Byzantine cuisine was the continuation of local ancient Greek cuisine, ancient Roman cuisine and Mediterranean cuisine. Byzantine trading with foreigners brought in grains, sugar, livestock, fruits, vegetables and spices that would otherwise be limited to specific geographical climates.
Cooks experimented with new combinations of food, creating two styles in the process. These were the Eastern (Asia Minor and the Eastern Aegean), consisting of Byzantine cuisine supplemented by trade items, and a leaner style primarily based on local Greek cuisine culture.
Byzantine food consumption varied by class, location and time period. The Imperial Palace was a metropolis of spices and exotic recipes; guests were entertained with fruits, honey-cakes and syrupy sweetmeats. Ordinary people ate more conservatively.
Thanks to the location of Constantinople between popular trade routes, Byzantine cuisine was augmented by cultural influences from several locales—such as Lombard Italy, the Sassanid Empire, and an emerging Muslim caliphate. The resulting melting pot continued during Ottoman times and therefore modern Turkish cuisine, Greek cuisine and Balkan cuisine have many similarities, and use a very wide range of ingredients.
The Byzantines produced various cheeses, including anthotiro, kefalotyri and Feta. They also relished shellfish and fish, both fresh and salt-water. They prepared eggs to make famous omelettes — called sphoungata, i.e. "spongy" — mentioned by Theodore Prodromos. Every household also kept a supply of poultry. Salad was very popular; to the amazement of the Florentines, the Emperor John VIII Palaiologos asked for it at most meals on his visit in 1439. During the Middle Byzantine period, it seems that meat consumption increased while bread consumption decreased.: 159
Byzantine citizens obtained other kinds of meat by hunting animals like deer and wild boar, a favourite and distinguished occupation of men. They usually hunted with dogs and hawks, though sometimes employed trapping, netting, and bird-liming. Larger animals were a more expensive and rare food. Citizens slaughtered pigs at the beginning of winter and provided their families with sausages, salt pork, and lard for the year. Only upper middle and higher Byzantines could afford lamb. They seldom ate beef, as they used cattle to cultivate the fields.
Middle and lower class citizens in cities such as Constantinople and Thessaloniki consumed the offerings of the taverna. The most common form of cooking was boiling, a tendency which sparked a derisive Byzantine maxim—The lazy cook prepares everything by boiling. Garos fermented fish sauce in all its varieties was especially favored as a condiment along with the umami flavoring murri, a fermented barley sauce, which was similar to the modern umami flavoring, the fermented soy product soy sauce. Liutprand of Cremona, the ambassador to Constantinople from Otto I, described being served food covered in an "exceedingly bad fish liquor," a reference to garos.
The two main grains in Byzantine Anatolia were wheat and barley.: 160–1 Barley has a relatively low nutritional value, and in the Byzantine world it was valued less than wheat and sold for a lower price.: 161 Rye, millet, oats, and vetch were primarily cultivated as animal fodder and were not preferred for human consumption.: 161 Millet in particular was not prized by Byzantine authors - Anna Komnene, for example, called it "food of barbarians".: 162 It was used to make gruel and porridge such as trachanas (τραχανάς), and Symeon Seth also mentions poor people eating millet mixed with milk.: 162
Bread played a major part in the Byzantine diet.: 162 The most valued bread was made from "finely sieved" wheat flour with no other grains mixed in.: 162 Besides wheat and barley, bread was made using rye, millet, egg yolks, and chickpeas.: 162 Bulgur was also eaten.: 161
Meat was probably not a luxury food in Byzantine times – most people could afford to eat it relatively often.: 167 If the typikon of the monastery of St. John the Baptist is anything to go by, a typical Byzantine citizen might eat about two and a half pounds of meat in a single day.: 167 The Prodromic poems also describe a cobbler eating meat for four meals in one day: tripe for breakfast, boiled meat for lunch, then meat cooked in wine for the third meal, and finally a hot pot for the fourth.: 167 Fresh meat, however, was mostly eaten by the wealthy, while poorer citizens ate more salted meat.: 167 Dried and salted meat formed was one of the basic rations served to Byzantine soldiers.: 168
In general, the Byzantines seem to have especially liked fatty meat.: 167 Many meat dishes were cooked in large amounts of fat.: 167 Meat from livestock was preferred over game meat.: 167 Meat from young animals was especially preferred.: 167 Diverse animal bones found at Corinth, dated to sometimes after the mid-1200s, indicate that a wide range of meats was eaten during the Late Byzantine period.: 168
