Much of Western cooking, and especially Mediterranean cooking, descends from Roman cooking. To cook like a Roman today you need to use only ingredients that were available to the Romans, adapt your cooking techniques somewhat, and learn to combine flavors in ways that may be new to you.
Create a Roman pantry. If possible, set up your food storage so that Roman foods and non-Roman foods are stored on different shelves to make it easier for you. Stock up on the following important Roman staples:
Olives and olive oil. Pliny the Elder sang the virtues of the olive by claiming that: 'Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive'. Buy 'pure' olive oil for cooking and 'extra virgin' for flavoring uncooked things;
Honey. Use this instead of sugar. Or, you can also use dates to sweeten dishes;
Chickpeas (also known as 'garbanzo beans') and lentils;
Whole grains and whole grain flour such as 'emmer', 'spelt' or 'far' (kinds of wheat) and barley. Emmer and spelt are available in 'health food' stores. Emmer is a very ancient variety of wheat and is the most authentic choice for early Roman cooking. Rye was also consumed by the Romans;
Vegetables such as radishes, parsnips, carrots, cabbage, leek, endive, celery, globe artichokes, cucumber, marrow, lettuce, onions. pennycress, nettles, asparagus and beets;
Fruit such as grapes, raisins, currants, sultanas, figs, dates, medlar, mulberry, damson, plums, cultivated cherry, apples, pears, crab apple, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and elder berries;
Many herbs and spices such as oregano, dill, mustard, lovage, rosemary, rue, sage, sweet marjoram, thyme, aniseed, borage, black pepper, poppy seeds, fennel, mint, flat parsley, garlic, and savory;
Meat in the form of chicken, mutton, or pork (and ham, bacon, sucking pigs) was far more common than beef, although beef was supplied as rations to Roman garrisons in Britain and was much enjoyed in Roman Britain; wild fowl was common, such as duck and goose, and other birds we're less likely to eat nowadays like swan, stork, flamingo, and crane; rabbit, hare, and deer would also have been consumed by Romans;
Snails and frogs (the French weren't there first!);
Seafood including many types of fish (eel, perch, pike, carp, etc.), crustaceans, and shellfish was very popular;
Several sauces, including garum (a fish sauce similar to that used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking) or fermented fish sauce (liquamen); oenogarum was fish sauce mixed with wine. See 'Tips' for how to make your own fish sauce;
Cheese both hard and soft was made by Romans. Ricotta and feta are two very suitable types;
Wine (cooking and drinking) and vinegar. Vinegar added a sharp taste to sauces, preserved fruits, vegetables, and fish. The Romans also brewed beer.
Not Roman food...
Avoid using the wrong ingredients when cooking Roman style. Some common non-Roman foods that you should not use in authentic Roman dishes are these foods from the Americas: tomatoes, potatoes, chilies, corn (maize). Broccoli is a modern hybrid and pasta (except lasagna) was not known to the Romans.
Prepare your kitchen equipment. By the time of the Romans, cooking equipment had become far more complex than previous cooking cultures. Cooking was done over a raised brick hearth with a charcoal fire. While some foods such as meat or fish could be grilled direct on the charcoals, other food had to be cooked in tripod pots over the coals. In addition, it is likely that the Romans used steaming methods. Baking and roasting was also done in an oven using wood or charcoal as fuel. Naturally, your modern day oven and stove will be perfect substitutes. As for your cooking equipment, the extent of the authenticity is up to you but here are some common Roman items and possible substitutes:
Use a good, large mortar and pestle (mortaria). This is your Roman style food processor. A marble one is best because it will not pick up flavors from such common ingredients as garlic. Naturally, if you're feeling lazy, the Romans would probably have snapped up food processors in the blink of an eye, so don't hesitate!
Use a large pot for stews. The Romans used iron cauldrons but there's a good reason we don't tend to anymore – they're heavy! A large casserole can also be used as a Roman oven.
Use a frying pan (fretale or sartago) for cooking fish and frying vegetables. A patella was used as a slightly deeper frying pan that could also be taken to the table, and the patina was an even deeper pan for more complex dishes. Perhaps use such items as paella pans and casserole dishes without lids for substitutes.
Use jugs and pitchers (amphorae) for storing and pouring your olive oil, wine, and other liquids. Naturally, a measuring jug is also perfectly acceptable as a modern-day substitute.
Roman knives, strainers, pots, and pans were generally similar to our modern day ones, so it's likely your kitchen is already well-equipped for Roman cooking.
