Let food be thy medicine. So spoke the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, whose oath to “do no harm” hangs in doctors’ offices the world over. I’ve been living in the land that gave birth to such notions for almost 20 years now and have experienced the transformation of Greek cuisine from its simple peasant roots, the product of what was, until very recently, an agrarian society, to its foam-and-gel stage. The literal hawking of hot air to a nation consumed with the trappings of nouveau non-riches had the Greek food press purring with approval for many years. The bubble, of course, finally burst. Now, food writers in the Greek capital are waxing poetic about the virtues of lentils in a country that has found itself newly poor. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Traditional Greek cuisine (as in simple dishes based mainly on plants) could — should — be the country’s most effective goodwill ambassador. If I could have the ear of a Greek politician, I’d say, battle all the negative press about the country’s corruption, civil unrest and financial devastation by paying a good public relations company to tout what’s good here. There is a lot. The generosity of spirit evidenced in every Greek home (one reason Greeks have done so well in the hospitality industry abroad) runs deep. The weather (Greeks didn’t make that, but it shaped their appetite for life) is near perfect most of the time. The country’s natural beauty is awe-inspiring. And the food, unlike a country’s spirit or sunshine, is easy to export and easy to share.
Greek food is one of the healthiest on the planet, arguably the healthiest, according to a recent CNN report on the world’s most beneficial ethnic cuisines. Another study, published in the December issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition contends that eating like a Greek can have positive effects on cognitive abilities as we age.
Greece’s Blue Zone: Higher longevity rates in Ikaria
The traditional Greek diet is convivial and meant to sate our hunger for friendship, conversation and sharing, as well as our physical appetite. Greek food is the mother of the Mediterranean Diet: Greece is the place where those famous studies that connected diet with heart disease first took place. The country even has a Blue Zone, where the longevity rates are so high they defy statistics. Greece’s Blue Zone is centered on the island of Ikaria, which happens to be the home of my own family’s roots. In the Blue Zones, diet and low stress are keys to a long life. In Greece, indeed in the wider Mediterranean, many people, especially in small towns and villages, still live by a culinary mantra that embraces a “nothing in excess” mentality. This with no sense of deprivation.
To the contrary. Food is still indelibly linked to the slow-paced, deliberate way of life in the Greek countryside. Seasonality and cultural and religious practices have helped shape the diet. There is a reason, which often has to do with the tenets of fasting, for eating certain things on certain days. Friday was and still is the fish day in many homes. Many of the fish that Greeks love are the oily, fatty-acid filled species, such as sardines, anchovies and mackerels. Today, these fish are even more popular because, ironically, they are less expensive than species such as bass and grouper. Beans play a seminal role, too, in the Greek diet, and traditionally were reserved for Wednesdays. Only on Sunday, if at all, was the center of the plate some kind of animal protein, and it was often stewed with a mountain of vegetables, as a way to help stretch the meal. A salad accompanies every meal, followed by fresh fruit, not dessert.
Following such a regimen (and slowing down) seems to have a positive effect on our health. Dr. Esther Sternberg, a medical research physician and author of “Healing Spaces,” told me she was “healed” of her own stress-induced arthritis after spending 10 days in a small village in southern Crete, during which time she changed her diet to what the locals ate, swam, participated in the village social life — which basically meant long, leisurely meals shared with others — and set aside time every day for “mindful meditation” in the local chapel, which she reached by walking up a steep hill. “All the things I was doing were very healthy. The olive oil, so much of it. I discovered through a colleague at the Monell institute that olive oil contains the same anti-inflammatory chemical that is in ibuprofen. Maybe I was healed because I was getting the anti-inflammatories that I needed.” When she returned to Washington, D.C., where she lives and works, she adopted the habits of those Cretan villagers and says that to date the arthritis has not recurred.
Greek food is rich in the good stuff on the lower end of the food chain; the cuisine is filled with countless main course vegetable and bean dishes, something that distinguishes it from other cuisines in the Mediterranean. For a traditional Greek home cook, a pot of spinach or leek or cabbage pilaf is dinner, not a side for a steak. These dishes are generally easy, the kind of food that evolved in a culture where women, especially in rural communities, had to find time to cook between rearing children and tending to goats and gardens. Many of these dishes come in two versions, with and without meat (fasting and non-fasting alternatives). The latter, however, usually means adding a small amount of meat as a way to stretch an expensive ingredient — less animal protein and more vegetables and grains, exactly the kind of rebalancing Americans are just starting to embrace.
