Everyone — absolutely everyone — who has a friend or relative from Greece, has heard of the word ”horta.”
Literally translating into English as the humble ”weed,” the meaning of the word horta in the modern Greek language encompasses every green that one could possibly include in their diet.
Many have wondered what ancient Greeks might have thought about plant-based diets. Were they actually vegetarians? Did they even know about the many health benefits of a diet which includes a plethora of greens? Or were the dietary habits of these ancient people actually based more on meat than plants?
Greens as part of the Ancient Greek diet
The vast majority of ancient Greeks were by no means vegetarians or vegans, as people define these terms today.
However, they did appreciate the wide variety of plants and vegetables provided by nature, and they knew just how to take advantage of every single plant that grew in their gardens.
Of course, like every other major western civilization, Greeks not only ate meat but they enjoyed it, as we know from various written sources from that time. Several feasts which took place at different times of the year prominently featured meat, including lamb or pork.
However, one of the main characteristics of ancient Greek life was the concept of ”metron,” what we would describe today as moderation. As far back as the ninth century BC, the Greek historical Hesiod cautioned, “Observe due measure, moderation is best in all things” in his treatise called Works and Days.
In accordance with this precept, the diets of ancient Greeks did indeed include meat, but not as much as we might think, and almost certainly not as much as we consume today.
The Greeks knew that the more meat one eats, the more prone he will be to obesity — and therefore, illness — in the long term. For this reason, their diets tended to be predominantly based on plants.
Vegetables, fruits and legumes formed the basis of every ancient Greek dish, setting the foundations of what we know today as healthy Mediterranean cuisine.
The case of Pythagoras
However, health and wellbeing was not the only factor which shaped the diet of the ancient Greeks. A little-known fact is that the father of vegetarianism was actually the ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras.
Known across the academic world for his theorems, Pythagoras was also an strong advocate of a non-meat diet.
Rooted in his belief that all animals have souls, Pythagoras and his thousands of followers believed that eating meat is immoral, as this inflicts pain and misery on creatures that have this inner life of the spirit, just as humans do.
In fact, up until the mid-1800s, when the modern vegetarian movement was developed in England and the US, people who did not eat meat were called ”these who follow the Pythagorean diet.”
Some great Greek greens
One of the most prominent examples of a vegetarian dish which has been commonly eaten in Greece for several thousand years is the humble ”Radikia” salad.
This dandelion-green salad incorporates all the benefits that a simple, humble ingredient can offer — when cooked in the right way.
Alternatively known as ”Horta vrasta” (Boiled greens), Radikia salad is made with delicious dandelion greens, traditionally harvested from the backyard with a simple kitchen knife.
Seen most often today as a noxious weed, usually rooted out as soon as they rear their head because we want our grass to look immaculate, dandelions were a healthy everyday staple for the ancient Greeks.
Often combined with amaranth, chicory and other greens, ”radikia” greens are well-washed and then boiled before being eaten.
Generously drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice, these greens can serve as the ideal side dish for main courses, or can even be eaten as a healthy snack or dinner by themselves, for those who want to watch their caloric intake.
The many health benefits of horta
It is obvious to us today that a diet rich in greens cannot but benefit anyone who is trying to reduce or even eliminate the amount of meat he or she consumes.
Dishes such as spanakopita (spinach pie), bean stew with greens, spinach with eggs, spanakoriso (spinach risotto), and countless other options can offer nutritional benefits that are almost without number.
Take as an example dandelion green salad. Rich in calcium, if this Greek staple is eaten on a regular basis, it can help strengthen bones, reducing the chances of arthritis.
Rich in vitamin C, these humble greens can also protect our immune system, reduce the levels of toxins in our bodies and help us obtain a balance in hydration and electrolyte levels.
Due to their antioxidant elements, a diet based on ancient Greek vegetarian recipes can improve our skin as well.
If used as a remedy, greens such as the dandelion can also prove very helpful in reducing the symptoms of skin diseases such as eczema, psoriasis and even acne.
With scores of additional studies proving a series of other amazing health benefits, the greens that Greeks have included in their diets for thousands of years clearly still have a lot of lessons to teach us today.
Regardless of if you are a meat lover, a “flexitarian,” a vegetarian or a vegan, your diet can include so many more healthy choices simply by adding just a few more greens to your plate every day.
So what are you waiting for? Grab some of those delicious greens, some lemons and some great olive oil and make yourself a salad! You won’t be sorry you did, and the benefits are nearly endless.