This post began with the mission of researching Greek souvlaki, that succulent roasted meat either eaten right off the skewer or served with a tzatziki sauce on toasty pita. It’s my go-to when I have extra pork shoulder. It’s a popular street food today. And it was popular millennia ago in ancient Greece, where it was sold in markets from thermopolia, the predecessors of our modern food carts. Yet as I dove into my research, I fell headlong down a rabbit hole, finding clues that it may have emerged from an even older, Lydian dish meant to signify the wealth and prestige of those who could lavishly proffer it to their guests. Beyond that, archaeological evidence has unearthed a potential ritual aspect to its consumption[. Read on to find out why your favorite skewered food’s predecessor had cultural stakes that go beyond what you may have imagined—and how you can cook a version that recovers what it might have been like to dine on the original.
Although there are multiple records from the ancient world that gossip about the delicacy, kandaulos was and remains wrapped in an aura of mystery, with no two accounts reaching any real agreement about how it was made. As if in a Mediterranean-wide game of telephone, Athenaeus of Naucratis passed on Hegesippus of Tarentum’s alleged statement that there were three distinct versions of the dish—the first a kind of stew, the second a kind of cake, and third kind which remains a sort of blank space, since no description at all is given. Athenaeus only offers actual details regarding the first of these versions. It is this version that Eustathius later picks up, describing it asa kind of creamy stew made of boiled meat, breadcrumbs, Phrygian cheese, dill, and fatty broth. Photius’ short lexicon entry may allude to the second of Hegesippus’ versions—the cake; he asserts that it’s “a dish made from milk, animal fat and honey and, as others claim, from meat, bread and cheese.” Yet apparently common to all of these are the key features of some kind of meat protein, dairy, and a bread product;the constellation of these elements portend the later experience of eating souvlaki with the traditional accompaniments of pita and tzatziki.
But we can think of souvlaki as being the tamer, more approachable younger cousin of the extravagant and provocative kandaulos. Originating sometime around 4th and 6th century BCE in Lydia, not only was the dish considered to be tantalizing in taste, but it also was meant to signify its diners’ sophisticated tastes and elite social status. Comic poetry from the time suggests that it “was a rich, rather special dish” consumed by the affluent and “whose preparation required culinary expertise.” That’s a far cry from the humble souvlaki of the thermopolia.
Because the Lydian diet consisted mainly of vegetables, a meat dish like kandaulos would have naturally been viewed as an indulgence. In fact, in almost any pre-modern culture, any kind of meat itself would have considered luxurious due to cost and availability. Yet determining what kind of meat would have been used proves to be one of the most controversial elements of the dish. Virtually none of the ancient accounts specify the meat product used. Archeological evidence reveals that, when they did eat meat, Lydians partook of mutton, goat, beef, pork, fish, and game like deer, wild goat, boar, hare, and game birds. Hesychius’ lexicon entry posits that hare meat was used in kandaulos; this is certainly an ingredient that would be abundantly available, but even if hare were used in the dish as its popularity spread via the Ionians into Hellenic Greece, hare is not a lavish ingredient in terms of its rarity and cost, nor does its leanness offer the kind of flavor and mouth-feel that kandaulos is purported to possess. The original meat would have showcased a meat that only the elite could get their hands on. Beef would have certainly been an option, since the amount of space, time, and care necessary to raise cattle made their meat a prized product. Yet, bearing in mind that hunting was deeply ingrained in Lydian history and mythology, large game animals present themselves as the most promising possibility. I’d put my money on boar. Boar meat not only has a rich taste, but would also represent the elite status of those Lydians who had the leisure to hunt and the prowess necessary to take down a legendarily dangerous prey.
