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  • Giorgio Pintzas Monzani

The Weight of Alexander the Great's Expansion on Today’s Culinary Culture: Part 3

The final part of our trilogy on the culinary weight of Alexander the Great's expansion focuses on the common cultural ties between Europe and the Indian subcontinent, including the use of spices and rice.

One of the most expensive spices in the world, saffron was brought to the the West by Alexander. (Photo: Healthline)

The evolution of customs, flavors and rituals linking food to the sacred and divine underwent enormous upheaval during and after the conquests of Alexander the Great. In this article we continue to retrace the march and the journey that brought the foundations of a new common cultural identity and, indeed, the birth of new flavors and gastronomic influences. The stage which concludes our journey probably contains the most revolutionary, and at the same time mysterious, part of that historical period: the union between Greeks and the people of the Indian subcontinent. This fusion led to the birth of a new empire, which today is relatively unknown, but which gave birth to revolutionary religions, thoughts, and art forms: the Indo-Greek Empire. Alexander, by now King of the Kings of Persia,had reached the fundamental goal of his journey, the total conquest of the Achaemenid Empire. Nevertheless, the desire to reach the most remote point of the then-known world was what gave rise to the Macedonian king's Indian campaign in 326 BC. This expedition had the extraordinary characteristic of being no longer formed by exclusively Greek military forces, but rather mostly Asian soldiers: in fact, in addition to officers and commanders, the rest of the army was composed of the armies of the conquered kingdoms,evidence of the fact that it was no longer a Greek empire in the world,but a world empire. The military expedition itself lasted little time compared to the rest of his campaign, since it ended in 325 BC with the mutiny of Alexander's army and the approved request of his generals to go back, given the fatigue and the many years spent in war and marching, almost 11 years in total. The fusion between Greek and Indian culture was born thanks to Alexander's desire to push the boundaries of the known world. But it is thanks to his diadochi (powerful generals of his army, who later laid claims to Alexander’s empire after his death) that the Indo-Greek empire took shape and continued in the centuries to come, writing a page of history as incredible as it is little known. As always, we will focus on gastronomical and cultural influences, related to the way of living and interpreting the art of cuisine. The two worlds had already been in contact since the past centuries and exchanges were especially common in the scientificand doctrinal fields:such as the possible meeting between Buddha and Pythagoras, who brought to the West the belief of metempsychosis (the belief that the soul passes on transmigrates into the soul of another being upon death). Notwithstanding the previous encounters, the two kingdomsat the opposite ends of the world were definitively united thanks to Alexander, bringing revolutions in the culinary and gastronomic field of which we still have the fruits well rooted in the Mediterranean, and subsequently global,diet.

Which ingredients and preparations are the result of this cultural union? Saffron, the king of spices, contrary to what is believed, was first imported by the Greek army to the West, where today it represents one of the basic spices of Indian and south-Asian cooking. The reason why an army marching for years was carrying such a precious element is because it was one of the main exchange goods among the Macedonian ranks. Moreover, Alexander himself carefully kept stocks of saffron, but not for culinary use, rather for cosmetic use: in fact, the young Macedonian king used the pistils of the flower Crocus sativus as a conditioner and as a care for his hair, characterized by a golden color and a splendid tonality. With the consolidation of the Indo-Greek kingdom, saffron radically entered in the Indian culinary culture, so much so to represent even today a product of national cultivation (India is the fourth largest producer of saffron in the world). One of the most refined types of saffron in the world is the one cultivated in the Kashmir region, characterized by a dark color and a precious and delicate aroma. Talking about spices,the conquest of Indian territories and the Indo-Greek kingdom opened a commercial way which, for centuries to come, produced a succession of very important intercultural exchanges: the spice route. Just as the Romans,the world empire which followed Alexander's one, would soon make the spice route one of the most important commercial routes of history, the tradition of using spices would spread even in the territories never touched by Alexander: territories known today as the countries of Spain, France,Germany, and England. As for recipes and preparations which witnessed the influence of this cultural fusion onto the tables of the countries involved, and in the neighboring territories, there is much to discuss. A characteristic specialty of the countries of the Indian subcontinent is the so-called Bharta, a dish made of roasted eggplant pulp, enriched with garlic, spices and aromatic herbs. This dish also has similarities to a popular dish in many European diets. One of the most famous mezedes in Greece is melitzanosalata, in Middle Eastern cooking the same dish is called baba ghanoush, in Romania and Hungary it is called salata de vinete, whereas in France it is called caviar d'aubergine. All variations of the same dish, enriched by regional ingredients, such as spices, herbs, and aromatic compounds. The birth of this recipe has its starting point right in the period of the birth of Indo-GreekEmpire, as a testament of the arrival of Alexander's army, loaded with newly conquered cultures, together with Indian knowledge in enriching dishes, led to the birth of one of the most deeply-rooted recipes in many culinary customs.

