Culinary Herbs Used In Ancient Times
Not So Modern Herbs
The herbs of today are not much different than the herbs of ancient civilizations. In fact, the herbs gathered and used in meal planning, medicine, soaps, etc. hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, are also the one and the same used today. Some plants that are now considered pests or weeds were commonly harvested to be used in medicines and soaps. That dandelion that keeps popping up in the yard is the same dandelion that aided in digestion, lowering fevers, and some even made it into wine! Grab a glass of dandelion wine and relax as this article visits the history of ancient herbs.
Some of the most flavorful foods come from Greece. Some American restaurants come close when they serve Gyros or Moussaka, but the restaurants one will have the best experience of tasting Greek cuisine are those that are owned and operated by those of Greek descent. The Tzatziki is so flavorful, and the olives are like no other! There is no explaining how it becomes an explosion of flavor in the mouth other than families sharing the knowledge of which herbs to use with which dish. In Greece, herbs grow naturally everywhere. One does not necessarily need to have an herb garden in Greece to benefit from the plants. It is not uncommon to see people strolling around with a bag and knife, pruning and harvesting the herbs during their evening walk. The air in Greece is even flavored by the aromatic herbs naturally growing and the regular snipping of these herbs by passersby.
Probably the most common herb that is used today that was used in Ancient Greece is Oregano (greekerthanthegreeks.com). Today it adds strength and flavor to Italian and Greek dishes, but in Ancient Greece, it was believed to be multifaceted. Not only did it add flavor to stews, soups meat, fish, and salads, the Ancient Greeks planted it near their homes as a symbolism of joy and to be the recipients of good health and luck! Oregano gave blooming flowers a run for their money with its alluring aroma.
Marjoram being a cousin to oregano, was another favorite of the Greeks. Sprinkled in stews, soups, on meats and fish, this herb added a delicateness that oregano lacked. The lighter flavor is a go-to for those that have a more sensitive palette or those desiring a less earthy flavor than what oregano offers. As with oregano, marjoram was utilized for more than simply cooking. When a loved one died, marjoram was placed on their grave as a symbolism of happiness and peace for those lost.
Dill and the Greeks
Dill today is used to pickle and to add a slight of bite of flavor to dishes. Aside from adding dill to Spanokopita or spinach pie, the Ancient Greeks believed that dill was a sign of wealth (herbexpert.co.uk). Today stopping at nearly any sandwich shop or restaurant, one typically has a dill pickle on the side of their dish alongside their lunch for the day. Imagine what the Ancient Greeks would think if they saw how much dill is being used today!
One thing that the Greeks have an abundance of, is their mythology. Herbs have found their way into mythology in the form of a water nymph by the name of Minthe. Hades, who is well known as the God of the underworld, had his eyes turned from his wife, Persephone by Minthe. One should understand that if there is a God of the underworld and that God is married, it would take a very strong, independent and most likely vengeful person to hold and maintain that position. The myth goes on to say that when Persephone was made aware of the attention Minthe was receiving from Hades, she turned Minthe into an herb! Minthe may not have been impressive to Persephone, but as an herb mint is a popular additive to many sweet treats. Not only is mint used in foods to add a menthol type flavor, it is also useful in teas for digestion, sore throats, coughs and headaches.
An ancient herb that the Ancient Greeks continue to use today that is not popularly known around the world is Sideritis. Sideritis is more commonly known as ironwort and is the primary ingredient in the popular Greek Mountain Tea. This herbal tea is very popular in Greece and goes by many names such as malotira on Crete, Olympus tea and Parnassos teas in other regions of Greece. Packed with antioxidants Greek Mountain Tea or Shepherd’s tea is a valuable tool in fighting a fever (thespruceeats.com).
When In Rome
They say “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, right? Ancient Rome had some of the most gorgeous herb gardens. Between the pergolas and the alcoves, a Roman garden was like no other especially when compared to gardens of today. Statues decorated the wide pathways or pools in some cases. Gardens were extremely lavish compared to todays standards. With mosaic patterns, one could easily become lost wandering through and allowing all five senses free reign. Today’s gardener can’t afford the luxury of a Roman herb garden. Rather than pathways of tile and marble statues, herb gardens today are cultivated in containers of plastic, wheelbarrows, even old boots turned planter. Today’s gardener works with what they have and can afford.
