Greek civilization began thousands of years ago, and a great deal of their culture has continued into current day, such as certain aspects of mathematics, engineering, and architecture. However, much of the Greek food we eat today is not the same as what the ancient Greeks were eating back then, mainly because the ingredients that we are familiar with were not available. What has been consistent over time, however, is the Greeks’ philosophy of cooking: use local and fresh ingredients and cook them in simple and unadulterated ways.
Ancient Greek Pantry Staples
The foods of ancient Greece didn’t include many that are considered standard present-day Greek ingredients, like lemons, tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes, because many of these foods did not exist in Greece until after the discovery of the Americas in the 15th century. Because of the introduction of so many new fruits and vegetables to this Mediterranean country, Greek cuisine has changed quite radically over time. In ancient Greece, the basic foods were cereals, legumes, fruit, fish, game, oil, and wine. Many of these ingredients are still part of the Greek diet, along with the addition of fresh and local ingredients, olive oil, and herbs.
As several of our current cooking methods were not invented thousands of years ago, the ancient Greeks cooked their food using what was available around them. The most common cooking methods were done over an open fire, such as boiling, frying, simmering, stewing, grilling, and roasting on a spit where meat like goat or lamb was tied to a stick and rotated by hand over the fire. This method is still used today (often with a motorized spit) in both Greece and other parts of the world, particularly when cooking an Easter lamb.
The earliest cooking pots were made of clay, and similar pots (glazed and fired) are still used today in many parts of the world. The Greeks would place ingredients like lamb and vegetables in a clay pot, seal it tightly, and either cook in a clay oven for several hours or bury in the ground underneath hot coals. These clay ovens are somewhat similar to the pizza ovens we are familiar with, and can still be found in villages throughout Greece.
Out of necessity (because refrigeration was nonexistent), in addition to cooking, ancient Greeks preserved foods by smoking, drying, salting, and storing in syrups and fat. Foods were often stored with a topping of oil to keep air out.
Preparing and Eating Meals
Similar to how many men today are in charge of cooking on the grill, the men of ancient Greece were typically in control when roasting the meats on spits or over coals; the women were responsible for boiling foods and baking them in the oven.
When it came time to enjoy the meal, aristocratic people sat or lounged on couches set before low tables laden with food and ate in a communal style. For the common man as well as the aristocrat, utensils were not used; everything was eaten with the hands. Bread had many purposes at the dinner table—it was used to scoop out thick soups, as a napkin to clean hands, and, when thrown on the floor, was food for the slaves or the dogs.