It should come as little surprise that the food you ate was highly dependent on the social class you belonged to in the Byzantine Empire. While the aristocracy was capable of paying cooks to prepare luxurious dishes and desserts three times a day — like syrup-soaked meats (many animals they had likely hunted themselves) and sweet cakes, the poor could not be expected to meet the same standards.
Unsurprisingly, “poor” was the golden standard in society for most of the years during which the Byzantine Empire thrived. Few could expect to reach any manner of wealth, and there really was no middle class as we might recognize it today.
Believe it or not, in the days of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the poor were actually more likely to go out to eat. It was cheaper than dining in or cooking for yourself yourself. Local restaurants were small establishments called “tavernas,” where owners would often quickly and cheaply cook food by boiling.
Fish sauce and fermented barley sauce were commonly used to make the meager offerings more palatable to the masses. They even had another product similar to our modern day version of soy sauce!
Thankfully, trade routes were well established in that part of the world and it was much easier to come by extra ingredients and different types of food. While much of it may have been bland fare provided to the poor, at the very least there was a bit of variety due to relationships built with the Persian and Arabic Empires. This is why modern day Balkans, Greek, and Turkish cuisine are so similar.
Many of the dishes we enjoy today — like baklava — are even thought to be descended from similar Ancient Byzantine recipes!
While meat was an uncommon ingredient for much of the Byzantine population (save for fish), there were a number of other staples in their diet. These included bread, fruit, nuts, eggs, legumes, olives, milk, and cheese.
If you lived in the Byzantine region, you could be expected to drink a lot of wine, no matter your class or standing in life. Much of the food was cooked in wine or vinegar. If you were lucky enough to enjoy meat on occasion, then a common recipe was rabbit simmered in red wine with cloves, served with a dressing called “mytton” that was made from garlic, olive oil, and black olive paste.
Hen was often roasted inside a sealed clay pot (and an oven), that was filled with wine, bread crumbs, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, pine nuts, mushrooms, etc.
Truth be told, some Byzantine recipes sound better than most of the things we eat today!