Exploring Stew: Second in a Series

Continuing our virtual tracking of the elemental everyman dish – stew – through the cuisines of the world, from its purported beginnings in Africa, moving north across the Mediterranean Sea.

Eastern Mediterranean Region

Greek Lentil Soup

Examining the recipes of Ancient Greece and Turkey will expose close similarities, suggesting that early Turkish cuisine developed in response to Greece’s influence in the Eurasian area bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. Further, the hearty lentil soup suggest that the Egyptian Recipes, featuring onion and garlic mirepoix seasoned with cumin and coriander were enhanced with the addition of carrots and celery to the mirepoix and well as additional vegetable to the soups and stews. Zeno of Citium’s Lentil Soup Recipe, was uncovered by author Eugenia Salza Prina Ricot for her book Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece clearly demonstrates these additions. Ancient Greeks did not document their cuisine into cookbooks or guides but rather incorporated cooking hints and suggestions in their art forms such as literature and paintings.

Further flavor enhancements were made with the addition of pearl onions, olives, cinnamon, nutmeg and feta cheese to their meat recipes – some include all of these or some combination of these new ingredients. In addition to these changes, the use of tomato products, wine and wine vinegar added additional dimensions to the flavor profile. These are demonstrated in Greek Chicken Stew With Cauliflower and Olives from the New York Times website, or in this Greek Venison Stew, which variation on a classic Stifatho (or Stifado) from Sparta; the original uses goat meat. There are as many variations as there are cooks in Greece and any meat such as lamb, goat or beef can easily be substituted.

Roman Cuisines

Roman Lamb Stew

The Romans made it easier to understand their cuisine since it is comparatively well documented. The Romans were influenced by the Berber people from Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. This recipe for a lightly seasoned Lamb Stew (Aliter haedinam sive agninam excaldatam), which was served with lentils and bread clearly reflects the Berber influence by the use or coriander and cumin with only onions for a flavor base. However, the Romans upped the flavor ante a notch with the addition of lovage (similar to celery seeds), liquamen (a fish sauce common to Roman cooking), red wine and the use of roux for thickening. Baian Stew – Embractum baianum – is another recipe that directly reflects the North African influence.

Celtnet.org, provides an interesting repertoire of Ancient roman recipes for our perusal, disregarding the irony of the source (a United Kingdom based website of obvious Celtic origins), this is an amazing coverage of Ancient Recipes. Futher, while Ancient Roman cuisine built on the Berber influence, it is nothing like modern Italian Cuisine – regional to Rome or otherwise.

Iberian Peninsula

Spain – Garbanzos con espinacas – Moorish Style chickpea and spinach stew

Skipping past France, for the moment and moving west to Portugal and Spain, the reasons for the Berber cultural influence is more obvious due to the conquest in the region’s history. First, the Islamic expansion led by Arabs Muslim controlled Mesopotamia, Egypt and Syria in the 7th Century, followed by the Moors invasion of Hispania (The Iberian Peninsula) in the 8th Century and the near 750 years of Moorish occupation obviously influenced and merged The Celtic, Roman and Moorish influences on the cuisine that is now Portuguese and Spanish. The impact of the Moorish influence and local cooking is obvious when the cuisine is looked at in its entirety, but even in the days of Hispania, the region was more a collection of regional cultures (states, if you will). This regionalization is still reflected in modern Spanish cuisine.

Essentially, the influences of ancient Iberian cuisine to include the use of paprika, saffron and sherry wine and vinegar, the addition of potatoes, green olives, spinach and other local vegetables to stews were combined with the cumin, coriander centric dishes of the Berber people, including the use of garbanzo beans and carrots. Here are a few recipes that attempt to convey the mixed influence of the cuisine:

Portuguese Fish Stew

The Moorish influence on Portuguese cuisine seems to be less prevalent, particularly along the Atlantic coast. Portuguese seafood stews show no connection to Moorish influences while there are some suggestions of influence in meat stews. Azorean Linguica Stew only shares the mirepoix of garlic and onion with the Berber forebears who occupied the southern half of Portugal. Whereas Cozido à Portuguesa – a stew comprised of boiled meats, sausages and cabbages – shows no North African influence whatsoever.


French Moroccan Chicken Stew

I left the adventure of France for last due to the noticeable regionalization of the cuisine. The influence of North African cuisine seems to be limited to the southern Provence of Provençal, which would make sense considering the cross-pollination of cultures that usually comes from trade and colonization, such as existed between Algeria, Morocco and France. This recipe for Lentil Soup with Salt Pork – Petit Salé aux Lentilles – amply reflects the Berber influence; the French have added Toulouse sausage and salt pork flavoring to enhance an already hearty soup/stew. The use of local French herbs replacing the ubiquitous cumin and coriander complete the transition from Moroccan/Algerian to Provençal. Actually, French Moroccan cuisine forms its own sub- cuisine under French Gastronomy and features the use of tagines and other classic Berber techniques with the addition of French ingredients and style. The ifood.tv website offers a number of French Moroccan recipes.

End of Part 2 of the Series

Andalusian Gypsy Soup

We have now viewed the evolution of stews from the Dark Continent across the Mediterranean, caused by different historic events of nomadic humankind. Instead of a single related set of stew recipes, each with the same flavor base of garlic, onion, cumin and coriander. We now have a multitude of flavorings for the same subset of ingredients, domesticated meat protein (beef, goat, lamb, pork and poultry) combined with a wide variety of localized vegetation. Additionally, these stews are flavor enhanced with a combination of originating spices and herbs, or local spices and herbs, or most frequently a combination of original and local spices and herbs working in tandem to generate new levels of taste.

I am beginning to see a formula for stewing emerging. Next up in this series I will observe the evolution of stews in northern Europe and a look at Asia.


Britannica . (n.d.). Retrieved September 2013, from Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/

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About the Author

Michael Farnum

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I have spent the better half of five decades honing my culinary interest and developing my gastronomical palate, such as it is. I began this journey when I was 10, much to my Dad’s concern for his grocery bills. As a Letter Carrier with a wife and two kids, he could ill afford my experimentation. He finally relented and began teaching me the fundamentals he learned as a navy cook and from a Southern family he befriended after he migrated from Trinidad after the war (WWII). By my junior year in high school I was preparing family dinners, since I usually got home before them. I have a particular fondness for French, Creole, and Trinidadian cuisines; and I attended the French Culinary Institute, later in life. In addition, I am a member of both The American Culinary Federation and the James Beard Foundation. In semi-retirement from an Information Technology career, I am now developing a food trade business with designer marinades and sauces, specialty jams & jellies and other goodies under the Menu by Mike label.