History of Greek Food


    • Fava occupies a special place in Greek diet since ancient times. In the past, it was the poor man’s meat and one of the basic Lenten dishes. During religious fasting periods amounts of this puree was consumed particularly in the orthodox monasteries. As the monks avoid the olive oilduring periods of fasting, their fava was served with sesame oil. Today it is served in a tahini substance. Fava is also a favorite dish in the menu of tavernas since Byzantine years. From tavernas it finally made a triumphant entrance to the haute cuisine.

    • Fava comes from the Latin word faba = bean. But when the Greeks say fava they refer to the dried or fresh seeds of Vicia faba (broad beans) or the dried seeds of Pissum sativum (peas) or the yellow shelled lentils or the seeds of Lathyrus (grass peas). They also refer to the variety of pulses that are made from them.
    • Kyaminon etnos, a pulse soup made of broad beans, was a common ancient dish. Fava from peas was a favorite food during the years of ottoman occupation. However the fava from Lathyrus is the most delicius pulse of all.
    • Lathyrus has played a key part in the Aegean and Cretan gastronomy. Its history goes back to prehistoric times. Lathyrus sativus, the cultivated grass pea, and its progenitor Lathyrus cicera have been found in archaeological sites from Santorini and Crete, dating to 1500 B.C. and to 1480-1425 B.C. respectively.
    • Lathyrus seeds contain a neurotoxin, beta-N-L-alpha-beta-diaminopropionic acid, or ODAP. This can cause permanent paralysis if a person eats too much lathyrus, which happened in time of hardship when little else was available. The neurotoxin is destroyed by cooking, so the well – cooked grass peas are absolutely safe.
    • The bulk of lathyrus -fava production comes from Aegean islands and Crete, however Santorini fava is considered unique as originates from the variety Lathyrus clymenous. It has a slightly sweet flavor, a velvet taste and a really high price. Dry climate and volcanic soil rich in potassium, magnesium and iron provide the perfect conditions for the cultivation of this legume.
    • In nowadays lathyrus fava is usually associated with the local cuisines of Aegean islands where is served in various different ways: with chopped onions, fresh parsley and virgin olive oil; accompanied by dried octopus, or sardines or lakerda (cured mackerel); sauted with fried ‘kavourma’ (smoked pork); as patties (favokeftes). The leftover fava can be mixed with other ingredients like sauted onions or sun dried capers cooked in a tomato sauce. In these cases it’s called pantremeni (married).
    • Fava can also find its way into the filling of a very distinctive dolma which is made with cyclamen leaves.


  • Cyclamen is a widespread genus of flowered plants, which in its various species and subspecies grows from southern Spain to Iran and from North- Eastern Africa to Palestine. Cyclamen Graecum is a subspecies with beautiful heart-shaped leaves. Its wild distribution includes Corfu island, the southern parts of Sterea, most of the Peloponnese, the Saronic islands, Crete, Rhodes, the islands of Eastern Aegean, the Sporades, parts of Cyprus and the south coast of Turkey.
  • The dolmades with cyclamen leaves are found in the islands of Dodecanese. The following preparation  is from Symi island. A similar recipe is common in Rhodes, though it contains lentils instead of lathyrus. Of course one can prepare these dolmades using vine leaves even if their taste is altered.



 500 gr. grass peas or yellow split peas
1/2 cup short-grain rice
2 large onions, finely chopped
3/4 cup tomato, grated

3 tbs. fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
40-45 tender cyclamen leaves
juice of 2 lemons

Pick through the grass peas and remove any pebbles. Transfer to a bowl, cover with water and soak overnight. Next morning drain and rinse them. Combine the grass peas, rice, onions, tomato, parsley, ½ cup olive oil, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Pour the juice of 1 lemon. Stir well and taste.

Bring water to a boil and blanch the cyclamen leaves for 30 seconds. Remove and rinse immediately under cold water. Place each leaf on a board (shiny side down) and put ¾ tablespoon of the filling near the bottom of each leaf. Roll up as for dolmathes. Place each dolma, seam side down, in a large steel pan and press tightly to one another. Pour in the remaining olive oil, remaining lemon juice, 1 tsp salt, and enough water to cover the dolmades. Place a plate to weigh them down and to keep them rolled while cooking. Cook at a low heat for about 45 to 60 minutes, or until dolmades are tender and the juice absorbed. Remove and let them cool.

