Our first real knowledge of sauce-like preparations in Europe comes from Roman times. A Latin poem from around 25 CE describes a peasant farmer making a spread of pounded herbs, cheese, oil, and vinegar—an ancestor of
pesto genovese—that gave a pungent, salty, aromatic savor to his flatbread (see box).
Harmonizing Flavors in Ancient China
The addition, intensification, and blending of flavors that characterize good sauce making are central to the art of cooking, and have been considered such for at least 2,000 years. Here is an ancient Chinese description of the process that centers on the making of a stew or soup, a preparation in which the solid food both provides part of the sauce and cooks in the sauce.
In the business of harmonious blending, one must make use of the sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty. Whether things are to be added earlier or later and in what amounts—their balancing is very subtle and each thing has its own characteristic. The transformation which occurs in the cauldron is quintessential and wondrous, subtle and delicate. The mouth cannot express it in words; the mind cannot fix upon an analogy. It is like the subtlety of archery and horsemanship, the transformation of Yin and Yang, or the revolution of the four seasons. Thus [the food] is long-lasting yet does not spoil; thoroughly cooked yet not mushy; sweet yet not cloying; sour yet not corrosive; salty yet not deadening; pungent yet not acrid; mild yet not insipid; oily-smooth yet not greasy.
—attributed to the chef I Yin in the
Lü Shih Chhun Chhiu ( Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals), 239 BCE, transl. Donald Harper and H. T. Huang