several dishes from this book, including a chicken wrap, a lamb stew, and a roast chicken with a savory pudding. You can read about them here. The Book of Dishes features a number of recipes for barida, chicken or fish topped with a complex sauce of spices and herbs that is prepared separately from the meat. Al-Warraq traces barida to the 8th-century ‘Abbasid caliphate, based in Baghdad, but the distinctive techniques and combinations of ingredients are far older, with roots in Roman North Africa and other places with a long history of cross-cultural exchange.

Typical ingredients in the sauce poured on barida include Roman favorites: dates, caraway, cumin, coriander/cilantro, asafetida, rue, pomegranate and pepper, with murri standing in for garum. The spicy-sweet-bitter flavor profile as well as the serving and preparation call to mind the 3rd-century Roman cookbook Apicius, including one of its most memorable entries, a recipe for a whole, roasted flamingo. When I recreated that recipe for my ancient food blog (which takes its name, Pass the Flamingo, from that particular experiment), I had to compromise by using a duck, but I managed a pretty faithful interpretation of the main element of the dish: a thick sauce of many ingredients, sweet and intensely spiced, prepared separately from the meat and poured on top for serving.

It’s worth noting that many of these ingredients popular among the Romans are actually native to the Middle East and North Africa (including flamingo itself). Although the influence of Roman cuisine on later Medieval Arab cuisine is apparent, it is less clear with whom these recipes and techniques truly originated. Was it Romans who adopted foreign influence into their diet, or non-Romans who adopted Roman influence–or both?

The Recipe

Out of several barida recipes in Zaouali’s book, this one caught my eye largely because it includes the herb elecampane, which I had never had the opportunity to use before (more on that below). Zaouali includes a translation of al-Warraq’s 10th century original:

Cold Chicken With Spices and Herbs

Take some vinegar and murrī and in them macerate coriander [seeds], Chinese cinnamon, pepper, dried and fresh thyme, cumin, caraway, fresh coriander [cilantro], mint, rue, celery, the pulp of a cucumber, and elecampane. Put everything in a grinder, mix, and pour over the grilled chicken.

Some notes on the ingredients:

  • I inferred that the recipe calls for celery leaves, which are often used as an herb in Roman recipes. They have a similar flavor to the stalks.
  • Per Zaouali’s suggestion, soy sauce will substitute for barley-based murri. The flavor is said to be similar, but I also noticed strong similarities between the process for making murri as described by Zaouali and the traditional process for making soy sauce. In both cases, a cooked grain is shaped into cakes, allowed to air-dry and rot, and then sealed up with water and salt to ferment. A lot of modern soy sauce brands even contain barley or wheat.
  • I wasn’t quite sure which part of a cucumber constitutes “the pulp”–just the flesh? Just the seeds? I decided to go with both.
  • “Chinese cinnamon” is an old name for Cinnamomum cassia, the species commonly called “cinnamon” in the USA.
  • Elecampane is a species of sunflower with an edible root. It has many other names, all of which make it sound like it belongs in a Shakespearean witches’ brew (horse-heal, scabwort, elfdock, yellow starwort, etc). I managed to find some of the dried root at Kalustyan’s in Manhattan, my go-to stop for spices and herbs from around the world. In case you were wondering, elecampane tastes extremely bitter and smells like wood chips, specifically those wood shavings you put in the bottom of a hamster cage. The package I bought says “not been evaluated by FDA.” I think it was meant to be made into tea.
  • Rue is another bitter herb that was popular in ancient times. I have some dried rue that I ordered online and have used in many Roman recipes. It’s worth being cautious about, as some people are allergic. Dandelion leaves would be a good substitute for both rue and elecampane.

Below is the recipe according to the procedure I followed:


4 chicken legs (skin on)
Pinch of salt
½ cup white wine vinegar
½ cup soy sauce
1 small cucumber, peeled and cut into chunks
About ½ of cup each of the following fresh herbs, loosely packed:
Mint (any variety)
Celery leaves
½ teaspoon each of the following:
Black pepper
Dried thyme
Coriander seed
Caraway seed
Dried elecampane
Dried rue (Substitute a couple of fresh dandelion leaves for the elecampane and rue, or leave out)

  1. Season the chicken legs with a little salt on both sides and cook them on a stovetop grill over medium-high heat. When they are finished, remove and allow to cool to room temperature.
  2. Using a food processor or mortar and pestle, grind all the dry ingredients into powder. Then add the other sauce ingredients and continue to grind until you have an even green paste.
  3. Spoon the sauce over the pieces of cold chicken and serve.

