Published: April 2009
There’s no doubt that gastronomy is a part of every local culture since it crystallizes its technology, economy, ecology and history. Thus comparing the history of cooking, in this case of Greece and China, helps us understand each culture as well as the links between them.
In the case of ancient Greece, Byzantium, and ancient China, research harbors a surprise: deep-rooted similarities in concepts as well as flavors and cooking techniques. These similarities cannot be explained as neither coincidence nor as mutual influence. Of course, from the Byzantine Empire and later there is more frequent contact between the peoples of Greece and China-as earlier contact was most likely indirect-although some historians mention the possibility that Alexander the Great’s troops may have reached as far as eastern China’s provinces, while other historians make reference to Chinese seamen sailing around the African continent. Nonetheless, what I tell students at the cooking school where I teach, is that if they wish to taste ancient Greek cuisine, they must try Chinese cuisine. In the case of Greek food, much has changed since antiquity and Byzantine times; China seems to have more strictly guarded its traditions.
When studying the gastronomy of both cultures, what’s most impressive is the complete correspondence between the Hippocratic canons that “we are what we eat” and “food is your cure” and the Chinese belief that one finds physical harmony by balancing yin and yang in food.
As far as flavors are concerned, the combination of sweet-and-sour is definitely an ancient habit. While this has been preserved in Chinese gastronomy, one has to delve deeper into Greek culinary traditions to discover dishes like pork with quince, boiled goat with honey, fish savory with vinegar and honey or grape syrup (petimezi), lamb with damson plums, pumpkin pie with savory cheese and raisins. The similarities are endless, from the use of covered cooking dishes (Dutch ovens), meze (small portions for nibbling) as a meal, and the serving of many different dishes at the table to the use of fruit in cooking.
Vast China has an infinite variety of dishes and diverse culinary tradition to offer, while Greece has a similar range from antiquity and Byzantine times. I do, however, regret that one element-still found in China-has eclipsed in Greece: the combination of meat with seafood, as mentioned by Athinaios in the Deipnosophists.
(Taken from the Preface by Alexandros Yotis)