Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
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Mangia Bene

[This article has endnotes with author name only. Full bibliographical data can be found in the bibliography of Clifford A. Wright, A Mediterranean Feast]

    As any of the latest naval stand offs between Turks and Greeks in the Aegean shows, the Greeks are not much amenable to the idea that their food might be indebted to Turkish cooking. It is commonplace for Greek food writers to introduce Greek cuisine as one “shaped through over 3,000 years of history.”1 The sumptuous feasts described by Homer or Plato and menus from Athenaeus--all this will be described as part of the Greek culinary heritage. Sometimes it can get rather silly, such as the comment of one writer that “When you start your day with rolls and coffee, you are following an ancient Greek custom.”2 One Greek writer went so far as to state that Greek cuisine is twenty-five centuries old and is the ur-cuisine that the Turks, Italians, and other Europeans borrowed from, not the other way around.3 Nicolas Tselementes was a noted Greek food authority who claimed the Greeks influenced western European foods via Rome; he traced the ancestry of such dishes as keftedes, dolmades, moussaka, and yuvarelakia to ancient Greek preparations that subsequently became masked behind Turkish and European names. He also said that bouillabaisse was an offspring of the Greek kakavia.4

    The Greek food writers are right about one thing: Greece is the source for an original European cuisine, just as it is the source of Western philosophy. The Hellenist influence on the Mediterranean is no doubt a powerful and important one and should not be underestimated. But whether it is the only font to Mediterranean cuisine is another matter. Greek culinary nationalism has hindered any reasoned debate and research on this question of the degree to which the Greek people preserved and maintained the classical heritage through 2,500 years, including Roman occupation, barbarian invasions, and 500 years of occupation by the Turks, not to mention interference and occupation by Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans. They ignore the fact that the majority population of peninsular Greece in the Middle Ages was Slav.5 They also underemphasize the importance of the Byzantine Empire, the Greek successor state to the Roman Empire in the East.

    The Byzantine Empire saw its most glorious period in the sixth century. A new period of splendor also occurred in the ninth and tenth centuries, but after the Turkish victory at Manzikert (Malazgirt) in 1071 the fortunes of Byzantium declined. The empire broke up when the Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, and continued as a truncated state, ever-shrinking in the face of the Ottoman Turks and vainly begging for aid from the West. Finally, Constantinople fell to Mohammed II in 1453 and the Byzantine Empire was extinguished forever. But this Greek civilization certainly left important culinary artifacts, and these culinary influences from Byzantium are a more likely Greek contribution than that from classical Greece as claimed by so many writers. We know that there were Byzantine mechanical devices such as one for preparing dough using animal power, apparently invented at the end of the tenth century. We can surmise that there was other important culinary transfers as well. Unfortunately, there are no comparative historical studies of Greek and Turkish food by disinterested third-party scholars, although at least one Greek scholar believes his countrymen claim too much ownership.6 In any case, all claims regarding the heritage of Greek food must be taken with a grain of salt for Greek culinary history still awaits its Maxime Rodinson. As the scholar of medieval Hellenism Speros Vryonis Jr. warned: “In matters of cuisine the conquerors undoubtedly absorbed some items from the conquered, but the problem is again obscured by a similarity in Byzantine and Islamic cuisine which probably existed before the appearance of the Turks.”7 Turkmen cuisine was very simple, usually produced from their flocks, with products such as milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese, with grains such as millet, fruit, honey, eggs, and a type of pancake cooked on a hot iron griddle. Vyronis states that the elaborate Turkish cuisine that came later was foreign to the Turkmen nomads and belonged to the native cuisine of the eastern Mediterranean. There is a similarity between the sweets of the Turks and those of the Byzantines, he argues, where one finds dough, sesame, nuts, honey, and fruits, as the Byzantine pastilla shows. The Turkish baklava was known as kopton and Athenaeus gives a recipe. (Athenaeus, XIV, 647-48). Cheese, borëk, and pastirma were all known to the Byzantines, as was the roasting of meat on a spit. The above argument by Vyronis has been convincingly challenged by Charles Perry, who says that Vyronis misread the Greek text of Athenaeus and that the simple food of Turkic nomads may actually have been the mother of invention for more complex preparations, like layered doughs for bread, see Perry 1994: 87-91. For my part, I am convinced of the possibility that contemporary Greek food, when it is not directly taken from the Turks or Italians, has its roots more properly in the Greek Byzantium than it does in the classical era.

