The word “souvlaki” is synonymous with Greek food, whether the term refers simply to slices of grilled meat on a small wooden skewer or the soft pita bread stuffed with meat, tomatoes, onions, tzatziki sauce and French fries, which is a full meal in itself.
Many would think that souvlaki is a type of fast or street food originating from the many years of Ottoman rule in Greece, but this is not true. Archaeological findings and writings clearly show that today’s souvlaki comes from the ancient Greeks. After all, the seat of the Ottoman Empire was on land that was Greek in ancient times.
The origins of souvlaki as slices of meat grilled on a spit date back to ancient Greece. This food, known as obeliskos (the diminutive of obelos – “spit”), was even mentioned in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle and others. A dish of bread stuffed with meat which resembles the way pita souvlaki is served today with pita bread was also attested to by Athenaeus in his “Deipnosophistae.”
Researcher George Katsos, the managing director of doitinAthens start-up company with the motto “Experience Ancient Greek Life”, says: “According to archaeological finds, the inhabitants of Greece are one of the first people in the world who sliced and roasted several types of meats almost four millennia ago, applying a new cooking method to the traditional boiling process of the Neolithic Age.”
The skewered meat recipe existed as a favorite in ancient Greece during Archaic times, with the earliest references to this practice in the works of Homer. However, excavations held in Akrotiri on Santorini by professor Christos G. Doumas have unearthed stone barbecue holders for skewers (Greek: krateutai) which were used before the 17th century BC and were popular before the disastrous eruption of the island’s volcano.
Even later on, during the Byzantine era, references describe street vendors selling souvlaki wrapped in pita in Constantinople.
The spectacular krateutai finds show that ancient Greeks were applying new meat-cooking methods, which were so completely different from the traditional boiling process of the Neolithic Age that they could have been called revolutionary, almost four millennia ago.
The predominant obelisk cooking utensils were simple yet elegant ceramic bases placed to the right and left, a technique still used in our time for portable hobs. Low on their base and in a row parallel to the ground, they even had holes which served to oxygenate the coal to keep an even flame, limiting large fluctuations in temperature.
According to writings found on plaques, in ancient Greece there were festive events focusing on roasted meat dishes, using viands which were usually sliced. The preparation of all the necessary accompanying baked breads was assigned to sitopoioi, literally “wheatmakers,” indicating that there were already people specializing in making dough at that time — early professional bakers.
According to Athenaeus, the skewered pieces of meat and other goods were sold in thermopolia, cart-like stands which amazingly featured hot coals, which operated in markets.
Along with the similar meats they served, the carts themselves were like today’s cantinas or street vendors, essentially selling the fast food of the time, including chestnuts, doughs, salted coldcuts and so on. The clay pottery found indicates that the cooking utensils were transportable, indicating that they were used by street vendors.
The importance of condiments and the origin of tzatziki
Athenaeus, in describing eating habits in different regions, wrote about the importance of kandaulos, a creamy sauce accompanying the sliced meats. Kandaulos was also found in references as being based on a particularly expensive type of cheese produced from mixed donkey and mare’s milk (half and half).
Later this particular cheese was replaced by goat cheese, and later on, the soft goat cheese put in the souvlaki pita was replaced by low-cost yogurt, and the sauce became known eventually as tzatziki.
“The kandaulos appears in various texts as kandylos or kandyli, with at least 17 references from various sources from the 5th century BC to the 10th century AD, when it is now described as a white sauce with basic ingredients goat milk, honey and avyrtaki, a salty, sour and acidly sauce, made from chopped leeks and sour pomegranates, with added salt and white vinegar,” Katsos says.
And he continues: “Archaeological finds from Sardis confirm that the cream is initially integral to ritual sacred meals where the faithful symbolically consume the flesh and blood of the deity at a supper of thanksgiving, observing a tradition that several centuries later is transferred to Christianity. The cream, as pointed out by the nutritionist and gourmand Egisippos, accompanies boiled or roasted small pieces of pork.”
Perhaps equally surprisingly, another important condiment ancient Greeks used which is almost identical to today was mustard. The spicy yellow delicacy was used for marinating as well as a condiment for consuming meats.
The Byzantine sophist Ierophilos, who lived in the 7th century AD, wrote down a recipe for mustard which is almost identical to today’s yellow mustard. His recipe uses ground mustard seeds, white vinegar, garlic and olive oil, mixed together to make a creamy sauce.