Herbs are an essential part of Greek cuisine and traditional medicine in all cultures. While adding flavor to foods, herbs also provide health benefits. Since ancient times at least, herbal remedies were an important way people dealt with a variety of health issues.
The father of medicine, Hippocrates of Kos, prescribed herbal remedies, some of which are still used today to deal with ailments like the common cold and indigestion. There are many misconceptions about herbal medicine, one of the most serious is that because herbs are natural they are therefore safer than other drugs. This is, however, untrue. Herbal remedies can have serious side-effects and can even be highly toxic. The herbs may interact with prescription medications, so it is worth the effort to be cautious and consult with your physician before taking any herbal medicines.
The following herbs are typical remedies long used in Greece as well as flavoring for foods.
Bay leaves are used to season soups, stews, and casseroles. A tea or decoction of bay leaves can help relieve gas.
Coriander leaves are used in recipes for poultry, sauces, and vegetables. When chewed raw, the fresh coriander leaves or seeds can help relieve indigestion.
Dill provides the fresh flavor to iconic Greek recipes like spanakopita and in salads and dressings. The herb helps relieve intestinal gas and in Europe a weak dill tea is given to babies for colic.
Mint is a favorite Greek herb used in lamb recipes. Mint leaves freshen the breath when chewed, while mint tea helps digestion.
Oregano flavors a variety of Greek dishes including meats, chicken, salads, and tomato sauce. A tea made with oregano helps digestion and can reduce the congestion of the common cold.
Parsley is ubiquitous as a garnish for many dishes, but when added to salads and eaten fresh, it contains vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium, and bioflavonoids among other compounds that have been shown in studies to fight cancer.
Herbal remedies can be made at home in a variety of different ways. To make a decoction, place the dried herb in a saucepan of cold water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for up to one hour. Strain the liquid and drink in small amounts, about a half cup, two or three times a day.
To make tea or an infusion, place the herbs, either fresh or dried, in a mug or teapot and cover with freshly boiled water. Allow the tea to infuse for ten minutes, then strain and enjoy the medicinal tea.
To make syrup, add honey or sugar to a decoction or infusion of any herb, and simmer until it thickens to the preferred consistency. Store the syrup in a glass bottle that has been washed thoroughly and dried. Take a spoonful or two to help relieve cold symptoms.
Fresh Mint Tea
2 cups water
1 cup chopped fresh mint, leaves and stems included
1-2 tablespoons Greek honey (optional)
In a medium saucepan, bring the water up to a boil, add the mint and simmer 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat; steep for 5 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, discard the solids, and pour the tea into a teapot. Add the honey to taste, if using.
Minty Greek Salad
2-3 medium to large tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
1-2 small-medium cucumbers, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 small-medium red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon Greek sea salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons Greek extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Kalamata olives
1/2 cup feta, Dodonis
1/4 cup chopped mint leaves
In a large bowl, toss together the tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, Greek sea salt, freshly ground pepper, extra virgin olive oil, and the Kalamata olives. Top with feta and chopped mint. Serve immediately.