Resuming our historical-culinary discourse about tzatziki, treated in the previous issue, we have another proof of influence in traditional Indian cooking. In fact, the preparation known as Raitas, characteristic of Indian and Bengali cuisines, has the same recipe of tzatziki: that is a white sauce with garlic and aromatic herbs. The only difference is that in the Greek recipe, the base of the dish is made of yogurt, whereas in the Indian world the use of curd prevails, that is the product extracted by adding rennet or acid ingredients in milk, instead of fermentation thanks to lactobacilli as in the case of yogurt. Even in the field of baking we have similarities between Alexander's empire’s cultures, the most important example is naan bread, an Indian recipe which is a thin bread with a round shape. In Greece it is known as pita, and it is characteristic of all the countries touched by Alexander the Great. The main difference between Greek or Turkish pita and naan bread is the enrichment of the basic product: in Indian and Punjabi cooking yogurt and ghee (clarified butter) are added to the dough. Rice, an ingredient at the base of most of the world's cuisines, traveled to the west thanks to Alexander’s expeditions: mainly because of the fact that the famine in the Macedonian ranks during the wars in Bactria pushed him to adopt rice and its local recipes as the main source of sustenance. Rice in reality, thanks to more ancient commercial exchanges, was already present in the western and Mediterranean regions in the form of powder,but only as a beauty product, and as a cure against dysentery and intoxication. According to many, its use in western cuisine was delayed, however, until the early Middle Ages, already two centuries after the birth of the Indo-Greek kingdom. Aristophanes of Alexandria describes rice rolls as an accompaniment to royal feasts and banquets in a poem. Speaking of a region that is still a hub of spiritual cultures today, the Greek world absorbed many ideals and practices from the peoples of the Indian subcontinent. We know with certainty that after the death of Alexander and the development of connections between the conquered territories, Greece became the importer of Buddhism to the rest of the world and especially to the West.

The practices of meditation and yoga entered the daily life of the Greeks and all other regions under the control of the diadochi. The reverse journey was made by religious art, since the first representations of Buddha in statues were born precisely from the Greek practice of personification of the deities.

How do spiritual and religious disciplines connect with the gastronomic culture analyzed here?

After Alexander's conquests came the consolidation of a thought and alimentary regime that today, more than ever, is part of the daily life of many people: vegetarianism. Before the young Macedonian king, vegetarian culture was born thanks to the union of the thoughts of two extraordinary people: Pythagoras and Buddha.According to Pythagoras, a vegetarian diet was the best way to eat, avoiding the introduction into one's body the remains coming from other living beings.According to Buddha,abstaining from eating meat or fish was derived from the doctrine of rebirth, or reincarnation.

The meeting between the two ideas created a revolution for the followers of both characters, the students of Pythagoras introduced a more spiritual doctrine in their vegetarian beliefs, whereas Buddha was able to consolidate his own vision of nutrition thanks to the scientific foundations provided by the thought of Pythagoras. The vegetarian doctrine, therefore, was born before the historical period we are analyzing, but it is thanks to Alexander's expansionism that it was consolidated all over the known world and enriched with recipes based on fruits and vegetables coming from different climates, territories, and cultures.

The encounter between two cultures which were initially distant explains perfectly how Alexander's journey was a revolution.

At the end of our journey, we can onlyreflect on how deep and rooted in us is the aspiration for knowledge and study of the unknown.Nowadays many of the values of the Macedonian campaign have been lost, leaving less and less room for the cultural enrichment of ourselves.We talked about cooking, surely a topic for many people secondary to history, but it is enough to think about how much the act of eating and sharing has always been rooted in us, to discover that daily gestures are what make life worth living.

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