Sage and Savory
Ancient Greeks weren’t the only ones using herbs for more than seasoning. The Ancient Romans didn’t have electricity and were forced to become clever in discovering ways to keep food from spoilage. Sage and savory were used to preserve meats (gardeningknowhow.com). One would be accurate in concluding that this is probably where the marinades and rubs of today originated from. Imagine how tasty a roast would be after spending several days wrapped in sage or savory! Trees also offered up a few options for the Ancient Romans. Plantains were more than a strange looking and tasting banana. They were used to treat wounds, heart problems and gout by the Ancient Romans.
Thyme, not to be mistaken with “time”, is another popular herb among the ancients. Today it is used as an aromatic boost of flavor to roasts, soups and stews. The Italians include it in spaghetti and pizza sauces (spiceography.com). The Ancient Romans would not only cook with it, but they would also bathe in it, specifically before a battle. One would guess they would prefer to bathe with thyme rather than treat wounds with plantains!
It wasn’t that long ago that parsley started making its way into foods rather than on the side of plates as a garnish. Ancient Romans would place a sprig of parsley on a cooked dish as garnish and then be done with it. Rarely was this herb consumed. It has been in more recent times that people have started adding parsley into rather than alongside the completed dishes. The earthy taste it adds to pasta with olive oil and garlic is what sweet dreams are made of!
Cumin has a very stable position in the world of chili, tacos, some stews and soups. Cumin has been around for thousands of years. Initially from the Mediterranean, cumin was brought over to the United States by the Portuguese and Spaniards. Today cumin can be found growing all over the world, including China Egypt, Mexico and India (spiceography.com). This herb has earned its own separate section in this article rather than being grouped in with Greece and Rome due to its profound history as well as for the incredible health benefits one can benefit from by using cumin in the kitchen.
The Greeks kept cumin as a staple as people do with salt and pepper today, the Moroccans continue to keep to this tradition today. This earthy herb has some heat to it, better described as warmth as it is not as strong as chili peppers. Cumin is of the parsley family and starts life as a seed from the Suminum cyminum herb. Commonly used in ethnic foods, cumin has a flavor all its own. There is no mistaking the pungent scent and flavor of cumin.
Cumin can trace its lineage throughout history. It has been mentioned in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, making it probably the oldest known herb. In an archaeological site in Syria, cumin seeds have been uncovered and dated back to the second millennium BC. The Egyptians even found use outside of cooking for cumin as they used it in mummifications as a preservative.
The flavor of cumin is unique as well as are the health benefits. Cumin is the only spice that contains impressively high concentration levels of vitamins and minerals. Boasting vitamins Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin E, and minerals such as Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc, Phosphorous and Manganese, cumin can aid in relieving respiratory disorders such as asthma, bronchitis, as well as anemia, insomnia, skin disorders, even Cancer! Cumin is a powerful tool to have in an arsenal against the common cold. As a natural antioxidant, cumin helps to boost the immune system and fight against infections.
Cumin is that ingredient in tacos, Mexican and Indian food that quickly recognized when first tasted. As mentioned previously, it does have a very unique flavor. Some folks do not care for the flavor of cumin even going so far as to say the flavor reminds them of the scent of household cleaners; the health benefits of consuming cumin may be too hard to turn down even if the flavor is anything but desirable for some. This spice may be purchased as a capsule to benefit from all it has to offer rather than having it in food and risk not enjoying a meal. Though, some folks enjoy the taste of cumin and add it to everything from water to desserts. However cumin is consumed, one can’t go wrong by adding it to their daily routine.
Bringing It Altogether
Herbs are everywhere and they have been around since the beginning of time. If it can be planted and grown now, it is a safe bet that it was grown in ancient times. Ancient Greeks and Romans benefited from herbs beyond the culinary. With beliefs of mystical power, being included in Greek Mythology, and simply having impressive health benefits and adding to the flavor of favorite foods, there is much to be learned by researching the herbs used today. There are so many other herbs that have not been included in this article, such as rosemary and basil (nicknamed the King of Herbs!) that hail from ancient times as well. Though these days, most people purchase their herbs at a grocery store the most flavorful and satisfying flavors come from those grown at home. When herbs are grown at home, the step of mechanical processing is skipped, and the joy of fresh food is earned.