The Results

Barida is explicitly described as an appetizer served cold. At first that sounded unappetizing to me, but I can only guess that the low temperature is necessary to keep the herbs in the sauce from being cooked by the heat of the chicken. In the end, I was really pleased with how this recipe turned out. The sauce has a bright flavor from all the fresh herbs; the soy sauce provides all the necessary salt, and the pureed cucumber balances out the acid from the vinegar. There are so many other ingredients that I couldn’t taste each of them individually, and I’m still skeptical about the inclusion of both dried and fresh thyme, which I’ve never seen in a recipe before.

The bitterness of the elecampane is hard to shake, and it was the last flavor I tasted in the sauce. Bitter as a flavor seems to have been much better-appreciated in ancient times than today. If the bitter ingredients were taken out, I wouldn’t be surprised to find something like this on a modern menu.

Eight Flavors: James Beard’s Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic

beard1Chicken. With 40 cloves of garlic.

While writing my first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, I researched the eight most popular flavors in American cooking: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. When I dived deep into each of these eight topics, I often found fascinating new information and recipes–some of which didn’t make it into the book. So over the next few months, I’ll be publishing this exclusive content on my blog! If it whets your appetite to read the whole book, make sure to get your own copy here.

I’m trying to get a handle on James Beard. In my generation, he wasn’t a household name; but once your reach a certain level of foodie-ness, you’re indoctrinated. You’re taught he’s a deity of American food.

According to Provence, 1970, Beard was “six foot three, three hundred pounds, and bald.” He described himself in this PBS documentary as “large and scarcely beautiful,” hardly a candidate for international super success. He enjoyed a jaunty bow tie; or, an even jauntier unbuttoned dress shirt. He was gregarious, always bringing people together, always quick to help out a new food talent in which he saw potential–like Julia Child, early in her career. He also kept his phone number listed in the phone book, and fans could look him up and give him a ring–unimaginable of a celebrity today. He would often “end up talking at great length to some woman in Iowa about her macaroons.” His mantra was to use the best, seasonal ingredients in the simplest, most flavorful preparations, and he embraced the diversity of American cuisine

Beard starred in the first food television show in 1946, a 15 minute program on NBC called “I Love to Eat.” Sadly, no copies of the episodes exist. Both Beard and Child created an interest in food that met in the middle between the housewiferly-domestic guides and the men-only haute restaurants of an earlier generation.  In their DIY wake, cooks without formal culinary training began to open restaurants and head kitchens.

I was looking into Beard’s history during my writing process for Eight Flavors  because he is often credited with convincing Americans to like garlic. Beard often looked to French cuisine for inspiration, and loved the simple, flavorful cuisine of Provence, which he first encountered while being stationed there during WWII. Provencal cuisine is also very garlic heavy. In America, leading up to WWII, people weren’t eating much garlic. It was associated with Italian immigrants, who were thought so unappealing, the US effectively banned Italian immigration in 1924. It was Beard who, with a rustic recipe, really began to change American’s minds about garlic.

“Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic” was first published in 1974. The recipe title sounds ridiculous and intimidating, but 40 cloves is only 2-3 heads of garlic. Beard calmly instructed his readers to fill a casserole with chicken legs and thighs, cover them with olive oil and vermouth, and top them with tarragon, parsley, celery and garlic–so much garlic, it serves the purpose of the vegetable in the dish. After baking for 90 minutes, the chicken comes out tender and mild–as does the garlic. Beard comforted the fears of worried cooks, stressed about the pungent taste of garlic:  “Invite your guests to spread the softened garlic on the bread. They will find that the strong flavor has disappeared, leaving a wonderful, buttery paste perfumed with garlic.” It was the perfect recipe to convert the American masses because of the tame garlic flavor.

