Cooking with Galen
Updated: Jul 22
Galen was a Greek physician, writer and philosopher who lived during the Roman Period, between 129-216 CE. Born in Pergamon (modern-day Turkey) he believed that dissection was the key to truly understanding the workings of the human body and his methods in experimental medical investigation changed the face of the profession. However, his ambitions regarding human dissection were generally thwarted by the social mores of his time and so much of his understanding about anatomy came from the dissection of animals. This, as you can imagine, led to some mixed conclusions about the workings of the human body, however, it must be said that Galen was a consummate observer and much of what he wrote was still in use by medical practitioners1500 years later.
Why then are we talking about cooking with a physician? Practical food writing in the early centuries of the common era in Greece and Rome was often considered a subdivision of the medical profession. This is because the consumption of food directly affected the body’s ‘humours’. The four humours were a concept which began with Aristotle and were further refined by Hippocrates and later, Galen. The four humours were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile), the proportion of each of these fluids determined a person’s temperament and appearance. The ideal person would have an equal percentage of each of the humours.
Galen believed that cakes cooked with honey had superior health benefits to those without. He supplies this description of a type of unleavened pancake called Teganitai. Given that he also believed that lighter foods (like yeasted breads) were better for you, it is somewhat surprising that no raising agent was included in his recipe.
Now might be the time to speak of other sweetmeats, the ones made with wheat ﬂour. Teganitai, as we call them, are made simply with oil. The oil is put in a frying-pan resting on a smokeless ﬁre, and when it has heated, the wheat ﬂour, mixed with plenty of water, is poured on. Rapidly, as it fries in the oil, it sets and thickens like fresh cheese setting in baskets. And at this point the cooks turn it, putting the visible side under, next to the pan, and bringing the sufficiently fried side, which was underneath at ﬁrst, up on to the top, and when the underneath is set they turn it again another two or maybe three times till they think it is all equally cooked. Some mix it with honey, and others again with sea-salt.’
– Galen, On the Properties of Foods 1, 3
We tried a recipe for Teganitai which appears in the excellent book The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger
• 120g ﬂour
• 225 ml water
• 2 tbsp clear honey
• Oil for frying
• 1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
Mix the ﬂour, water and one tablespoon of honey together into a batter. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a frying-pan and pour a quarter of the mixture in. When it has set, turn it two or three times to give an even colour. Cook the rest of the pancakes in the same way. Serve the pancakes hot with the remainder of the honey poured over and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
It’s amazing how little food changes from one millennium to the next, and that people have been enjoying these pancakes for 1800 years! Kali orexi!