Learning from Greek village home cooks
I have observed the wisdom of tradition-bound village home cooks and seen how easy it is to co-opt many of their food habits and simple ways, regardless of where or how you live. Theirs is the Greek food that can save the world!
A village home cook might not be able to explain why custom dictates that fava, a yellow split pea puree that requires little more than emptying the contents of a bag into a pot of water and boiling, be dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and capers. But a careful look at the nutrients in this one-step, inexpensive dish reveals it to be an “antioxidant bomb,” as Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou, Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Nutrition in Athens, explained.
I have often wondered why so many traditional Greek dishes make us feel good after eating them. It turns out that the combinations of ingredients in many of these recipes have a symbiotic relationship and a beneficial effect on our bodies. That’s what Greek-American dietician, Helen Paravantes, with whom I have worked in Athens, told me. A spinach and rice pilaf, for example, is almost a complete meal when accompanied by a small piece of feta. Spinach is an excellent source of beta-carotene, folic acid and vitamin K, and one bowl of this Greek classic provides 100 percent of the daily requirement for these three nutrients, I was pleasantly surprised to learn. Spinach contains more than 13 different types of flavonoids, substances that spark anti-cancer and antioxidant activity. When you squeeze lemon on it, as the Greeks do, you help your body to absorb the leaves’ iron.
Another classic dish, roasted lamb and oven-baked potatoes, might seem like one more in the litany of basic meat-and-potato medleys, but the condiments Greeks use make the difference: Oregano has one of the highest levels of antioxidants of any food; lemon is rich in vitamin C and antioxidants; garlic, with which the lamb is stuffed profusely, contains over 100 sulfur compounds including allicin, which helps fight off infections. Allicin is also known to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure. So, even Greece’s most iconic dish, an ordinary meal at first glance, is a nutrition powerhouse. The famed Greek salad, is also filled with protective antioxidants, from the lycopene-rich tomatoes to the oregano. Feta cheese, de rigueur in the salad, is one of the lower fat Greek cheeses as it has a high water content. Its robust flavor means you don’t have to use a lot. Every single one of the traditional dishes I asked Helen Paravantes to analyze was filled with nutritional bounty.
“The entire Greek village lifestyle, the diet filled with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, gentle exercise and meditation significantly increase the enzymes that repair our chromosomes,” says Dr. Sternberg, explaining how chronic stress speeds up the aging process by fraying the ends of our chromosomes.
Greeks themselves could benefit from traditional foods
Despite all the wisdom in so many Greek foods, over the last decade and a half Greeks have turned their backs on their traditions in favor of the culinary equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. Today, as reported in a recent issue of Kathimerini, one of the main Greek newspapers, Greeks have the dubious honor of being Europe’s biggest smokers and having its biggest children — child obesity is higher in the cradle of democracy than anywhere else in the EU.
Yet the country’s wealth of simple foods and excellent raw ingredients could — should — be its recipe for salvation, both at home and abroad. The seasonal, mainly vegetarian fare of the traditional Greek table, so rife with nutritional value, could also save the world, or at least the West, from the perils of obesity-related disease. If there were a Greek salad, a spinach pilaf topped with feta, or a bowl of Greek bean soup drizzled with extra virgin (Greek) olive oil on every fast-casual menu in the U.S., the country would be one step closer to eliminating the diet-related diseases that threaten lives as well as the economy — the national cost of treating diabetes and heart disease alone is astronomical.
The Greeks’ delicious diet of vegetables, greens, beans, whole grains, a little feta, yogurt, honey, sun-soaked fruits and olive oil should be the goodwill ambassadors sent marching to save the West from, well, itself! Greece is at a devastating financial low right now, but we are rich in nutritional potential. Come on, Greece, where’s that public relations campaign? I can see it now … Eat Like the Greeks … Live Like the Gods.
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.