The single most common preserved meat was salted pork.: 168 Pork was also used as a source of lard and fat, as well as to make sausages.: 167 Different types of sausages, such as allantia and saltsikia, are mentioned in contemporary texts.: 167 The hagiography of Symeon the Holy Fool also mentions bacon and a type of fried sausage eaten with mustard.: 167 At the archaeological site of Gritille in eastern Turkey, pig bones made up nearly half of the total animal remains, while at other sites it was higher still.: 167 Pork butchers had their own regulatory laws in Section 16 of the Book of the Eparch.: 168
Beef, on the other hand, was less commonly eaten than either pork, sheep, or goat because cattle were mostly used for working in the fields instead.: 167 Meat from adult male goats was considered unappetizing by most Byzantines.: 167
Many different birds were eaten.: 168 The most common, based on animal bone finds at Corinth, was chicken.: 168 Poultry was aged by hanging the bird carcasses up to enhance their taste and texture.: 168
Meat was cooked in a variety of ways. It was either roasted or grilled, or boiled, steamed, and marinated in water with salt and herbs.: 167 Innards were boiled or fried.: 167 The intestines of animals would sometimes be used to make Kokoretsi. Poorer households would also boil the heads and feet of animals.: 167
In some regions, fish and seafood formed another important source of animal protein.: 169 Seafood was especially popular on fast days.: 169 Near the sea or rivers, fresh fish was consumed; farther away, fish was dried, salted, or smoked.: 169 Before being preserved this way, the fish was marinated in water mixed with salt and thyme. Dried fish was eaten by soldiers on expeditions.: 169 Sturgeon was eaten by wealthier households.: 169 Methods of cooking fish included boiling, frying, baking, grilling, and roasting.: 169 Fish was often served with a sauce.: 169 The Prodromic poems also depict an "unusual" dish of a fish stew with cheeses as well as a different dish involving fish seasoned with cloves, cinnamon, and other spices.: 169 Poorer urban households also ate tarichos (τάριχος) – salted, pickled fish sold by grocers instead of fishmongers.: 169
Non-meat animal products like eggs and dairy were relatively cheap and provided an important source of nutrients.: 168 Many different types of eggs were eaten, including chicken, goose, duck, partridge, and pheasant.: 168 They could be scrambled or made into omelettes called sphoungata.: 169 The Prodromic poems mention a dish like this made with onions and other seasonings.: 169 In Byzantine culture, eggs were considered food for people who were sick or fasting.: 168
Cheese, another popular food, was derived from cows, sheep, goats, or water buffalo.: 169 It came in various kinds, both hard and soft.: 169 Paphlagonian cheese was a popular variety eaten in Constantinople.: 169 The Prodromic poems also describe Cretan and Vlach cheese, as well as a kind of soft mountain cheese that probably refers to cottage cheese.: 169 Cheese could also be curdled, using rennet, fig juice and leaves, or artichokes.: 169 It could also be breaded with crumbs or meal and then fried in hot oil.: 169
Byzantine people also drank milk fairly commonly.: 168 It was considered best to drink it warm, so it was often heated.: 168 People would also drink milk straight from the animal.: 168
Fats like butter and lard were used as a substitute for olive oil in colder inland regions that could not support olive tree cultivation. They were also used as preservatives and, especially in rugged inland areas such as the Mecitözü valley, eaten by themselves.: 168
Beehives from Byzantine Greeks allowed citizens to procure and sell honey on a large scale. The use of honey was noted in a variety of cooking, pastry and tea recipes. In 1152 a tax was introduced on beekeeping.
Honey was used as the main sweetener.: 171–2 Cane sugar was also introduced during the Middle Byzantine period, but it was still a luxury product.: 172
Many scholars state that Byzantine koptoplakous (Medieval Greek: κοπτοπλακοῦς) and plakountas tetyromenous are the ancestors of modern baklava and tiropita (börek) respectively. Both variants descended from the ancient Greek Placenta cake.
Macedonia was renowned for its wines, served for upper class Byzantines. During the crusades and after, western Europeans valued costly Byzantine wines. The most famous example is the still extant Commandaria wine from Cyprus served at the wedding of King Richard the Lionheart. Other renowned varieties were Cretan wines from muscat grapes, Romania or Rumney (exported from Methoni in the western Peloponnese), and Malvasia or Malmsey (likely exported from Monemvasia). Retsina, wine flavored with pine resin, was also drunk, as it still is in Greece today, producing similar reactions from unfamiliar visitors, "To add to our calamity the Greek wine, on account of being mixed with pitch, resin, and plaster was to us undrinkable," complained Liutprand of Cremona, who was the ambassador sent to Constantinople in 968 by the German Holy Roman Emperor Otto I.