Beard championed a new form of American cooking; inspired by French cuisine, but not slavishly imitating it. He emphasized fresh, seasonal ingredients featured in ambitious, sophisticated dishes. “Buy the best produce you can buy and do the least to it, and you’ll have the best food,” Beard once said. And we have him to thank (in part) for garlic becoming a part of mainstream American cuisine.


Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic
Recipe from the James Beard Foundation

  • 8 to 10 chicken legs
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • Dash of nutmeg
  • 40 cloves garlic, approximately 3 bulbs, peeled
  • 4 stalks celery, sliced thinly
  • 6 sprigs parsley
  • 1 tablespoon dried tarragon
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth

Rinse chicken legs in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Dip the chicken in olive oil to coat each piece and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Put chicken in a lidded 3-quart casserole along with the residue of oil. Add the garlic, sliced celery, parsley, tarragon, and vermouth. Seal the top of the casserole with a sheet of foil and cover tightly. Bake for 1 1/2 hours in a preheated 375ºF oven. Do not remove the lid during the baking period. Serve with hot toast or thin slices of pumpernickel and spread the softened garlic on the bread.

Eight Flavors: Country Captain Chicken

chickenA chicken curry from the 1850s.

To create my first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, I researched the eight most popular flavors in American cooking: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. When I dived deep into each of these eight topics, I often found fascinating new information and recipes–some of which didn’t make it into the book. So over the next few months, I’ll be publishing this exclusive content on my blog! If it whets your appetite to read the whole book, make sure to get your own copy here.

One week after the 2016 presidential election, I attended a citizenship ceremony hosted by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Fifteen individuals, their birthplaces as wide ranging as Japan and Iraq, became Americans that day.

The most touching part of the ceremony was a speech delivered by Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, an immigrant herself from Ireland. During her speech, Power choked up while recounting the immigration stories of the families of her closest colleagues. “This is impossible,” she declared at one point, trying to get through the moving stories. She then went on to address the new citizens directly:

You are what America looks like…We are a nation of immigrants, but for as long as this nation has existed, Americans have been harkening back to a golden era, before families like yours or mine got here. It never seems to matter to those people that their parents or grandparents were on the receiving end of similar discrimination when they first arrived in this country. But even if we know deep down that such intolerance is as old as the nation itself, it doesn’t make it hurt any less when we experience it.

You may hear some people say that in order to become “real” Americans, you need to forget where you came from, or leave behind the history that brought you to this moment. Cover up your accent, change the way you dress…Please don’t list to those voices. Joining a new nation does not mean you have to leave behind the one you came from, or what it taught you.

You can watch Power’s speech in its entirety here.

I had attended this citizenship ceremony in the past, in 2013, to see my dear friend and colleague Raj become an American. Raj is an immigrant from New Zealand; his parents are from India. I talk about Raj in the Curry Powder chapter of my book; we went on a “curry crawl” together in Jackson Heights, Queens. In that chapter, I also focus on the stories of Indian immigrants in the early 20th century who were not allowed to receive their citizenship because of the color of their skin.

Often, when I list the flavors I’ve included in my book, I get a lot of push-back about curry powder. Many people don’t consider it an American ingredient. But Indian immigrants have been coming to America for more than 100 years; and we have been cooking with curry powder in this country for over 200 hundred. In fact, a dish called Country Captain Chicken, a traditional dish of the American South, arrived in this country in the 19th century through our Anglo-immigrant roots.

The History

The origin of Country Captain Chickens begins late in the 16th century, when the East India Company was granted a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth. The charter gave the East India Company a monopoly within Britain on trade with the Far East; the company would focus on India.

