Gladiators were the superstar athletes of Ancient Rome, and are often portrayed in films and TV shows as having shredded physiques. But as chef Sohla El-Waylly explains in a new video on the History channel, the more likely reality is that gladiators were carb-loaders who ate for strength, not definition or aesthetic.
“Their carb-heavy diet helped them get the energy they needed, but also could mean they weren’t as sculpted as picture them,” she says. “This was actually really helpful in the arena, because the fat helped cushion blows for the fight.”
In the video, El-Waylly takes on a recipe that would have been a staple in the ancient gladiator’s diet. Taken from Appicius, the oldest remaining cookbook in the Western world, it consists of chickpeas, lentils, peas, unhulled barley, swiss chard, leeks, cilantro, dill, beet, fennel seeds, oregano, cabbage sprouts and olive oil. While meat would have been considered the ideal food to build muscle and strength, it was cheaper and more practical to feed gladiators what would be seen now as a vegan or plant-based diet. “In Roman times they called this a gruel,” she says, “but looking around, this is more of a grain bowl.”
To begin, she smashes the unhulled barley and lets it simmer with the peas. Then she grinds the herbs and sprouts together to form a kind of pesto, and serves it with goat’s cheese.
“This is good, this is tasty,” she says. “I can totally see myself digging into this after a workout… If they sold it at Sweetgreen, I’d get it every time. I feel like it’s really hearty and filling, but I don’t feel too weighed down, it’s not too heavy.”
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