Teganitai: Ancient Greek Pancakes

This ancient recipe comes from a fascinating book called De alimentorum facultatibus (On the Properties of Foodstuffs) by the Greek physician Galen. It is unclear when this particular book was written, but much of Galen’s work is thought to have been written between 207 CE and his death circa 216.

Luckily there is an English translation of this book by Owen Powell and a PDF sample can be found here. Galen wrote a lot of books about medicine and health-related philosophy, but this one is focused mostly on Greek dietetics, or the properties of certain types of common foods in the Greek diet. Galen built upon Hippocrates’ theory of the four humours, and his work later formed the basis of Arab and European medical and dietary practices in the Middle Ages and beyond. Galen’s strong influence on medicine was felt for over 1500 years! According to the nutrition side of humoral theory, each food has certain properties that affects the body. The simple explanation is food was categorized by its properties – hot/cold, dry/moist, sweet/salty/bitter – and if a person was sick due to humours being out of balance he could eat certain foods to get the humours back in line. An ideal diet would consist of balanced foods that contained ingredients with opposite properties.

One of the added bonuses of Galen’s “On the Properties of Foodstuffs” is the inclusion of ingredients and directions for certain types of dishes. The directions are more of a scientific description than an official recipe, but Galen gives plenty of details to recreate these dishes with some accuracy. I’ve found his recipes to be much clearer and more complete than many of those found in actual cookery books. One of Galen’s more descriptive recipes is for Tiganitai/Teganitai, which was a very popular breakfast food. Basically an unleavened pancake!

The actual making of the teganitai is surprisingly similar to how we make pancakes or griddle-cakes today, only with fewer ingredients. All you’ll need to make these pancakes is flour, water, oil, salt and honey. Modern Greeks still eat what are now called Tiganites (tee-gah-NEE-tes) which differ from Galen’s recipe only in texture, if they differ at all. Modern recipes tend to vary by region and many add milk, oil, sugar and/or yeast to the batter.


The Recipe

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– Galen, On the Properties of Foodstuffs

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The Ingredients

  • 120 g / 1 c. wheat or spelt flour
  • 225 ml / 1 c. water (or more for thinning, if necessary)
  • 42 g / 2 tbsp. honey, plus extra for topping
  • Pinch of salt
  • Olive oil for frying
  • Optional: 1-2 Tbsp. sesame seeds

Step ONE: The Batter

The oil is placed in a frying pan that is placed on a smokeless fire, and when it has become hot the wheaten flour, soaked in a large amount of water, is poured into it….It is obvious that this has thick juice, restrains the stomach and gives rise to crude humours. This is why some mix honey with it, and there are those who also mix in sea salt. 

Mix equal parts water and flour; one cup of each should make 4-6 medium-sized pancakes. I do like to add honey for flavor. 2 tablespoons is adequate for me, especially since we’ll be pouring more honey on top when they’re done. Throw in a pinch of salt.

Once these ingredients are all in your bowl, mix very well. Whisk it if you’d like but I found the batter is very thick and blends better with a mixing spoon. Mix your batter until it is smooth and resembles a thick paste. If you want a thinner batter just add a bit more water. Try making a pancake first, though, before you decide to do that. Tiganites are not supposed to be as thin as crepes!

Note Galen’s mention of “crude humours” in the text. According to him, humours that are raw, which I suppose means unaltered or imbalanced, are considered crude. He writes much about wheat and bread later on in this book, and considers wheat and flour to be very heavy when mixed only with water and isn’t doing the body much good in that state. It should be “worked up” and such to be digestible. So for this reason he suggests adding honey or salt, which will alter the properties of the wheat, therefore it will no longer “restrain the stomach.” A mix of thick and thin properties will keep the body (especially the kidneys, liver and spleen) in balance.

Step TWO: Frying

When cooked in the oil it rapidly sets and thickens, resembling soft cheese solidifying in wicker baskets. At this point those making it turn it to bring the upper surface underneath, in contact with the pan, bringing what was previously underneath, which has been sufficiently cooked, to the top; when the under part is now set, they turn it again, perhaps two or three times, until it seems to them that the whole has been cooked evenly.

Anyone who has ever cooked pancakes knows exactly what Galen is talking about here, despite the bit about soft cheese in wicker baskets. Cooking pancakes is cooking pancakes. However, instead of frying them in butter we are using olive oil!

Set your burner to medium low and coat the pan with olive oil. You shouldn’t need more than a tablespoon or two. If necessary, spread it around with a towel, but it works just as well to heat it up a little and let it glaze the bottom of the pan so the batter doesn’t stick to it. Pour approximately 1/4 cup of the batter onto the pan and when it starts to set, flip it over. Do this two or three times until the pancake is evenly cooked and browned on both sides.

Remember, your pancake batter will be on the thick side (almost fritter thick) and you may need to spread it out a bit with your spatula when first poured into the pan. Cook them one at a time, which should take 4-5 minutes each.

Step THREE: Serve

For that reason those unleavened sweetmeats which they bake in a kribanos and immediately remove and put into warm honey, so that they are saturated with it, are also a type of flat-cake; and so too are all such items made with honey

Again, Galen is referring to the humours and the necessity of making the tiganites- unleavened sweetmeats- digestible by using honey. He also mentions a kribanos, which is a type of baking dish with a wide base that was surrounded with ashes so the bread inside would cook evenly.

Warm your honey, if desired, or simply drizzle it on cold. Use as much or as little as you would like, but I suspect that the Greeks would have used a decent amount.

This recipe doesn’t mention sesame, but other Greek literature does. Traditional tiganites are often topped with toasted sesame seeds or crushed walnuts, so there is no reason you can’t top your pancakes with either ingredient. Of the two I much prefer the sesame seeds. I just lightly toasted a couple tablespoons in a shallow pan on the stovetop and sprinkled them right on top of the honeyed pancakes.

 

Teganitai


Sources and Further Reading

  • Dalby, Andrew and Grainger, Sally. The Classical Cookbook. Revised edition. Getty Publications, USA, 2015. Print.
  • Galen. De alimentorum facultatibus. English. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2003. Edited and translated by Owen Powell.
  • Goldstein, Darra, editor. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford University Press, 2015.

 

 

 

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