In Crete, the knowledge of superfoods has been passed down for millennia. Chef Maria Loi offers a guide to some of the healthiest foods in the world.
“Superfoods are a Greek affair,” said chef Maria Loi. “It started from ancient [times]. … If you go out there, near the sea or in the mountains, you just find superfoods in Greece.”
The chef-owner of Loi Estiatorio in Midtown Manhattan, and author of “The Greek Diet,” is fond of telling a story about the horses in Alexander the Great’s army. “A group of soldiers were confronted with the unfortunate job of releasing old, useless, unhealthy horses into the wild to die,” she said. “The horses ran into the distance, never to be seen again … but then they returned! And, not only did they return ‘from the dead,’ they came back with their coats bright and shiny as ever, because they fed off a natural patch of sea buckthorn berries and rejuvenated their vitality.”
It didn’t take the soldiers long to get in on the berry action—they too became stronger and (one can only imagine) their hair commercial worthy.
In Greek, the word for sea buckthorn berries—an ingredient that’s been popping up here and there around town (in smoothies at the Great Northern Food Hall and in a “tea” at newcomer Coffeemania, for example)—ends in “hippophae,” which means shiny horse.
Though “superfood” is a term coined in modern times, for Loi, who grew up in Nafpaktos, Greece, there’s nothing “super” about the concept.
“For me, it’s not ‘superfood,’ it’s ordinary food. It’s my everyday food,” she said.
Loi grew up in a poor family who worked in tobacco fields. There were no medications at home; instead, natural remedies were very much part of life. When her stomach ached, her father would take the “tear” of a tree—the hardened crystalline resin of the Pistacia lentiscus—and grind it to make a tea for her. “In half an hour, the pain would be gone,” Loi recalled.
Her father had to travel throughout Greece, and acquired local knowledge from different parts of the country, but he was always partial to the foods of Crete for being purer and more potent. Through her research, Loi has come to believe that Crete is the very place of origin of the Mediterranean diet.
The island, located in the south of Greece, is the site of the Minoan civilization, which flourished from about 2,000 B.C. to 1,500 B.C. It is also known as the birthplace of Zeus, who was born in a cave in central Crete. Zeus is said to have been nourished by the milk of the goat Amaltheia (some sources say it was a nymph) and by honey fed to him by the nymph Melissa (some say it was the honeybees themselves).
In “Theogony,” the Greek poet Hesiod mentions that “the strength and glorious limbs of the prince increased quickly.” Though he doesn’t make the direct connection, one could take it to mean that this diet of “milk and honey” was what sped the young god to his destiny.
Present-day Crete offers contrasts. Actor-director Christopher Papakaliatis, who was recently in New York to promote his new film “Worlds Apart,” is from Crete. The northern coast of the island, he explained, is cosmopolitan and civilized; the south is “raw” and full of nature.
And as for the character of the people, the first thing that comes to mind is their legendary hospitality. Try stopping for directions in a village, and you’ll be invited for a glass of raki, says Papakaliatis. Or, according to Gregory Pappas, the publisher of The Pappas Post website covering Greek news in English, the Cretans might say, “I’ll give you directions, but first come have a bite.” Pappas added, “It’s compared to Texas. … They own guns, they’re very macho. It’s like the wild, wild West in the south.”
“In some villages, it’s like Sicily; some villages stayed like they were back in the ’50s,” said Papakaliatis.
People raise their own food and also forage. Pappas said, “We go out all the time to gather wild greens that are indigenous to Crete. One is called stamnagathi and is all over the sides of mountain roads, [and] also wild oregano.”
Loi’s father always brought back from Crete wild mountain tea, called sideritis or malotira. “It literally means ‘to extract a bad thing,'” said Loi, “because this plant has been used since the ancient times to cure ailments and wounds, like wounds from the iron weapons. … Even though we had our mountain tea, he was always giving us malotira from Crete.”
For her ailing friends, Loi is known to advise they take natural remedies passed down through the generations in her family.
Once she advised her lawyer, who was experiencing bronchitis-like symptoms, to take oregano tea. “I said my grandfather used to do that for me. It’s a pinch when you drink it. The next day he called me at 8 a.m. and said, ‘Thank you, you know, I’m not going to get drugs anymore; I’m going to ask you, you’re my new doctor.'”
Dara Davenport, the executive chef at Loi Estiatorio, studied biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon prior to her culinary studies at the Institute of Culinary Education. She brings a scientific perspective.