Serve them warm or cold, with thick Greek yogurt.

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  1. Dirk Enneking

    Jones, G. Ancient and modern cultivation of Lathyrus ochrus (L.) DC. in the Greek islands. The Annual of the British School at Athens. 1992; 87:211-217.
    Keywords: Lathyrus ochrus/ Cultivation/ Greece/ Human consumption/ Humans/ Seed/ Utilisation/ reprint
    Call Number: reprintDE
    Abstract: Seeds found at excavations in Knossos were identified as L. ochrus. Present day cultivation of this species on the island of Evvia (Euboea). Plants growing in the fields and gardens around the village of Tharounia, near Aliveri have been positively identified as L. ochrus. Similar seeds have also been found on the island of Karpathos, there known under the name ‘sprika’. Utilisation of the split seed for human consumption

  2. Dirk Enneking

    A nice write up on fava.

    The Lathyrus bibliography (1998)can add the following:

    Christodoulou, D. The evolution of the rural land use pattern in Cyprus. Geographical Publications Ltd.; 1959.
    Keywords: Cyprus Agriculture/ Vicia sativa/ Lathyrus ochrus human consumption/ Lathyrus sativus cultivation Cyprus/ Lathyrus ochrus cultivation Cyprus/ Maps/ Human consumption L. ochrus Cyprus/ Lathyrus sativus/ Lathyrus ochrus/ Agriculture/ Crete Greece/ Cultivation/ Cyprus/ Evolution/ Food/ Geography/ Greece/ Greece Crete/ Human consumption/ Land use/ Humans/ Rural/ Vicia/
    Call Number: UWA Biological Sciences library
    Abstract: Lathyrus ochrus is mentioned in the context of food legumes. Area of cultivation is given as ca. 5000 donums. Vicia sativa, a relative newcomer to Cyprus was introduced from Crete in 1913. Lathyrus sativus (Favetta), area cultivated is given as ca. 10000 donums

    Sarpaki, A. and Jones, G. Ancient and modern cultivation of Lathyrus clymenum L. in the Greek islands. The Annual of the British School at Athens. 1990; 85:363-368.
    Keywords: Greece Santorini/ Lathyrus archaeobotany/ Greece L. clymenum/ Lathyrus clymenum/ Archaeobotany/ Cultivation/ Greece/

    Sarpaki, A. A. The palaeoethnobotany of the West house, Akrotiri, Thera: a case study (Volumes 1 and 2) [PhD thesis]: University of Sheffield; 1987.
    Keywords: Lathyrus clymenum archaeaology/ Lathyrus clymenum human consumption/ Human consumption L. clymenum/ Vicia ervilia/ Greece Santorini/ Lathyrus cicera/ Lathyrus clymenum/ Entomology/ Agriculture/ Age/ Archaeobotany/ Ash/ Hordeum/ Bronze age/ Contamination/ Dissertations/ Distribution plants/ Flour/ Grain legumes/ Pulses/ Greece/ Human consumption/ Insects/ Lens culinaris/ Lupinus/ Humans/ Pisum sativum/ Processing/ Ruderal/ Seed/ Storage/ Triticum/ Vicia/ Weed
    Abstract: This study deals with archaeobotany of the West House, a Late Bronze Age house at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera, Cyclades, Greece. The island is also known as Santorini Due to a volcanic eruption (c.1600 B.C.) which covered the whole town with ash, the settlement site of Akrotiri, has been preserved in its pristine state. This enables us to find all the storage contexts within the West House in an ash-sealed state, with absolute certainty of contemporaneity of contexts, structures and material culture. This thesis examines the results of archaeological contexts for botanical data, to provide information on agriculture, crop processing and storage. Preservation of seeds was in the form of charred, silicified, and mineralized material. Our spectrum of crops has increased with the addition of two species: cf. Lathyrus clymenum and Lupinus cf. albus, thus increasing the number of cultivated pulses known from the late Bronze Age Aegean. Crops were cf. Lathyrus clymenum (a new find as a L.B.A. crop), Lens culinaris, Pisum sativum, Hordeum vulgare, H. distichum, Triticum monococcum. Other important crops included Ficus carica, Vitis vinifera and Olea europaea. A third group of possible crop plants included Lathyrus cicera/L. sativus, Lupinus cf. albus, Vicia ervilia, Linum usitatissimum and Coriandrum sativum. The find of crops in the latest stage just before consumption is unique for archaeobotanical material and includes split legumes, bulgur-type cracked barley, and flour. Work was also carried out on segetal and ruderal weed seeds to provide information on crop processing, field fragmentation, field contamination, and insect infestation

