Vegetarian History Lessons From A Greek Chef

By Larry Litt

I ordered my first Greek salad on my first day in Delphi only to be shocked that there was no lettuce in the colorful combination of fresh ingredients. "No lettuce?" I asked completely shaken up. "Shouldn't there be lettuce in a Greek salad?"

"No," said our hostess, Sania Papa, "We do not use lettuce here. Lettuce is an anti-aphrodisiac. We don't even grow it here."

"Lettuce is a what?" I shot back to her. "Tell me how that's possible."

"You know the myth of Adonis, the beautiful boy who turned the heads of all the goddesses? He was so beautiful that he thought he could steal Hera away from Zeus. Then one fine day when the nymphs were looking for him they found his body in the lettuce patch. He had become a wilting head of lettuce due to the anger of the gods for trying to break up the relationships between the gods and goddesses. Since then lettuce has become for us a symbol of sexual impotence. Therefore no lettuce on your salad."

"Americans always put lettuce in their Greek salads," I said.

"We Greeks prefer thinly cut fresh green cabbage if we're going to have anything big and leafy. But of course fresh tomatoes and cucumbers are the base of this type of salad. We call it a dinner salad. Each of the ingredients is fresh except the Kalamata olives and the Feta cheese. I see you are not eating the Feta."

"I don't eat any product from an animal."

"Ah," she said, "You are a neo-Pythagorean. His ancient followers ate only vegetables. They also sacrificed plants to the gods in place of animals."

"I never heard of sacrificing vegetables to the gods," I replied curiously.

"Oh yes, definitely. Pythagoras put his sacrifices in the same temples as the rest of the Greeks. He made his own clean altars, altars without blood on them. The gods must have smiled on him, because he is still known and studied to this day. In fact he has his own chapter in Ovid's 'Metamorphosis' explaining the theory of sacred vegetarianism."

"But Ovid was a Roman."

"The Romans were fascinated by the Greek Golden Age, when the gods existed on Nectar and Ambrosia alone. We don't know exactly what they were, but we do know that these two foods had no animal flesh in them at all. From what we have of their writings, the ancient Greeks made most animal sacrifices so they could share food on festival days. The Pythagoreans rebelled against this practice and thus against the state religion, which was also the state government. Re-bellion was not tolerated. However, there was a temple dedicated to Apollo Genetor on Delos where no blood sacrifices were permitted. When Pythagoras himself made plant and incense sacrifices there, the Greek kings declared sacred vegetarianism another cult of the Greek religion. They looked for a way to fit everyone into the state's life back then," she said with a smile.

Next came an order of baby okras in a thin tomato and onion sauce. The okras were crisp, tasting somewhat like a grilled vegetable. "Yes, we sometimes grill our vegetables before we sauté them. It gives them a distinct flavor that isn't dominated or overwhelmed by the sauces."

"Is there any symbolism for the okra?" I asked.

"Of course," Sania replied, "Okra is a member of the mallow family. Along with asphodel (a variety of lily similar to an arum), mallow was the most sacred plant sacrifice in the temple of Apollo Genetor."

"It seems like everything in this meal has a history," I observed as I enjoyed the okras followed by a glass of Attican Retsina wine.

"When one is an historian," Sania continued, "Everything has a story and everything takes on many additional meanings. Greece is a land of history, both of humans and gods. Studying sacred vegetarianism history here perhaps will compensate for the fact that so little of our food is truly vegan, as you prefer. But now, let me give you some authentic Greek homestyle meatless, dairyless, and eggless recipes that you can easily make in your own kitchen," Sania said as we ate and talked the night away about the foods of Ancient Greece.



(Serves 6)

Traditionally this dish would contain Feta cheese. Enjoy this vegan version!

  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, halved, and cut in ¼-inch slices
  • 3-4 plum tomatoes
  • Small red onion, finely chopped
  • ¼ head thinly sliced green cabbage
  • 1 washed, seeded, and sliced green bell pepper
  • ⅓ cup pitted Kalamata olives
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh coriander or parsley
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or marjoram
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon Greek olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice

Mix all the ingredients together in a salad bowl and serve.