Know how to prepare the food. The cooking methods include: baking, roasting, steaming, raw (salads), frying in oil, and heating. Grain could be milled, so flour for baking and sauces is permissible (amulum thickened sauces), as well as ground grain dishes such as porridge and gruel (puls or pulmentus). If you're really keen, look for your own flour mill to grind the flour fresh at home. Although extra work, the freshness can make it worth your while. Bread was common but there are different types: autopyron was a slave and dog bread made from mostly bran with a little flour; athletae was unleavened bread mixed with soft curd cheese; buccellatum was the troop's staple dry biscuit; and artophites was light leavened bread made from the best flour baked in a mold.
Find some recipes. Several ancient writers left collections of recipes, but they are really hard to use. Some good modern interpretations of Roman cookbooks are listed below. Try making some of the following:
Libum (like cheese bread) or moretum (a garlic and vegetable cheese spread) to start.
Serve the food. Serving the food was a little different from nowadays, where fingers are relegated to fast food and nibbles, while table food requires the use of modern utensils. In Roman times, eating food with the fingers was far more common and napkins were an essential for wiping dirty fingers. Romans had knives and spoons but they lacked forks. It's up to you how far you wish to live without your fork! Once again, no doubt Romans would have embraced the fork if they'd thought of it first. Spoons were used for sauces and soft food, with a small spoon known as a cocleare used for removing shellfish from shells. It is also likely that larger spoons served as ladles. Solid foods were eaten using the fingers.
Romans had bowls, plates, cups, finger bowls, jugs, goblets, and wine ladles.
Items were typically made from a range of materials including pottery, glass, silver, bronze, iron, pewter, etc. You may wish to research further if you're trying to achieve an authentic table look along with your Roman food.
Add the wine. Romans adored their wine, so feel free to add wine to your meal. In Roman times, it was considered bad manners to drink wine undiluted but you might want to ignore than nicety given the care taken in making modern day wines 'just right'. And the other drink? Water. That makes the choices easy!
Hold a Roman banquet. Romans were renowned for banqueting. Once your Roman cooking skills have broadened, consider holding a mini-banquet for your family and friends, to introduce them to the delights and healthy aspects of eating like a Roman.
Bear in mind the presentation was a very important aspect of a successful banquet. Place candelabra on the table, use your best dinnerware, and add some fresh flowers to the dining room (triclinium) for beauty.
Romans would often recline to eat, placing three couches around the table. So, you have a good excuse to pull the couches up to a low lying table and to chill out as you enjoy your Roman banquet.
Guests would be expected to bring their own dining napkins with them; at the end of the evening, they'd fill their napkins with leftovers to take home as what you might perceive as a sort of an eco-friendly Tupperware equivalent!
Romans often cooked over charcoal, so a hibachi-type charcoal grill is pretty authentically Roman! Be careful using charcoal, and don't ever use it indoors because you risk carbon monoxide poisoning.
Romans either milled their own flour by hand or bought it from millers who used large stone mills. Course stone-ground whole wheat flour is your best choice.
Romans usually reduced sauces before cooking, unlike now, when we usually reduce sauces while cooking.
Horse meat was sometimes eaten. It is likely that if Romans went to Australia they'd also have eaten kangaroo or if they'd gone to North America, they'd have indulged in bison. The Romans weren't afraid to try new foods, so it's really up to you how far you extend the ban on non-Roman foods. You might prefer to adopt the overall cooking styles and flavors, keeping to foods in their unprocessed and healthy state, rather than completely abandoning New World foods.
To make fish sauce (liquamen): In a bowl mix sprats with fish intestines. Add olive oil to cover. Pour it all into a clean container (in those days they usually used a clay container). Sprinkle with herbs. Place in the sun for three days. It will ferment during this time. Strain the fish sauce; it's now ready to eat. Note: this is an Ancient Roman recipe and you might not wish to run the risk of leaving fish intestines in the sunshine and then eating the resulting sauce!
Things You'll Need
Suitable utensils and cooking equipment as outlined
Drinking vessels (goblets, etc.)
Couches to recline on, napkins, tablecloth for a banquet
Dalby, A., Grainger, S, The Classical Cookbook, 1996. ISBN 0892363940. An excellent book which combines historical discussion and classical recipes for satisfying results.
Patrick Faas, Shaun Whiteside trans., Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome, 2003, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226233472.
Grant, M., Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens, 2008. ISBN 1897959605. New illustrated edition of the 1999 text. An excellent collection of recipes for preparing everyday Roman meals.
Gozzini Giacosa, A Taste of Ancient Rome, 1994, Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226290328. Nicely translated and illustrated The bulk of the recipes come from Apicius and include the standard numbering from that work. The Latin is always included, then translated, then converted into a modern recipe.
Jane Renfrew, Roman Cookery: Recipes & History, 2004. English Heritage, UK. ISBN 1-85074-870-5. Most recipes are derived from Apicius. – Also used as a research source to authenticate this article.
Segan, F., The Philosopher's Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern Cook, 2004, Random House. ISBN 1400060990.