Pork dishes were part of the regular daily menu of the Roman fast-food restaurants. How good was that? In fact, good and healthy enough, as the ancient fast-food was nothing more than what the name suggests - quick and easy prepared meals served hot on a daily basis at different eating and drinking establishments. Archeologists have discovered a plenty of those in almost every city of the Roman Empire. In Latin, they were called thermopolia (from Greek thermos – “hot” and polion – “shop”). They operated as small family businesses (not like today’s international fast-food chains) and were quite a popular source of cooked meals as the average Roman house did not have a formal dining area or even a separate kitchen.
Usually, thermopolia were located on road corners with a doorway open to the street. There was one main counter, an open-air bar, with several holes on it where jars with different hot food and drinks were installed for serving the clients. From one preserved stone menu from Pompeii, we know that every fast-food restaurant offered 3-4 specific meals as fried fish, ham, sausages, poultry or pork, as well as various pickles, boiled vegetables, bread, and of course wine.
This recipe presents a meal that most probably was offered in Roman thermopolia. Unlike the regular ancient recipes, there is no demand for a bulk of spices or specific ways of cooking in that one. You only need to make a simple pickle right before you start to prepare you ancient Roman fast-food meal.
Also, a joy worthy is the fact that this is one of the rare recipes where Apicius bothers to mention any kind of measurement. His instructions about the marinade contain the use of one cyathum of all four ingredients – water, olive oil, garum, and vinegar. Cyathum comes from the Greek word κύαθος (kU-a-thos) and represents a drinking-cup used from the ancients to withdraw wine from bigger vessels (like a krater for example). The volume of a cyathum is said to be 1/12 of a sextarius (546 ml) which means 45.5 ml.
3. Stir-fry the bites until they are almost done (See below *Val’s tips)
4. Pour in the marinade and cook the meat until the marinade boils down completely
5. Serve hot with a salad or steamed vegetables and Roman bread
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In contrast to the poor and middle-class Roman houses, the villas of the wealthy Romans did have proper kitchens. Evidently, rich people thought eating outside inappropriate, so they had a meal at home or as guests at their friends and relatives’ residences. Still, street thermopolia must have been places with a really delicious food, as many Romans with high social rank were said to have regularly visited them. Cicero has attempted to insult Mark Antony by saying he often went to bars and cookshops. There were no reports Mark Antony has tried to change those habits of him.
*Val’s tips: Don’t overdo the fry. The pork bites should be finished in the marinade.