A Physician’s Feast

Posted on 15 July 2009 by


Galen was an Ancient Greek physician who lived around 129-210 AD. His descriptions of anatomy were used up until the sixteenth century (the time of Galileo) even though he only dissected animals and not humans, which lead to some errors in his work. His anatomy focused on the humours, or fluids, that permeated the body. His studies of food and diet also focused on balancing these four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. The only humour you want to stimulate routinely is blood, so foods that were supposed to do this, such as wine, were particularly healthy according to Galen.


Galen’s theories were put to the test at the Physician’s Feast cooking class. The menu for the day used ingredients common in Ancient Greece, which were prepared according to Galen’s theories of balance. The instructor was David Tsirekas, a modern Greek chef from Perama Restaurant, who has a keen interest in Ancient Greece. He and Renée the archaeologist told us about Galen’s experience as a physician to gladiators at Pergamon. There Galen learnt the value of beans and pork for putting flesh on the body.


The other property of beans he found was that they promoted flatulence, so he developed methods for reducing this. Galen believed the properties of foods could be transferred during processes such as boiling, so he recommended boiling your legumes in three changes of water. This would make the beans less flatulent and you could make a more dilute digestive tonic from the water. We had our triple-boiled chickpeas with grated cheese, olive oil and parsley. Galen favoured chickpeas for being less flatulent than beans and for their power to generate semen and stimulate the sexual urge.


Beetroots and leeks have a cold property, so according to Galen’s balance they should be served with something warming. We had ours with mustard. The leeks served with our beets are not recommended for the bilious due to their bitter properties, but Galen suggests they are helpful in reducing phlegm. We also had a lettuce salad, which is supposed to be very healthy and stimulate the blood. Cabbage is a drying food which we served seasoned with pepper, olive oil and fish sauce. Fish sauce isn’t used in modern Greek cooking, but in Ancient Athens it was an essential flavour. In addition fish was often salted as a means of preservation.


David showed us how to salt fish in brine so salty that an egg will bob on its surface. After three days, and three changes of brine, the fish can be stored under olive oil. David gave us some of his father’s salted tuna, which had a strong salty flavour. You needed to eat it with the vegetables to balance the salt.


Wheat bread was another food Galen favoured, especially over the barley bread that was eaten by the lower classes. He probably became more familiar with high class food during his later years when he was personal physician to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Rome. We made white bread using David’s recipe from Brittany. It called for fresh yeast and 00 flour (the finest grind). The high gluten content made the dough remarkably elastic, which made the kneading a wonderfully noisy event as the dough was thrown and slapped around.


Eggs were another favourite food of Galen’s, and he believed they were healthier when cooked to a medium consistency rather than hard boiled. Poached eggs were meant to be the healthiest of all, and were traditionally cooked in three legged pots. For the quantities we needed they were cooked in muffin pans in a water bath. It was so large that it balanced over all four burners of a gas stove. Seasoned with olive oil, fish sauce and red wine, our eggs took on a beautiful purple tinge around the edges.


I don’t know if these Galen-style poached eggs are really particularly healthy, but they are particularly delicious. As David deftly removed them from their moulds onto a platter he let us in on a secret. You don’t need a recipe by a celebrity chef to make a special dish – those Ancient Greeks knew a delicacy when they tasted one.


The Physician’s Feast cooking class was organised by the Sydney Friends of the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens.

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