When we think of foreign dishes, our minds are firmly rooted in the present. We very rarely consider the past as a template for new cuisine choices, and even when we do it’s hard to find good sources of information. How did ancient civilizations prepare food? Was it tasty? Was it healthy? What would the nutritionists of today think if they were to sample a Byzantine platter, for example? Believe it or not, we do have a few ideas of what you might expect if you had a seat at an ancient Byzantine table during supper. Here’s everything you need to know about Byzantine food.
You might think that people in the ancient world had less variety available to them, and for some of the lower classes that may ring true. The more wealth you had, the more ingredients you had to cook with. Local dishes weren’t the only ones you might hope to eat, either. These ancient peoples used local waterways to transport goods from one place to the next, and so they had more to work with than you’d imagine. The variety available to the Byzantines was greater than that available to the Greeks or Romans. In particular, Byzantine people often didn’t bother cooking herbs and vegetables. Instead, they ate a lot of their food raw.
When meat was available, it might come in the form of lamb, pork, chicken, gazelle or donkey. If you’ve never had a gazelle or donkey, then you haven’t lived in the ancient world. Like most cultures during ancient eras, they ate a lot of fish, and fish was plentiful. Ancient Romans used garum, or fish sauce, to flavor much of the foods they ate. The Byzantines did the same.
The Byzantines were the first we know of to use ginger or nutmeg for cooking. Prior to this age, these kinds of spices were only used as healing devices. In particular, they would puree vegetables like carrots and parsnips, and then mash in chopped ginger, cloves, and honey in order to create a tasty meal. They ate eggs. They ate cake. They used wine to cook. A lot of what they did, we continue to do today.
Although we can find quite a few references to Byzantine food and cooking in the historical documents that have been translated, the people of the time period did not create entire cookbooks. Because of this, it’s a lot more difficult to come by entire recipes. Instead, culinary experts from around the globe have had to resort to finding lists of ingredients, manifests of goods and traded materials, etc. Sometimes tracing the routes of merchants and travelers was a good way to find a new recipe. Even so, we still know a lot less than we would like to.