Archaeological studies in central Anatolia indicate that the average Byzantine peasant household was more or less self-sufficient in food supplies, and their diet would have been relatively well-balanced.: 173 There were sufficient carbohydrates (from bread and grains) and vegetable proteins (from legumes), as well as lower but still sufficient amounts of animal-based proteins.: 173 Vitamins and minerals, derived from seasonal and pickled vegetables, fruits, and nuts, were lower but still "minimally sufficient".: 173 This diet would have been relatively high in fiber but low in things like calcium, vitamin B12, and folic acid.: 173
Food preservation was seen as a necessity in the Byzantine empire to create surplus and maintain freshness for foods crossing trade routes. Methods of food preservation include smoking, pressing, salting, drying and sealing contents in dry areas. Both nuts and fruits were sun dried. Alcohol and smoke were used to disinfectant products so bacteria wouldn’t grow and cause rot.
While Byzantine pottery found at excavations in Boeotia was decorated with innovative techniques and designs that combined elements from local culture and Islamic art, the shape and function of tablewares remained simple - jugs were uncommon, and the wide, shallow bowls and dishes were too porous to use as drinking vessels or for watery soups or stews.
The personal table fork is suspected to have been invented in the Byzantine Empire where they were commonly used by the 4th century.
By the 13th-century, the previous style of dishes was replaced by bowls that were deeper and narrower, suitable as vessels for liquids, stews or beverages. Stylized and geometric floral patterns became more common than the animal and human figures of earlier tableware and the quality of lead glaze was dramatically improved over the coarse and non-durable, soft tableware of previous centuries.
The extent to which changes in tableware were a result of changes in the style of foods consumed in Boetia is a matter of further study. Because written sources are lacking, scholars have taken into consideration the visual evidence depicted on pottery, medieval icons, and Ottoman miniatures, noting differences in the dining culture represented on 11th and 14th century Byzantine frescoes and miniatures. The fresco of the Last Supper at the crypt of Hosios Loukas shows a single large communal plate at the center of the table, with two communal cups, one on either side of the plate. Jesus and the twelve apostles presumably ate with their hands, as no forks or other utensils are shown.
Some scholars believe the dishes in the fresco may be symbolic rather than representations of historical dining habits. Fish are shown in the plate, but research on early Christian culture has not found evidence of a Fish Eucharist. A similar pattern of a large communal plate with two communal cups is depicted in 11th-century miniatures, one from a Byzantine manuscript (now in Paris) that shows The feast of Herod and Jesus sitting in the house of Simon the leper, and another showing several diners reaching into the communal plate with their hands. The Last Supper fresco at the Dochiariou monastery of Mount Athos from the 14th-century depicts food served in multiple bowls, with wine jugs, and beakers, individual bread rolls, and shared dishes and knives. There is archaeological evidence supporting the assertions that knives were used as culinary utensils at in 14th-century from excavations of medieval Panakton.
Based on studies of middle and lower class household goods, Nikolaos Oikonomides concluded that the average Byzantine household "often, if not always, ate with their fingers from a large serving plate and drank from a common cup or jar (made of clay).
Scholarly opinion on what the average Byzantine citizen ate is divided.: 158 Some, such as John L. Teall, Alexander Kazhdan, and Giles Constable, suggested that "the average Byzantine was undernourished, consuming only bread, vegetables, and wine, but rarely meat or fish".: 158 Joanita Vroom, on the other hand, suggested that a much wider range of foods were available to the average Byzantine.: 158 Grains, pulses, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, fish and meat, wine, olive oil, and honey were all part of the typical Byzantine diet according to her.: 158
Οι Βυζαντινοί μεταχειρίζονταν τα λεπτά έντερα των αιγοπροβάτων όπως περίπου και οι σημερινοί Έλληνες όταν παρασκευάζουν κοκορέτσι· ονομάζονταν χορδαί ή χορδία (ή κόρδα στην βόρεια Πελοπόννησο) και με μια απλή διαδικασία αναστρέφονταν με την βοήθεια ενός μικρού ξύλου για να καθαριστούν. Τυλίγονταν στην συνέχεια σε πλεξούδες, με το ανάλογο σχήμα, ή γύρω από άλλα εντόσθια σε σούβλα, όπως το κοκορέτσι. Άλλες ονομασίες που εντοπίζονται σε μεσαιωνικά κείμενα είναι τα γαρδούμενον και γαρδούμιον, που θυμίζουν την ονομασία γαρδούμπα.