    The history of Greek food is as complicated as Greek history. Listening today, one would think that the boundary between Greek and Turkish is true and clear--but it isn’t, for although Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire for a long time, the Greeks themselves sometimes benefited from a pax turcica. In the Middle Ages the Greek peasants of Anatolia rose up against the towns where their Greek landlords lived, converted to Islam, and welcomed the Turkish nomads arriving from the East. Remember, too, that the Greeks helped the Turkish expedition against Crete in the seventeenth century because they hated the Venetians. Before the Turks, Greece was under the scourge of the Catalans who took Athens in 1311 and set up their own dynasty, not to mention the Florentines in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. By the mid-fourteenth century, parts of Greece were falling to the Turks and the great Greek capital of Constantinople fell in 1453, a momentous event. Some of the most famous admirals in the Turkish service were Greeks, such as the corsair Khayr al-Din (Barbarossa) and possibly Kemal Re’is, whose fleet defeated the Venetians off Modon in 1500. When the Turks overran Greece, they populated the fertile plains of Thessaly and western Macedonia but were never really able to conquer the mountains. These mountain Greeks, the famous Klephts, often raided the plains, attacking both Greeks and Turks. The Turks sometimes used the institution of the Greek armatoloi (men at arms) to track down the Klephts. There were also Greek tribal communities left completely untouched by the Ottoman forces, such as the Suli of Epirus (Ipiros), the Máni in the Peloponnesus and the Sphakia on Crete. These tribes were semi-autonomous communities left unmolested by the Ottomans in their impregnable mountain confederations. They rarely interacted with the Turks, except occasionally when the Ottomans compelled them to pay tribute if they had sufficient troops in a local area to do so.8

(Photo: Cook slicing gyro sandwich at Mpairaktaris taverna in Athens, Clifford A. Wright)

    The rivalry between the Houses of Anjou and Aragon over the island of Sicily affected Greek history of the late thirteenth century more than any other cause. Once peace came to Sicily, the Catalan auxiliaries of Aragon sought their mercenary adventure in Greece, wrecking havoc on the Greeks and the Frankish rulers of the Levant. The Catalans ruled Attica and Boetia for seventy-five years until Athens was taken by Nerio Acciaiuoli, a member of a famous Florentine banking and arms manufacturing family in 1388 and the Greeks subjugated. The position of the Greeks during this time is reflected in Catalan, Sicilian, and Florentine documents where, when concerned with Greece, the Greeks remain nameless.9 For a hundred years Greece was dominated by this conflict, only to fall to the Ottoman Turks in short order.10 By the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries there was an upsurge in Greek ethnic awareness that sustained the Greeks as a people through four centuries of Turkish rule. This spirit was fostered and guided by the Greek Orthodox Church. Whatever exists in the way of a unique Greek cuisine more than likely derives from the efforts of the orthodox church in sustaining Greek Byzantine culture, rather than from the classical period, and was influenced by mountain Greeks who were not so easily subjugated by occupying powers.

   Unfortunately, we don’t have any information about what culinary traditions or recipes may have been preserved in Greek Orthodox monasteries outside of folkloric apocrypha. The number of fasting days in the Greek Orthodox calender are numerous, and the Greeks are a devout people, so many preparations were created for special religious occasions or for the particular needs of fasting. The most important holiday for the Greeks is Easter, celebrated by Christians as the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The following recipes are some examples of foods that might find their way onto a menu for a variety of religious holidays.

1. Mallos 1979: 23.
2. Yianilos 1970: 39.
3. Paradissis 1976: 7.
4. Chantiles 1975: xiii.
5. Dalby 1996: 34.
6. Professor Nikos Stavroulakis, conversation with the author, Khania, Crete, October 14, 1994.
7. Vyronis 1986: 481, 482-83. Although there are no studies of the vestigial culinary culture, Vyronis’s study indicates the fertile ground to be explored for the notion of a Byzantine residue in Turkish Anatolia and who speaks of an “invisible” physical Byzantine residue (p. 463). Certainly the evidence is strong in the agricultural field, where he concludes that the “Byzantine agrarian practices and techniques determined Turkish agricultural life in Anatolia” (p. 477). As we have seen in other situations, agricultural evidence is the usual foundation for, at least, rural culinary cultural. Another important work for researchers to examine in detail is the food and bread entries in A. Tietze’s “Griechishe Lehnwo[um]rter im anatolischen Tu[um]rkischen,” Oriens, vol. 8 (1955), pp. 204-257.
8. Skiotis 1975: 310-11.
9. Setton 1975.
10. Miller 1908: 211.