As the East Indian Company rapidly expanded in the 19th century, more and more employees moved to the “Country,” as India was known. They were posted to a new station in another part of India every three years, which exposed them to culinary traditions all over the subcontinent. When these British workers traveled around the subcontinent, they were carried in a litter by a team of men, the carriers traded out at roadside taverns like horses. The litter itself was misery, being shaped like a wooden coffin in which the traveler slowly baked in the Indian sun. When they stopped for food at a roadside eatery, called a “bungalow,” they were often served chicken. Beef and pork were not served in much of India because of Hindu and Muslim religious restrictions. And beyond that, chicken, no matter what the continent, was the convenience food of the 19th century. If you had sudden dinner guests, you could step out your back door and scoop up one of the chickens pecking around in the yard. A few hours of plucking and butchering later, you had a chicken dinner. It doesn’t sound convenient–but most other meat was seasonal. A chicken was available anytime.

Because British officials didn’t have the same cultural history and connection to each region as a native Indian, when eating at home, they would take the foods they loved willy-nilly from all regions and serve them together. A bowl of Anglo curry could be accompanied by garnishes from everywhere: Persian hard-boiled eggs, Punjabi pickled lemon, Madras-style sliced raw onions, fried papadum bread, as well as British-style crispy bacon. The transient English officials created a trans-continental cuisine, which became the food they imported when they returned to England. 

And that cuisine eventually traveled to America. Country Captain Chicken, a dish inspired by the bungalow dinners of the British, first showed up in America in Eliza Leslie’s 1857 cookbook Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book. Although Leslie was born in Philadelphia, she lived in England from the ages of 5-11. It’s likely that as a girl she was exposed to the Anglo curries being served in British households, and transported her love of spicy, fried Country Captain Chicken back to the States.

curry_chix1Curry powder ingredients according to a 19th century American recipe.

The Recipe

Leslie’s recipe asks the home cook to rub chicken parts in curry powder before frying them up crisp in butter and onions. The chicken is lifted out of the butter with a slotted spoon, and set aside to drain. A sauce is made from the butter and onions, with the addition of a few spoonfuls of coconut. It’s all served over rice, and the crispy chicken skin makes a lovely textural contrast to the sauce.

Country Captain Chicken
Recipe adapted by Jill Paradiso from Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book1857.

Yield: serves 4

For the curry powder:

1 teaspoon powdered turmeric
1 teaspoon powdered coriander
1 teaspoon powdered cumin
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 teaspoon powdered nutmeg
1 teaspoon powdered mace
1 teaspoon powdered cayenne pepper

For the chicken:

1 whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces (2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings)
2 large onions, peeled
1 stick butter
1/2 cup curry powder
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut, shredded

  1. Make curry powder by combining the spices. Grind fresh from whole

spices for the best flavor.

  1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil. Once water has reached full

boil, add chicken breasts and onions and cook for 4 minutes. Then add

thighs, drumsticks, and wings, and continue cooking another 6 minutes.

  1. Remove the chicken from pot and drain well. Leave onion in boiling

water to continue cooking.

  1. Melt butter in large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Toss chicken in

curry powder until well coated.

  1. When butter begins to foam, add chicken to pan and cook about 3

to 4 minutes until well browned. Turn chicken pieces over and cook

another 3 to 4 minutes. Turn heat down to low and remove chicken

from pan. Season chicken with salt and set aside.

  1. Remove onions from water. Slice onions in half lengthwise and then

cut into half-moon strips. Add onions and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to pan

and cook in curry butter mixture over low heat about 8 minutes or until

onions are lightly browned, stirring occasionally.

  1. Garnish chicken with sautéed onions and coconut. Serve immediately

over any kind of rice you like.


Modern Country Captain Chicken. Photo by Dan Costin.

The Results

By the 1940s, Country Captain Chicken had spread from Philadelphia and appeared in the American South in church-fundraising cookbooks alongside Jello mold with marshmallows. It maintains a crazy level of popularity to this day, with several Southern cities laying claim to its invention. In the contemporary version, the chicken, after being fried, is stewed in the oven in a tomato sauce. And the few spoonfuls of coconut in Leslie’s recipe are replaced by a whole assortment of toppings served table side: slivered almonds, raisins, chutney, orange sections, pineapple and crispy bacon — much liked the varied condiments on the tables of the East India Company in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the South, these condiments are called “boys,” but according to one Savannah hostess, “Anything more than a five boy curry is considered pretentious north of Gaston Street.” Check out a modern recipe here.


Much of the background on The East India Company came from the fascinating book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham.