When you mention the words ‘Ancient Greek Food’, most people immediately visualize overstuffed nobles lying on a chaise lounge being fed grapes.
Food was a huge part of Ancient Greek society; from street vendors to symposiums and the discoveries of new delicacies. But not all of it was as lavish as you might think. Beyond the olive oil, figs, and good wine, hid more disturbing beliefs about the foods of Ancient Greece. This includes some morsels most people today would only eat if forced to participate in a Bushtucker Trial.
7. What food did the ancient Greeks eat?
Ancient Greek food traditionally encompassed well known staples such as figs, olives, and meat. While we know Greek cooking could involve elaborate meals (accompanied, of course, by vats of wine), many of the population were poor and relied heavily on cereals, dried fruit, legumes, wheat, and barley bread made from wheat flour to form the main bulk of their diet.
At festivals or symposiums (lavish banquets), the food would naturally be more diverse and plentiful. Fruit and vegetables often made up the bulk of the Ancient Greek diet and, given their proximity to the sea, there was often plenty of fresh fish and shellfish available to purchase. Including ones only the bravest of us would go near today… like eels.
All this is to say that the Ancient Greek diet wasn’t always as varied as we believe; but when they wanted to party, the food wasn’t neglected.
6. Insects were staple foods of ancient Greece
Next time you dig into a nice big tasty dish of crickets and ants, just remember the origins of your meal come from ancient times and societies like the Greeks.
Okay… so insects might not be everyone’s thing. But they were a big part of the ancient Greek diet; much like the ancient Roman or Egyptian. Clearly, the ancient world just loved chowing down on something with 6 legs.
Aristotle, one of the great philosophers of Ancient Greece, wrote some of our only surviving information on the ancient Greek consumption of insects. According to him, the cicada nymph was considered the greatest of treats, hinting it was a delicacy in Ancient Greece. He also mentioned munching on caterpillars which would be roasted or boiled before eating.
Thanks to ancient Greek cuisine, they never got a chance to become beautiful butterflies.
5. The Grandeur of the Ancient Greek Symposiums
If you’ve ever thought you could become a professional eater, then you’d fit right in at the Ancient Greek symposiums.
These special occasions were meant for discussion and debate among the high flyers of Ancient Greek society. And no good event was complete with lavishings of Ancient Greek food and wine. Along with an elaborate dinner party of meats, seafood, olives from the host’s own olive tree, and fresh fruit and veg; guests would be served copious amounts of diluted wine.
That’s something the Ancient Greeks got wrong for sure.
They actually believed undiluted wine was too strong and muddied the senses. Depending on whether the symposium was to be more intellectual, or more debauched; the Master of Ceremonies would decide just how diluted the wine should be.
All of this is to suggest that they probably just drank more to make up for it.
4. Kottabos: The ancient Greek drinking game
It turns out Ancient Greek culture isn’t that different from frat bro culture. Turns out, drinking games long outdate your college days of beer pong.
One of the earliest drinking games took place at Ancient Greek symposiums and was called Kottabos. Clearly, it was an integral and important part of their philosophical debates and discussions.
There were two ways to play Kottabos, and neither was particularly intuitive to men who were presumably already multiple drinks deep.
The most common way to play kottabos, which comic writer Aristophanes describes in one of his works, was to take one’s drinking cup, balance it on the palm of your hand, and then, while reclining back, throw the dregs of your wine toward a small bronze disk (called a plastinx) balanced on a piece of pottery some feet away. The aim was to make the plastinx fall with a loud clatter, and of course, not to spill wine all over yourself. The best players wouldn’t move any part of their body except their arm to achieve this.
The less loud, and therefore less fun, way to play Kottabos was to aim at bowls floating in water instead so that they didn’t fall with a bang like the plastinx would.
The lucky winners of the game would receive favors or exchange kisses with courtesans as a reward for their victory.
3. The world’s first food critic
As long as there have been things there have been people to criticize them. And food is no exception. In fact, the world’s first food critic can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece where he no doubt made cooks feel as bad as the critics of today do.
Archestratus was a lover of ancient Greek food. So much so, that he combined his love of food with his love of poetry to tell readers where to find his favorite meals across the Greek empire.
Living sometime around 4 B.C., Arechestratus’ most famous gastronomic poem ‘Hedypatheia’ waxed lyrical about foods of Ancient Greece. Throughout, he particularly stresses the abundance of fish… perhaps that was a favorite of his.
Hilariously, his contemporaries weren’t too impressed with the work, saying that reading it did nothing to “improve one’s life!”.
2. Ancient Greek food had medicinal properties
In particular, Hippocrates believed in the medicinal and restorative powers of garlic.
Rather than focusing on how good garlic bread is, or how useful it is for warding off vampires, Hippocrates often prescribed garlic as medicine. He believed it helped to cleanse or purge the body of bad humors, and was helpful in preventing or curing unnatural growths, among its other useful properties.
Not only that, but they also believed garlic was performance-enhancing and so was fed to the athletes at the Ancient Greek Olympic games. Imagine the smell in that Olympic village…
1. Beans contained the souls of the dead
Pythagoras is a name that strikes fear into the hearts of schoolchildren everywhere. But alongside being one of the best mathematicians in history and developing the Pythagorean theorem; he also bizarrely believed something strange about ancient Greek food…. Or one traditional Greek dish in particular.
Pythagoras, one of the great logical minds of Ancient Greece, believed fava beans contained the souls of the dead. Quite why he thought this isn’t clear, given his refusal to let anyone write down his teachings.
In one story, Pythagoras believed in burying beans as they looked like little fetuses, and therefore to eat them was a form of cannibalism. In another, he simply believed ‘beans make you gassy and getting rid of gas was like giving away a breath of life’.
Who knew “beans, beans, the magical fruit” had a much deeper meaning in ancient history?