Total Calories Per Serving: 71
Fat: 5 grams


(Serves 6)

This dish is well worth the effort to prepare.

  • Three 1-½ pound eggplants
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ pound mashed firm tofu
  • 1 cup finely chopped mix
  1. Wash the eggplants and trim off the tops and bottoms. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise, then remove and discard the seed sacks. Scoop out the eggplant flesh leaving ¼-inch shell and save the skin by floating them in cold water. Chop the eggplant flesh.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. When hot, add the chopped eggplant, mashed tofu, vegetables, and pine nuts. Sauté until everything is tender. Then add the hot mixture to the rice in a bowl and mix well.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Take out the eggplant skins and fill them with the mixture. Bake stuffed eggplant for 30 minutes in a 350- degree oven.
Total Calories Per Serving: 303
Fat: 11 grams


(Serves 4)

Enjoy this delicious salad!

  • 1 cup green lentils, rinsed and soaked for half hour
  • ½ cup pitted oil cured black olives broken into pieces
    (Note: The only way to pit these wrinkled olives is by hand. Try rolling them between your fingers with some pressure to break the pit from the flesh, which makes it easier to rip them apart.)
  • 2 Tablespoons capers
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 peeled and chopped garlic clove
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • 5 Tablespoons lemon juice or juice of one lemon
  1. Place drained lentils in a saucepan. Cover them with three inches of cold water. Bring lentils to a boil, cover the saucepan, and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain water and set lentils aside.
  2. Mix together olive pieces, capers, oregano, garlic, parsley, and lentils. Mix lemon juice and olive oil into a dressing with a pinch of salt and pepper to taste, and drizzle on the salad. Serve with warm, crisp bread.
Total Calories Per Serving: 227
Fat: 10 grams


(Serves 4)

This dish is best served slightly warm, not overheated.

  • 1 pound fresh baby okra (no longer than 1-½ inches long)
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 peeled and chopped garlic clove
  • 2 seeded, peeled, and diced tomatoes
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • Pinch of salt and black pepper
  1. Trim the okra by cutting the stem off close to the top. Wash them very well in cold water, and dry them off completely.
  2. Heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil. In a saucepan, sauté the okra over high heat for 3-5 minutes, then remove from pan to paper towels.
  3. Heat the other Tablespoon of olive oil in the saucepan. When hot, add the chopped onion and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and stir together until the mixture boils. Turn down to a simmer, add the lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Let simmer for 30 minutes.
  4. Place a spoonful of the sauce on the bottom of a serving dish. Place the okra on the sauce, and cover with the remaining sauce before serving.
Total Calories Per Serving: 118
Fat: 7 grams


(Serves 6)

Here's a terrific way to enjoy summer's bounty.

  • 1 pound orzo pasta
  • 8 ounces fresh shucked garden peas
  • 2 stalks trimmed and diced celery
  • ½ ounce fresh chopped oregano
  • ½ ounce fresh chopped chives
  • ½ ounce fresh chopped parsley
  • 3-4 cloves peeled and minced fresh garlic
  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 5 Tablespoons lemon juice or juice of one fresh lemon
  • 2-3 diced plum tomatoes
  • Pinch of white pepper
  • Pinch of salt
  1. Cook orzo in lightly salted boiling water for 7 minutes or until cooked through. Remove to a colander, drain, and rinse well with cold water. Place orzo in a large serving bowl; then drizzle 1 teaspoon of olive oil around the orzo and toss well.
  2. Cook the peas in slightly salted boiling water for 1-2 minutes, drain, and rinse with cold water in a colander. Mix peas and orzo together, slowly adding all the other ingred-ients until well mixed. Add salt and white pepper to taste.
Total Calories Per Serving: 357
Fat: 6 grams

Larry Litt is a freelance writer from New York City.

About The Vegetarian Journal and The Vegetarian Resource Group

This article originally appeared in the July/August, 1995 issue of The Vegetarian Journal, published by:

The Vegetarian Resource Group
P.O. Box 1463
Baltimore, MD 21203
(410) 366-8343