My Reconstruction of Kandaulos
Adapted from Sophia Skoura’s Greek Easter Soup, using evidence from primary sources
This recipe aims to create an approximation of kandaulos incorporating its key ingredients—meat, a dairy product, and bread—and capturing its supposedly rich, creamy texture. For my meat, I chose pork shoulder, since I am not an elite Lydian with access to wild boar. The mild flavor of the pork allows the nuance and balance of the stew to shine, and its fattiness adds to the sumptuousness of the dish. The Phrygian cheese that is said to be a key element of the dish would have originally been a variety produced from a mixture of animal milks—one source claims donkey and goat, another donkey and horse mare’s milk—and was renowned in the Mediterranean, lauded even by Aristotle himself in his Historia animalium. It’s been hypothesized that this variety of cheese might be similar in taste and aroma to Stilton cheese, but I personally find goat cheese to be a satisfying, luscious substitute to the Phrygian variety.
1 lb pork shoulder, cut into bite-sized pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
2 TBSP fat, divided, reserved from making the stock (if you don’t have it, use butter)
2 tsp. olive oil
½ cup white wine, divided
1 large onion, chopped
4 scallions, chopped
8 cloves of garlic, minced
½ cup fresh dill, chopped
½ cup breadcrumbs
The juice of one lemon
Goat cheese for serving
Pita for serving
Heat 1 TBSP fat and the olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper the pork, then add to the pot and brown on all sides, about a minute and a half total; remove to a medium dish, covered. Deglaze with half the white wine, then add the other 1 TBSP fat and lower the heat to medium; add the onion, sautéing until a very light golden color and softened, about 7 minutes. Deglaze with the rest of the wine, then add the scallion and garlic and return the meat to the pot. Pour in just enough stock to cover. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a bare simmer and cover. Cook for about a half an hour, until the meat is tender.
Meanwhile, beat the eggs well in a medium bowl. Slowly add the lemon juice, mixing constantly. Set aside.
When the pork is tender, and more broth if necessary, then remove from the heat. Stir in the dill and breadcrumbs. Slowly add a cup of hot stock to the egg mixture while continuously mixing to temper it, then add egg mixture to the pot of stew. Gently stir the stew for a minute or two, until the mixture has thickened slightly. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, dill, or garlic powder as necessary.
Serve immediately, topping each bowl of soup with several tablespoons of crumbled goat cheese. Warmed pita should sit alongside each bowl, for scooping. I recommend serving with a simple tomato and cucumber salad, along with fried potatoes and mustard sauce (see recipe below).
A Note on Condiments:
As a respectful nod to the sweet and savory variants of kandaulos, I recommend two different kinds of condiments that can be used to top the stew.
On the one hand, you might want to do a sweeter take: simply top with a drizzle of honey and a dash of nutmeg.
On the other hand, mustard is considered an important condiment for souvlaki in some regions, and the seventh-century Byzantine Ierophilos recorded a recipe for a kind of mustard sauce using mustard seeds, white vinegar, garlic, and olive oil. Here’s an approximation of the recipe that you might use:
1 TBSP mustard seed
1 TBSP white vinegar
1 TBSP olive oil
½ TBSP minced garlic
Instructions: Allow ingredients to mingle and hydrate the
mustard seeds for at least ten minutes, then grind with a mortar and pestle.
Drizzle it over the top of the stew when serving; the spoonful that you get
with the sauce in them will be bright and refreshing.
. Maciej Kokoszko and Katarsyna Gibel-Buszewska, “Kandaulos. The Testimony of Select Sources,” Studia Ceranae 1, 2011: 20, 17.
. “The alleged resemblance to a cake is not irreconcilable with a preparation of Hegesippus’ ingredients, cf. patina apiciana and patina cotidiana (for which ingredients were prepared in a stew and served layered between oil cakes, [lagana, Apicius, De Re Coquinaria 4.2.14.]” Crawford H Greenewalt, Jr., Ritual Dinners in Early Historic Sardis (Berkeley: U of California P, 1978): 53.
. Kokoszko 13.
. Kokoszko 18-19.
. Kokoszko, 14
. Greenewalt, Ritual Dinners in Early Historic Sardis 53.
. Annick Payne, “Entry Number 080: Lydian Empire” 20.
. Payne 9, 20-21, 30.
. Payne 9.
. Kokoszko 18.