She highlights that unlike foods such as kale or pomegranate, which are merely good for you, the arsenal of ancient superfoods from Greece, and Crete more specifically, are truly potent. “They have dozens and dozens of qualities that make them legitimately super … and they build on each other, they work together. You know how you hear if you eat one food with another food, it kicks it up? The same principle applies to these foods if you combine them.”
From a culinary perspective, plants and products that developed side by side over millennia also go together extraordinarily well.
As for Loi, on a recent afternoon, she called out to the patrons who were leaving her restaurant after lunch. They worked in the pharmaceutical industry. “Make some drugs from superfoods!” she told them.
Below, Loi offers a shortlist of a few of the many ancient Greek superfoods, along with their benefits.
Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae)
The discovery of sea buckthorn berries might have been a happy accident. Containing over 60 antioxidants, healthy fatty acids, and at least 20 minerals, the berries are known to treat gastrointestinal disorders including ulcers, improve the look of skin and hair, improve sight and mental clarity, slow the aging process, and contribute to proper brain and nervous system functioning.
Produced on the island of Chios, mastic resin is used in a variety of ways: not only in toothpaste and chewing gum (as it’s known to be good for dental health) but also in foods as a flavoring agent, much as vanilla might be used in baked goods, or sweetened and mixed with cold water for a refreshing drink in the summer.
“The first-century Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides mentions the healing properties of mastic in his book ‘De Materia Medica,'” said Loi. “Hippocrates wrote that mastic is good for the prevention of digestive problems and colds, and Galenus suggested that mastic was useful for bronchitis and for improving the condition of the blood.”
It’s also known to be good for improving digestion, lowering cholesterol, and preventing glaucoma.
Trahana is made from a dehydrated mixture of wheat and soured cow’s, sheep’s, or goat’s milk (or buttermilk or yogurt). Prescribed by Hippocrates for intestinal problems, it is rich in carbohydrates, high in fiber, and full of lactobacilli from the sour milk—making it beneficial for the digestive tract. It also contains protein, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, and calcium in a form the body can easily absorb.
Mountain Tea (Sideritis, Malotira)
Malotira, Loi notes, is the mountain tea specific to Crete. Rich in iron, flavonoids, and antioxidants, it has been used to treat wounds since ancient times, reduces inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, and is great during the cold season. It boosts immunity, reduces fevers, has calming properties, and has been used as a sleep aid.
“Honey is perhaps the all-time, ultimate superfood, and in fact was considered the ‘food of the gods,'” Loi said. “It has antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, antioxidant properties—it never goes bad and is the best possible preservative!”
She notes that the pollen and royal jelly, present in raw honey, are what give honey its health benefits, but much of the honey on grocery store shelves has been filtered to remove these, “leaving it a shell of the superfood it could be.”
Honey is not only a natural antibiotic but also increases calcium absorption, boosts energy, can be used to treat anemia and as a gentle laxative, and is full of minerals that are critical for blood sugar balance.
Barley Rusks (Dakos)
This humble food has its roots as a practical food for men going off to sea or into the fields for weeks at a time. The ancient name for rusks, says Loi, is “dipyritis artos,” or twice-baked bread. With the moisture baked out of them, these rusks could last for weeks and be rehydrated while voyaging by, for example, dipping them into the sea.
“Cretan barley rusks are delicious, with their slightly nutty flavor and varying textures (depending on the liquid introduced to them), and moreover, [they are] extremely healthy,” said Loi.
Full of dietary fiber, they also help intestinal and liver function.
Olives and Olive Oil
The advent of the olive tree, in ancient Greek mythology, came as a result of a competition between Poseidon, god of the sea and horses, and Athena, goddess of wisdom.
Vying to name Greece’s new capital, each gave a useful gift to its citizens. Poseidon gave warhorses and struck his trident into the ground; seawater sprang forth. Athena struck a rock with her spear and an olive tree grew there.
The people “knew the olive tree would bring them good health and flavorful food year round, from olives and olive oil. The city declared Athena had won and chose the name of Athens,” said Loi.
Much has been said of the benefits of olive oil: from lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, to providing healthy fats, to improving brain health. It is chock full of antioxidants; Greek olive oil in particular, Loi pointed out, has more polyphenols than any other European olive oil.
As for whole olives themselves, they are a good source of iron and vitamin A and help increase serotonin levels. They also aid in weight loss and maintaining gastrointestinal health. “They are full of all the same vitamins, nutrients, and benefits that olive oil is known for, and come in a delicious bite-sized treat,” Loi said.