DON'T look now, but that tilapia you're tucking into has been around since King Tut.
In the fascinating new book Culinary Expeditions: A Celebration of Food and Culture, published by the Women's Committee to benefit the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, tilapia is revealed for what it once was: Nile perch, a symbol of power and fertility to the ancient Egyptians.
Likely the earliest farmed fish, tilapia was raised in shallow ponds along the banks of the Nile, and Egypt remains the second largest producer of tilapia in the world.
This handsome cookbook, divided into eight of the world regions where Penn archaeologists have been most active, endeavors to connect the dots between artifacts viewed in the museum showcases and the very vibrant pastime of eating. Besides its collection of multicultural recipes, the book is illustrated with bits and pieces of the museum's vast collection relating to the every day business of cookery, entertaining and gastronomy.
Paired with insightful cultural and historical commentary, a photo of an ancient artifact, say a 4-inch metal rattle in the shape of a tilapia unearthed on an archaeological dig in Egypt, becomes more than just a collected object. This plump tilapia-shaped rattle may have been a reference to the fish's fertility and maternal extinct - female tilapia are known for carrying their newborn in their mouths for protection. Or it may have been used to make music during religious ceremonies.
However it was used, this finny little treasure illustrates that every world culture is influenced and connected to food. The accompanying, easy-to-prepare recipe for herb-stuffed tilapia with cinnamon rice is a dish that could easily be featured on a modern Cairo restaurant menu.
Imagined a little more than three years ago by a cadre of talented volunteers on the museum's Women's Committee, the book's concept and design came from Suzanne McDevitt, with an editorial staff that included book editor Jane Hickman and a team of recipe contributors and testers led by Cheryl Louise Baker and Ardeth Anderson. Conceived as a fundraiser, 100 percent of the book's $25 price tag goes to the museum.
It's money doubly well-spent, because Culinary Expeditions would be a welcome addition to any home cook's library.
"We were trying to get the museum's message out there to a greater audience," said Hickman, who edits Penn's Expedition Magazine. "I'm a cook and an archaeologist, and I found it interesting to learn that one ostrich egg was equal to 18-24 hen's eggs. People who are interested in food and cooking are often travelers and students of other cultures. The book makes those connections."
The committee spent time with curators, combing through the collection, much of which is in storage and not available for public view. Finding the right artifacts to illustrate the various world tables was an expedition itself.
In the pages of Culinary Expeditions, we see an archaic Greek coin etched with a sheaf of barley, a reference to the area's agricultural wealth. We learn that olive oil lit the earliest Olympic flame, and that large clay vessels used to store oil date back to Bronze Age palaces in Crete. Olive oil is an ingredient in just about every recipe in this section of the book, from artichokes stuffed with olives and anchovies to grilled branzini and taramosalata, the carp roe "caviar" dip common in many Greek restaurants.
Like culinary archaeologists, the committee dug recipes up from multiple sources, then tested and combined the best elements to create the final product. From the importance of wine in the Roman era to the use of pine nuts as a culinary chameleon in a recipe for pignoli cookies, the book's descriptions crackle with useful bits and interesting nuggets.
Hickman's favorite recipe is in the Rome section: an asparagus frittata flavored with tender spring asparagus, pecorino Romano cheese, grated in Rome for more than 2,000 years, and shredded prosciutto.
Essentially a crustless quiche, this fetching dish fits as easily on your brunch table as it would on a Venetian dowagers' buffet. Pair it with a fennel and orange salad, two ingredients common in the Mediterranean, and the timelessness of delicious is easy to discover.