To the ancient Greeks, “everything had a purpose,” says Maria Benardis. These days, trendy superfoods bearing exotic names and origins are touted for their magical, cure-all abilities. But the ancient Greeks recognized the super in the everyday. All food was used for both sustenance and healing, and the ancients wrote extensively on the properties of each ingredient. Benardis documents much of their knowledge in her books, “My Greek Family Table” and “Cooking & Eating Wisdom for Better Health.”
Described by Hippocrates as the “great therapeutic,” olive oil boasted wide-ranging roles: a digestive aid; a cure for headaches, hair loss, and dandruff; and a softener in harsher medicinal mixtures.
Honey was prescribed for sexual vigor, as well as to heal inflammation around the throat, cure coughs, cleanse pores, and draw out fluids from ulcers.
Mastiha is the aromatic resin of the mastic tree, traditionally cultivated on the island of Chios, Greece. Long revered by the Greeks, it was used by Hippocrates for stomach aches, colds, and digestive problems, as well by Dioscorides, another Greek physician, for womb disorders, dysentery, and dental hygiene.
As a juice, pomegranate was prescribed for stomach ailments and mouth ulcers, and as an aphrodisiac. Considered anti-cancerous, it was also crushed with walnuts—used as an antidote for poisons—and other ingredients to be applied topically to visible cancer.
As it is today, saffron was one of the most prized and expensive spices in ancient Greece. Perhaps its scarcity was for good reason—the ancients believed excessive doses would cause uncontrollable laughter, or lead women to be unable to resist a lover. Hippocrates used it as a painkiller as well as for healing wounds, stomach complaints, and eye conditions.
This “pepper of the Old World,” as Benardis calls it, was found on every table in ancient Greece, on par with our ubiquitous salt and pepper shakers. It was used liberally on everything because it aided in digestion.
The ancient Greeks considered cinnamon warming and softening, and a great digestive and diuretic. They used it as a cure for kidney diseases and an antidote against deadly poisons.
Herbs were a Greek staple, embraced for both their aromatic flavors and healing functions. Thyme was used to treat asthma; dill for gastrointestinal disorders; oregano for coughs and tonsillitis; rosemary for jaundice, stomach pains, or fatigue; and basil for constipation, vomiting, and other digestive problems.
Preparing for Battle
Applications weren’t limited to health. Aristotle advised Alexander the Great to forbid his soldiers from drinking mint tea before war, as the heady herb was considered an aphrodisiac. Instead, soldiers were fed onions and garlic, thought to incite courage and lighten the balance of the blood. (Their pungent smell, released through the soldiers’ sweat, also made for an excellent first line of attack.) After battle, a concoction of cumin oil and dill provided relief for sore muscles.
Where to Get Greek Ingredients
In Greece, each region is renowned for its own specialty—the best onions come from Mykonos, olive oil and wild greens from Crete, pistachios from Aegina, and tomatoes from Santorini with its rich volcanic soil.
While that kind of direct sourcing isn’t always possible in New York, Benardis does what she can. Ninth Avenue International Foods (543 9th Ave., Manhattan) and Titan Food Astoria (2556 31st St., Queens) are favorite stops for imported Greek goods, along with specialty grocers like Whole Foods Market for fresh, organic foods.
The extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar she uses at home are from her own Greekalicious brand, which she hopes to introduce to the public in the near future. They’re sourced from a historic monastery in the mountains of Crete, where monks have been making the products—pressing olives between stone slabs, as the ancients did—since 1632.
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