    Sarpaki, A. (University of Crete, Rethymno). A palaeoethnobotanical study of the West House, Akrotiri, Thera. The Annual of the British School at Athens. 1992; 87221-230.
    Keywords: Greece/ Lathyrus/ Grain/ History/ Cultivation/ Lathyrus sativus/ Lathyrus cicera/ Lathyrus clymenum/ Agriculture/ Age/ Agriculture history/ Contamination/ Crete Greece/ Greece Crete/ Human consumption/ Humans/ Vicia/ Vicia faba/ reprint
    Call Number: reprintDE
    Abstract: Lathyrus clymenum seems to have been one of the most important crops found in excavations of the West House. Apparently this crop is still used today on the island to prepare a dish called ‘fava’ (D.E. ???, fava is usually associated with Vicia faba). Some reference is made to L. sativus, l. cicera as contaminants. These two species are today still being used for human consumption in Greece (no details given)

    Lathyrus ochrus is likely to be part of the ‘fava’ group of legumes.

    The latest on Lathyrus clymenum:
    Melamed, Yoel; Plitmann, Uzi; Shmida, Avi, and Goland, Oz Lathyrus clymenum L. in Israel: A “revival” of an ancient species. Israel Journal of Plant Sciences. 2009; 57: 125–130.
    Keywords: Lathyrus clymenum/ Lathyrus palustris/ old and new introductions/ invasive plants/ Plant introduction
    Abstract: Four populations of an annual Lathyrus species new to Israel have been found since 1999. Three of these are located in the Coastal Plain, the fourth in the Judean Mountains. All grow in more-or-less disturbed habitats. These populations were identified by us as Lathyrus clymenum and compared with related or similar species to verify the identification. L. clymenum is a minor crop, grown mainly in some central Mediterranean and south European countries, but it was used for food, and traded as such, already over 3,750 years ago. Archaeobotanical findings of its seeds were discovered in the northern coast of Israel (Middle Bronze Age IIA). These findings were compared with recent material. The possibilities of its re-appearance in Israel, as escaped plants or colonizers/invaders, are discussed.

    Is someone trying to cash in on the high prices paid for Lathyrus clymenum in Greece?

  3. admin

    Most people are surprised to hear that cyclamen leaves are edible, however they are. If you ll’make the recipe make sure they have not been sprayed with chemicals.

  4. admin

    Lulu, you can eat the cooked leaves of Cyclamen persicum and graecum but don’t ever try the roots since are highly toxic.

  5. Lulu Barbarian

    Fascinating article, Marina! I’m so used to reading that all parts of my favorite flowers (e.g. azaleas) are toxic, that I can hardly beleive it when another favorite, such as cyclamen, is okay to eat.


  6. admin

    Maria, I am finally back to blogging. Kalos se vrika loipon.

    Rachel, thank you for hosting.
    The best known florist’s cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum, is an important edible wild plant in Iran and Palestine. Its leaves are also cooked filled with rice, minced mutton meat, spices and eaten with yogurt (Palestinian Za’ matoot, Iranian dolme).
    However, the use of local Mediterranean food plants stands at a crucial point. As you know, Eastern Mediterranean communities were very much centered around cultivated and wild food both for subsistence and profit. After World War II the consumption of wild plants and seeds changed following the socio – economic changes. Unfortunatelly the amazing traditional knowledge regarding wild plants resources has not been infused to the young generations and I wonder if it already is on the brink of disappearance.

  7. Pingback: Stuffed Cyclamen and Bread and Oil: Mediterranean Island Links | Rachel Laudan

  8. maria v

    it’s the first time i have heard of cyclamen being used as a food, so this post has been a most informative (and aesthetic) one for me – welcome back!

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