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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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silphium a spice which was greatly appreciated in classical Greece, and also in Rome, where it was called laserpitium or laser. It came at first only from the hinterland of Cyrene in Libya: it was resin or sap, tapped from the root and stem of a plant. The stem itself was also a delicacy, but probably little known outside the region of production.

The supply of silphium gave out in the 1st century ad: but meanwhile an alternative source had been found in Media (now Iran), where Alexander’s soldiers had learnt to use ‘silphium’ to tenderize tough old meat. This supply (which, nearly all authors were to agree, was inferior) was called silphion Medikon, Median silphium, by Greeks and appears as silfi in the Roman recipes of apicius. It is certainly identical with what we now know as asafoetida, the sap of Ferula assa-foetida and related species, as was first pointed out in modern times by Garcia da Orta (1563).