Apicius 6.8.5 – Numidian Chicken

Pullum numidicum: pullum curas, elixas, leuas, laser ac piper et assas. teres piper cuminum coriandri semen laseris radicem rutam careotam nucleos; suffundis acetum mel liquamen et oleum; temperabis. cum ferbuerit, amulo obligas, pullum perfundis, piper aspergis et inferes.
Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger, Apicius, 230

Numidian chicken: prepare the chicken, parboil it and lift it out, asafoetida (lasere) and pepper and roast it. Pound pepper, cumin, coriander seed, root of asafoetida, rue, dates, pine nuts; pour in vinegar, honey, liquamen and oil; balance the flavours. When it comes to heat, thicken with starch, pour over the chicken, sprinkle pepper and serve.
Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger, Apicius, 231.

Ingredients

1kg chicken pieces Asafoetida powder Pepper

Sauce:

½ cup dates 2 tsp coriander seed 1 tbs honey
3 tbs pine nuts pinch asafoetida 2 tbs fish sauce
¼ tsp pepper 2 tbs rue (see notes) 1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp cumin 3 tbs wine vinegar 1 tbs cornstarch

Method

  1. Over a medium heat, gently dry-fry the spices (pepper, cumin, coriander seed) until they are fragrant. Don’t let them colour, or they will burn. Grind to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle as the Romans would have done, or use an electric spice grinder.
  2. Gently toast the pine nuts until they are golden.
  3. To make the sauce in the Roman fashion, pound all the ingredients except the cornstarch to a smooth paste in a mortar and pestle.
  4. To make the sauce in a painless, modern fashion, process all ingredients except the cornstarch in a food processor until reduced to a smooth paste.
  5. Whether using the mortar and pestle or the food processor, use water or chicken stock to add extra liquid if necessary, and balance the other ingredients as you see fit (for example add more vinegar for a sharper sauce, more honey for a sweeter sauce). Leave aside for the flavours to develop.
  6. In a saucepan on the stove top, gently boil the chicken until the flesh has gone white and opaque then leave to dry completely. Sprinkle the chicken liberally with asafoetida and pepper, then roast in a 180° oven until the juices are clear when a knife is inserted into a thick part of the flesh.
  7. Heat the sauce, and add the cornstarch when the sauce is bubbling slightly, and mix well. Then pour over the chicken.
  8. To serve, sprinkle chicken pieces with pepper. Can be eaten hot or cold.

Equipment required

Oven
Stove
Saucepan
Mortar and pestle/Food processor
Knife and board for cutting chicken
Terracotta dish for cooking serving

  • I prepared this sauce with a food processor rather than a mortar and pestle. Pounding away at the mixture to get it to a smooth consistency is hard on the arms. However, I used the mortar and pestle to grind the spices.
    I used chicken wings rather than a whole chicken, as they are easier to prepare in bulk for serving a number of people.
  • There are two key aspects to my redaction of this dish. The first is the name, Numidian Chicken. The kingdom of Numidia, in north Africa, was inhabited by dark skinned people; the sauce should be dark, hence being quite generous with the dates. However, dates are very sweet, which leads to the second key aspect of this redaction – the phrase “balance the flavours.” To me, this means the sauce should not be overly sweet. I believe this is the reason rue is added to this dish. It is a very bitter herb, and would be important in balancing out the sweetness provided by the dates. “Balancing the flavours” also suggests the maker is free to make the sauce to their own personal taste.
  • Rue (Ruta graveolens) is an extremely bitter herb that contains some nasty toxins; it provokes allergic reactions in many people, and can also be an abortifacent. I suspect it was included to balance the extreme sweetness from the dates and honey. If concerned, substitute rocket or feverfew, which have a similar flavour profile (rocket is not nearly as nasty) and have less chance of provoking allergic reactions or miscarriages. The rue came from my garden.
  • Asafoetida, when raw, has a powerful, unpleasant smell, and the flavour can overpower dishes. However, do not be afraid of the asafoetida sprinkled over the chicken when roasting. Most of the smell will cook out, and the sauce is strong enough to not be dominated by the asafoetida.
  • Parboiling the chicken before roasting adds extra moisture to the chicken flesh. It also helps to render excess fat from the chicken, resulting in a less greasy dish.
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