The Weight of Alexander the Great’s Expansion on Today’s Culinary Culture
Alexander the Great may be mostly remembered for his military conquests, but his impact on modern gastronomy has gone largely unnoticed. In Part One of a three-part series, the Millennial Agora examines the effects of these ancient military campaigns on modern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking.
Alexander the Great: according to some an undisputed genius of military policy and diplomacy, while according to others simply a violent tyrant with great skill in deceit.
Whichever one's position towards the historical facts and the personage in question, we cannot deny that the cultural importance of these conquests led to the creation of a first great "globalization": however, here we want to stop on a mistreated aspect of this revolution and cultural union: the gastronomy. The fulcrum, especially in ancient times, of social relationships between people and countries.
The evolution of customs, flavors and rituals that link food to the sacred and divine, had an enormous upheaval during and after the conquests of the young Macedonian king. In this article, and in the next issues, we will try to retrace the march and the journey that brought the foundations of a new common cultural identity and, indeed, to the birth of new flavors and gastronomic influences.
The first leg of the journey to one of the three macro cultures we will be analyzing, concerns Persia and its ancient and contemporary culture, and whose borders do not match equally with today’s Iran.
In 334 BC. Alexander crossed the Hellespont and marched towards victory over Darius III and the conquest of the Persian Empire, following the shores of present-day Turkey and continuing southward.
Despite the fact that his initial journey took place close to the sea (in order to have the support of his fleet) Alexander never had maritime control, making supplies by sea problematic. This led to the emergence of new military figures, such as senior officers of the baggage trains, whose task was the management of the transport of the materials of the initial supply: such as salt (despite the accurate territorial studies before the march, the presence of salt was never certain despite the various lands which had moisture from the sea), various types of red wine, an initial supply of cereals, nuts and fruit (such as figs), honey, spices (such as saffron), and especially the stocks of what today could be called a superfood, sea buckthorn.
After a year of wars and sieges, due to the battle of Isso in 333 BC, the Persian Empire found itself on its knees and decimated of important territories, which welcomed Alexander as a liberator and not as a conqueror.
Supplies for Alexander and his army were no longer a problem: the conquered territories allowed him the necessary supplies to continue the conquests and the consolidation of the new rising empire, without having to rely on the Greek territories and the western capitals: it was in this period that the real cultural marriage between the ancient western and eastern world began.
The first meeting with Persian gastronomic culture and convivial customs was one of great detachment: in fact, when Alexander entered the doors of the royal palace of Persepolis and saw the dining rooms and representations of banquets on the walls, he attributed the taste for luxury to the origin of their decadence.
But even before the Alexandrian campaigns, during the second Persian war, the general Pausanias marveled at discovering the eating habits of the opposing generals and uttered the following words "he who has so much, comes to rob the Greeks of their miserable life".
To the Persians the act of feeding had much more magnificence and luxury than the Greeks. The majesty and the long duration of their banquets were the right theater for the refinement of their food.
A strong presence of meat and fish often cooked slowly, with added aromas (like our stews), exotic fruits that enriched breads and sweets, delicate sauces prepared by the best cooks of the empire, spices imported from nearby India and rice as an accompaniment to the main dishes. All of this made the Persian Empire the most gastronomically evolved civilization. Greek culture instead was much more rigid and crude about food and nutrition: it had to be a side dish to symposiums and was seen almost exclusively as sustenance for the daily life of the people.
So why were two different worlds so fundamental in the development of future gastronomy?
Just because of the radical differences between the two culinary worlds, the clash between them led to a sudden opening of borders in terms of gastronomy, with an exchange of customs, habits and matters between the two people.
Rice was imported in the western world thanks to the conquest campaigns of the Macedonian king: in the Persian world it had a central role in the daily nutrition, in fact the main dishes of royal banquets and more, were based on flavored and spiced rice served with meat stews.
The use and consumption of dates, despite the fact their name comes from the Greek word for finger, because of their elongated shape, was not well known in the Greek world: it is even said that Alexander the Great's army, during a rest, tasted the fruit of the palm and choked causing the laughter of the Persian inhabitants.
Another important point was the reciprocal exchange of sauces: Greeks taught the Persian world the complexity of sauces made of fish and its eggs which were used with many dishes.
On the contrary, the culture of sweet and sour taste, characteristic of Persian influenced countries, made the opposite journey, entering Greek kitchens and enriching fried fish and vegetables.
The mastery of grilled cooking of the Greek world together with the knowledge of marinades in spices of Persian cooks led to the birth of one of the most famous street foods in the world: kebab.
Moreover, in the Persian and Greek gastronomic culture there was another great difference, the actual organization of the meal.
In Greece, the meal had a shorter duration than in the western empire, even paradoxically in banquets, famous for their long duration, food, paired with wine was as a continuation of the rest of the social ritual.
Persians, after having indulged in the pleasure of the main dish, often salty, began a real and proper tasting of sweets and small bowls of fruits which were therefore the main part of the dishes offered.
The vision of sweets in Greece, instead, was defined as a delicacy at the end of the meal and not as an essential tasting for socializing.
On the duration of the act of eating, Persians said about Greeks that "they stop eating while they are still hungry because after the meal, they are not served any food of value". Also, within the banquet we must point out that despite their magnificence and passion for luxury the Persians learned one of the things that we still see lacking in social gatherings around the world today: education.
The behavior of Persians and especially of the higher social classes during banquets often became violent; the habit of not drinking watered down wine often led to annoying behaviors, especially towards the king's women, who were harassed by drunk diners.
Thus, with the arrival of Greeks, strangely defined as uncouth, the figure of the symposiarch, a person appointed by the king or master of the house with the task of controlling the flow of wine and the behavior of diners, was introduced.
What can be deduced through the study of this fusion of cultures?
Every time we follow a stereotype, even today, we risk distorting the true reality of the facts: the Persians rethought their attitudes when they saw that the Greek world was not as coarse and superficial as they thought.
And the Greeks? We can only imagine the incredulity in their eyes, when they realized that despite what they thought, Persia was a land of deep culture and knowledge, and not just barbarians.
We can therefore continue to define Alexander the Great as a tyrant and a conqueror, but it is inevitable not to clash with reality: the term "globalization" finds in his deeds the first great and ancient definition.