Originating from both Greek and Roman traditions, the history of Byzantine cuisine offered variety as a cultural experience as well as within the various strata of the empire’s social hierarchy. The rise of the empire itself brought exotic ingredients to Greece from across Asia Minor, including spices, sugar, and vegetables that had not yet been introduced into Greek culture. This encouraged cooks within society to experiment with the new ingredients at their disposal, leading to the development of a new style of cuisine simply styled “Eastern,” consisting mostly of Asia Minor and Eastern Aegean recipes, which would eventually become the primary basis for Byzantine cuisine as a whole.
In the upper echelons of society, the nobility and those of the Imperial palace indulged themselves and their guests with a great variety of exotic foods ranging from fresh fruits to what are often referred to as “sweetmeats,” a term generally used to refer to confections. They could afford lamb, one of the more common domestic meats available within the empire as many did not butcher cattle for the sake of utilizing them as beasts of burden for the fields. The Byzantine elite also hunted for meat that was not so commonly available on market, making it an extremely expensive commodity that was nearly unavailable to the common folk and peasantry. They often supplemented these lavish meals with wines that were regarded through the known world. Macedonia in particular was well-regarded for the wine it exported, along with the islands of Cyprus and Crete, which used muscal grapes. Many other wines of great renown circulated throughout the Byzantine and Roman empires, including variants from the western Peloponnese and Monemvasia.
For the lower classes of the Byzantine empire, cuisine and diets were a much simpler process with simpler ingredients. Where the nobility feasted on sweet treats and fruits, commoners’ diets consisted more closely to breads, vegetables, pulses (grain seed) and cereals prepared in a number of ways. They also ate salads on a fairly regular basis, a common part of Byzantine diet. Commoners also took to slaughtering pigs as the alternative to the nobility’s penchant for hunting, preparing sausages, salted pork and lard for their families. Through the empire, boiling food was the most common form of cooking at all. Fermented sauces such as garos (fermented fish sauce) and murri (fermented barley sauce) were often used to give cooked meals their flavor. These sorts of flavors were less than appealing to the nobility. Historians make note of Liutprand of Cremona, an ambassador to Constantinople on behalf of Emperor Otto, commenting on his meal tasting of “exceedingly bad fish liquor.” Even the cheaper brand of wine, Retsina, was labeled as “undrinkable” by the same ambassador.
Taking from garos, Byzantine cuisine made heavy use of seafood: fish and shellfish, fresh and saltwater alike. They also developed Greek cheeses such as anthotiro and kefalotyri. Sphoungata were omelettes famously regarded within the empire, meaning “spongy.” Because of its strategic location in terms of cuisine influences, some historians believe that modern baklava and tiropita derive themselves from Byzantine recipes. The long list of cultural influences (including Italy, Persia and the Arabic empire) that shifted Byzantine cuisine also may just be the reason that it persevered through the downfall of the empire itself: influencing the Ottoman empire and stretching into modern cuisines such as Turkish, Balkans and even recirculating back into Greek. Look at this video from our friend Ben Bronston.