All About Byzantine Food

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Although we can find quite a few references to Byzantine food and cooking in the historical documents that have been translated, the people of the time period did not create entire cookbooks.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.

Byzantine Cuisine

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