Gluttons & Gourmands: Marcus Gavius Apicius

December 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

No accounting of renowned gourmands would be complete without a nod to the legendary gastronomic habits of Marcus Gavius Apicius, who rose to prominence in Rome during the reign of Tiberius in the early years of the first century A.D. Many of the details of his life have been obscured by time, but Apicius is now chiefly remembered through the references to him by contemporaries.

The great historian Pliny chronicled some of Apicius’s epicurean exploits, describing him as “born to enjoy every extravagant luxury that could be contrived.” Pliny noted his enthusiastic endorsement of  flamingo’s tongue  (“a specially fine flavor”) and wrote of his obsessive quests to produce heightened culinary experiences. He praised Apicius for the then-novel idea to feed pigs dried figs before forcing them to drink honeyed wine and then slaughtering the soused animals. Apparently, his efforts were not in vain; the results were famous throughout the ancient world. The definitive work on Apicius, On the Luxury of Apicius, was written by the Greek grammarian Apion, but is now lost to the ages.

Fortunately, some of Apicius’ most profligate and memorable gestures have been preserved for posterity. Though he lived in Minturnae, not too far from present-day Naples, Apicius once commandeered a boat to visit the Libyan seacoast on rumors that the shrimp there were larger and tastier than anywhere else. As soon as the boat arrived (and at no small cost), local fisherman approached the boat, offering their wares, including many shrimp. However, Apicius was so disappointed at the size of the shrimp that he left almost immediately, not even setting foot onshore.

The last days of Marcus Gavius Apicius are particularly indicative of his dedication to the life of the gourmet. After a life of extravagance, spent mostly on entertaining Roman aristocracy (Seneca reports that he spent more than a 100 million sestertii on equipping his kitchen alone), Apicius found his personal fortune to be in dire straits, with debts mounting. Upon the discovery that his finances totaled only 10 million sestertii, Apicius poisoned himself rather than face a life of relative poverty and without the culinary delights that had defined his immoderate life.

Apicius has long been linked to the De Re Coquinaria (“The Art of Cooking”), a collection of recipes from the heyday of the Roman Empire that many maintain is the oldest cookbook extant. The book contains ten books, which are arranged according to the type of dish and included recipes meats, vegetables, and seafood, among others. The recipes give little information about quantity or cooking technique, but do offer a wealth of information about the eating habits of the ancient world. (Garum, a fermented fish sauce that seems remarkably similar to the contemporary Southeast Asian counterpart, figures prominently in many recipes.) There is some confusion about whether Marcus Gavius Apicius or one of his later namesakes authored and/or compiled the cookbook, but even to this day, Apicius still elicits a testament to the pinnacle of earthly pleasures.



West is Sour: Shaanxi Gourmet

October 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve been sleeping on updating recently, but it’s not for lack of material. My hard drive is overstuffed with pictures of savory treats from all over the greater Los Angeles area, including a dizzying number of joints from the ever-expanding restaurant scene in the San Gabriel Valley.

My favorite in recent weeks is the newish Shaanxi Gourmet, a rare outpost of Shaanxi cuisine in a crisp and forgettable strip mall in Rosemead. Located in a north-central part of China, the food of the Shaanxi region is usually overshadowed by the brawny cuisine of the neighboring Sichuan province. And while even the far-flung Xinjiang region boasts a presence in the SGV neighborhood thanks to the recently opened Omar’s Xinjiang Halal Restaurant, I don’t think I’ve ever heard about a similar representative for Shaanxi food in these parts.

Perhaps that’s why the restaurant has three huge signs posted on one wall with pictures and lengthy descriptions of famous Shaanxi dishes like “bread pieces in beef (lamb) broth” and the underwhelmingly named “stewed pork burger.” But even if some folks (including your hungry correspondent) are mostly unaware of the most popular dishes in Xi’an restaurants, the busy weekday late-afternoon lunch crowd at Shaanxi Gourmet seems plenty comfortable with the creations of this kitchen.

Like many a Sichuan restaurant, a selection of cold meats and snacks are on hand to open taste buds. The requisite and addictive chili-pickled pig ears, lightly blanched shoelace strings of potatoes, boiled peanuts, and various pickles could well have made for a satisfying tapas-style meal on their own. After being briefly distracted by a less voluble, Chinese version of Jim Cramer waxing about the commodities market on a gleaming plasma TV, attention turned to the classics of the Shaanxi cookbook.

Knife-cut noodles are a highlight of the menu, but the most infamous and irresistible dish is the pita bread in lamb broth soup. Small, chewy cubes of bread are sprinkled in a pleasantly rich lamb soup, which is larded with soft chunks of lamb. Rather than thin strips of pita bread, the bread is rather hearty, and if I were not paying close attention, I might think that bready bits were some syncopated type of noodle dough instead of bread. The dish is tasty, but lacking subzero temperatures, this is the most masochistic display of carbohydrates this side of Domino’s Bread-Bowl Pastas.

Another heavy carbohydrate load is the stewed pork burger (rou jia mo), a snack I have had before. Despite the apparently scholarly exegesis on the wall, the sandwich is actually pretty plain, though true to the translation. The flatbread is slightly spongy, closer to a bao than all-American hamburger bun, but even with the soft, flavorful pork, it’s rather plain and begging for a more imaginative remix.

The best dish of the day was listed in the modest menu as “spicy minced-meat noodles.” While the translation is pretty spare, the noodles are superb, with that wonderful chewy texture that sets apart  fresh specimens. The broth has delicious sour edge to it, which makes sense because the Shaanxi region is apparently famous for its liberal use of vinegar in dishes (though apparently the adjacent and almost identically named Shanxi province is also known for sour tastes and its artisanally made aged vinegar.)

I am looking forward to a return trip to enjoy the noodles again, and I’m also curious to try some of the dinner-only menu, which seems to include cumin-dusted lamb kabobs similar to those recently spotted in Koreatown. Thankfully, more sour times are ahead.

Shaanxi Gourmet
8518 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770 

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