The Alexandrian Exchange and the Four Humors

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 06

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Alexander the Great’s conquests heralded an era where previously unconnected cultures mixed on a large scale. In this podcast, we’ll trace the diffusion of foodstuffs over vast trade networks in the Hellenistic period. Then we’ll go on to study early dietary regimens based in Galen’s famous theory of the body’s “humors,” and examine the influence on food culture of Greek philosophical schools such as the Stoics and Epicureans.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Recipe for Myma

The following is a recipe for a meat dish from the cookbook of Epaenetus. This dish is savory because of the meat and liver, spicy because of the cumin and coriander, sour because of the vinegar, sweet because of the raisins and honey, and aromatic because of the hyssop, thyme, and silphium.

A myma of any sacrificial animal, or chicken, is to be made by chopping the lean meat finely, mincing the liver and offal with the blood, and flavoring with vinegar, melted cheese, silphium, cumin, thyme leaf, thyme seed, Roman hyssop, coriander leaf, coriander seed, geteion (maybe a spring onion), peeled fried onion, raisins or honey, and the seeds of a sour pomegranate.

• Galenic Meal


Just as today, there is no way of knowing if the ancient Greeks followed their physicians’ instructions when it came to eating a healthy diet, but Galen of Pergamum’s writings became so popular—and dominated medical thought for 15 centuries following his death—that it is safe to assume that people knew a great deal about what was considered best to eat. While Galen doesn’t offer recipes, his comments about specific ingredients are so detailed that it is possible to reconstruct a healthy meal using the system of humoral physiology, or balancing the hot, cold, moist, and dry humors in a single dish.

Chickpeas, Galen notices, are made into soups in the country, sometimes using chickpea flour cooked with milk. He thinks that chickpeas are less prone to cause flatulence than other beans, are more nutritious, and even serve as an aphrodisiac, but there is also the skeleton of a recipe that he says is common among us. The following is a reconstructed recipe. The combination, apart from being delicious, fits into his definition of a healthy meal, as it does ours.

Take two cups of chickpeas, and soak them overnight. Then, simmer gently in fresh water for about an hour. When the chickpeas begin to get tender, add a teaspoon of salt, a dash of olive oil, and some oregano. Continue cooking until completely cooked through. Then, take a dry cheese, such as Greek kefalotiri or kashkaval, and pound it or process it finely until it resembles flour. Sprinkle this on the chickpeas and serve. Feta cheese crumbled on top of the chickpeas is also very good, and because Galen doesn’t specify the type of cheese, feel free to use what you like best.

• When to Eat Peaches

Prunus Persica (Peaches)

Peaches were first imported to the West in antiquity—hence the name persika, meaning that they come from Persia, but they are actually from the Far East. Galen warns us, despite the lovely taste, that the juice and flesh of peaches easily corrupts and, therefore, should not be eaten at the end of the meal because the peaches float on the surface of the stomach, where they corrupt. However, before a meal, they serve as a lubricant, helping other foods down the digestive tract. As an experiment, try eating peaches at the end of a meal and then, next time, at the start. Is there any difference? Were you psychosomatically influenced by Galen’s suggestion, or is his model of digestion completely outdated?

Suggested Reading:

Athenaeus, Deipnosophists.

Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices.

Galen, Galen: On the Properties of Food.

Images courtesy of:

• Alexander the Great: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Philip II: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Map of Alexander’s conquests: By George Willis Botsford Ph.D. (1862-1917) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Silphium: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Dioscorides: Veloso Salgado [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Nigella: Roger Culos (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
• Cinnamon: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Theophrastus: 
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Citron: By Yankelowitz (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Lemon: Shutterstock 528000427
• Jujubes: Shutterstock 
• Winged Victory of Samothrace: © Rijin S/ Wikimedia Commons / , via Wikimedia Commons
Hippocrates: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Galen: Veloso Salgado [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Epicurus: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Diogenes: Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Chickpeas: Shutterstock
• Peaches: Shutterstock