28

According to what I know almost all countries in the Mediterranean which surround Greece use a lot of spices in their cuisine. Greece itself has been occupied by such countries for hundreds of years. There has always been trade and travel between Greece and the other countries. So how come spices aren't being used that much at all?

Compared to say, Turkey, or Italy, Greek food is not spicy at all. I am not saying this is a bad thing, or that it is bland - I just find it curious that over the millennia no significant use of spices has developed like it did in Italy, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria. Out of those countries most use a lot of spices including capsicums, and the few ones that don't, still use a lot of spices (like say Syria).

It's known that even in antiquity spices were known in Greece and used for medical reasons. This makes it even more curious. Are there any historical reasons for that perhaps?

Thanks.

8
  • 2
    Welcome to SA! "Why" questions are difficult to answer definitively, so be aware that this question may be closed due to being "opinion-based". That said, I'll give you something to think about.
    – FuzzyChef
    Aug 30, 2022 at 17:53
  • 10
    Also: you seem vague about what you mean by "spices". Different parts of your question seem to be referring to the common usage (dried seeds), but other parts refer to herbs and even peppers. Please be clearer on what you're asking for. thanks!
    – FuzzyChef
    Aug 30, 2022 at 18:14
  • 2
    Well, clearly I liked the question. But ... it can be difficult to ever have a definitive answer to "why not", and SE is all about definitive answers.
    – FuzzyChef
    Aug 30, 2022 at 20:22
  • 7
    You mention specifically capsicums - note that those are native to Middle and South America and were unknown in Europe before the Columbian Exchange Aug 31, 2022 at 13:00
  • 15
    Not sure why you think Greek cuisine is less reliant on spices than Italian - I think it's much more reliant on spices. Staples like Moussaka, Pasticcio, Stifado and ground-meat based pasta sauces generally use some or all of cinnamon, clove, allspice and nutmeg quite heavily - I don't think that similar Italian dishes tend to.
    – barneypitt
    Aug 31, 2022 at 15:17

2 Answers 2

66

The question of "why not" is difficult to answer definitively, or really at all. We can't ask folks 2000 years ago why they didn't care about cumin. However, there are some historical impacts on Greek cuisine that bear on this, so let's explore them:

  1. You mention Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon as Greek neighbors. But consider that Greece is also historically next to Austria, and currently next to Romania and Bulgaria, and is closer to Slovakia than it is to Lebanon. So if you look at Greece as being midway between Syria and Kosovo, the frequency of spice use also puts it midway.

  2. Greek cuisine doesn't rely heavily on spices partly because it does rely heavily on herbs and alliums. Because of the climate, onions, garlic, leeks, parsley, dill, oregano, thyme, and others grow readily and plentifully all over the islands and peninsulas. So do citrus, also used for seasoning Greek dishes. Many Greek dishes will have onions, garlic, lemon, and as much as 2 cups of minced herbs in them. Given this, one can see why Greek cooks didn't feel the need to add two teaspoons of cumin and dried peppers as well. Italy, having a similar climate, largely takes a similar approach.

  3. One place where Greek spice usage is on a parallel with Syria is in sweets. The palette of spices used for Greek pastries, cookies, and cakes is as great as -- and extremely similar to -- the ones used in the Middle East. This is undoubtedly because most places in the region got their sweet recipes from the Persian and Ottoman empires, so they're really the same recipes.

  4. Greece, like other ancient regions, includes multiple cuisines. Some of these use more spices than others, particularly Thrace.

Note that above I'm using the term "spices" to refer to its accepted use, of "aromatic seeds, stems, and bark".

16
  • 15
    Excellent answer and distinction of spices and herbs. As I read the OP my first reaction was “because they use a ton of herbs.” To add to your list of flavor-adding ingredients abundant in Greek cuisine: olives.
    – Damila
    Aug 30, 2022 at 19:16
  • 6
    @cheater herbs don’t preclude spices but it makes them less necessary and also in certain combinations can lead to muddling of flavors and of the spice overpowering the herbs. Not always of course. But I defer to the professional chefs!
    – Damila
    Aug 31, 2022 at 5:13
  • 6
    For comparison: I grow many aromatic herbs in my garden in the summer. I find that, in summer, use a LOT less dried spices, because I'm putting herbs into everything.
    – FuzzyChef
    Aug 31, 2022 at 5:24
  • 4
    @FluidCode you are using the term "spices" imprecisely. Calabria doesn't use spices, they use peppers.
    – FuzzyChef
    Aug 31, 2022 at 17:30
  • 7
    Alexander the Great is about as relevant to modern Greek cuisine as he is to modern Polynesian cuisine, which is to say, not even a little bit. Keep in mind that things that are considered "traditional" as in "we've always done it this way" rarely go back even a century, maybe a century and a half.
    – Marti
    Sep 2, 2022 at 17:09
4

My hearsay answer to this is what I learned growing up in Greece (it might be totally wrong): use of hot spices is way more common in cultures living in hotter climates, and it has to do with something like food preservation, or hiding the loss of good taste in the time period when the food is still safe to eat, which would occur much faster in a climate hotter than ours. So, the short answer I learned from my mom and grandma is "we don't need it", but hots (mostly in form of hot peppers, think of the Mediterranean version of jalapeno) were "contained" to certain foods if someone has the taste for them. And in general, they come with a warning that "too much spice (meaning hot) is bad for your stomach". Sweet spices (e.g. cinnamon, nutmeg) are used in abundance for desserts.
One thing to remember also is availability, especially a few centuries ago. At least for the common folk, it's hard to make a case for expensive things that are grown an ocean away, when you have an abundance of herb bushes growing wild in your backyard - so I would certainly make a distinction between spices are native to the Mediterranean (e.g. saffron, coriander) vs things like allspice. And if you want something to overwhelm the taste, garlic does the trick very easily in (non-Americanized) Greek cuisine.

0

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.