Yesterdish’s Loukoumades

A Greek treat for the upcoming Olympics, but not from them.

Many cultures have some version of fried doughnut-like preparation–the Italians have zeppole, the French have beignets, the Israelis have sufganiyah, and the Greeks and Turks share loukoumades.

Yeast-raised, honey-drizzled, and sometimes sugar-dusted, these delightful bites can claim another heritage: internet legend. Because online, loukoumades are repeatedly held up as having been served to the victors of the first recorded Olympics.

I don’t know why this is important to people. Heck, I don’t understand why we think the Olympics are important, for that matter. But since we’re having another round of Olympics kicking off this Friday, I’ll indulge the weird obsession of the internet long enough to point out why these delicious bites of heaven have nothing whatsoever to do with the overgrown McDonalds playground that is the Olympics.

Loukoumades need no Olympic excuse to appear at your next party.

The Internet is absolutely clogged with statements along these lines:

No Olympic fest would be complete without the gold, and for us, that’s a recipe for loukoumades — airy, crispy pastries that were the first prizes awarded to winners of the ancient Olympics. (Poet Callimachus, in the third century B.C., called them “honey tokens.”)
— Kristin and Marianne Kyriakos, “An Olympic ‘Honey Token’ Fest”, The Washington Post, Aug. 22, 2004

Or this one:

Loukoumade is considered to be the oldest recorded dessert in world. In ancient Greece, these deep fried dough balls were served to the winners of the Greek Olympics. The Greek poet Callimachus was the first to state that these deep fried dough balls were soaked in honey and then served to the winners as “honey tokens.” — ifood.tv, Loukoumades

Oldest recorded dessert? So you think the Egyptian hieroglyphics of people eating honey and figs is the oldest recorded appetizer in the world?

Or this one:

The fried balls of dough covered in honey were referred to as “honey tokens” by the poet Callimachus, whose reference is the earliest mention of any kind of pastry in European literature, [Jody Athanasiou, festival cook] said. — Barbara M. Houle, “St. Spyridon cathedral plans an escape to Mykonos,” Telegram.com, Sept. 19, 2013

It’s a cute story, but I can’t find any reference to anything resembling “honey tokens” in any of the poems or fragments of Callimachus’ writing that survives. There’s a reference to virgin priestesses burning honey-cakes as offerings, but that’s about it.

All I’ve seen that mentions the games that would become the Olympics are in Aetia, a group of poems about being carried to Helicon and having the gods tell legends. So if this reference is from there, well, it’s next to a story of Pegasus creating a river with its hoof.

If anyone knows what fragment this reference is supposed to come from, please let me know. But from a historical perspective, it wouldn’t mean much if such a reference even existed. Callimachus wouldn’t have known anything about the first Olympics.

The date of the first recorded Olympics was 776 B.C.; Callimachus was writing in the third century, B.C. (that is, sometime between 300 and 200 B.C.). That’s a pretty significant chunk of time. Relying on Callimachus to report what happened at the first Olympics is like checking TMZ to see what Pocahontas had for breakfast on her wedding day, April 5, 1614.

So what actually happened at that first Olympics? In 776 B.C., the only event was a roughly 210-yard footrace called a stadion, a name that was shared with the structure that held it. Twenty naked men would run the dirt track together for the privilege of winning (at the time) an olive branch. (Don’t get too excited, ladies–women weren’t allowed to watch.)

It’s hard to imagine a nude Olympics anymore because I can’t imagine anything that could make the Olympics even less watchable. Seriously, why do grown people pay any attention to this? And how are these people heroes? You know, these are people who have been repeatedly told to hurl themselves down the side of a mountain for a living. Think about the kind of person who would be given that advice over and over–and then take it.

Anyway…

To the extent there’s an actual culinary connection, the recorded winner in 776 B.C. was Koroibos of Elis, a cook and baker. Which makes the supposed history of loukoumades even more laughable. “Oh, that’s for coming out and racing naked against a pack of naked guys. Your gifts are a stick and some food you could’ve stayed home and made with your clothes on. Have a nice trip back to Elis.”

All of that said, while the evidence isn’t there to support the presence of loukoumades in early Olympiads, there’s nothing that makes it categorically impossible, either. Most of the basic constituent elements of loukoumades were available in 776 B.C. The Greeks had wheat bread (although barley was more common), honey, and olive oil, and had visited Egypt, where frying took place and cinnamon was available.

They didn’t immediately appear on domestic menus, however. One early reference is to their Turkish form, lokma, in a piece reviewing the Turkish diet from the October 12, 1928 edition of The Hutchinson (Kansas) News:

Special dishes are saffron pilaf, sweetened rice sprinkled with saffron, for weddings, and lokma for the dead. The latter are somewhat like doughnuts minus the hole, floating in syrup. They are distributed to neighbors and to the poor as a means of giving peace to the dead man’s soul.

Weird, maybe, but less weird than a poet supposedly writing about naked men eating doughnuts 400 years before he was born, and using that to justify making them.

Loukoumades need no Olympic excuse to appear at your next party. The vanilla harmonizes the sweetness of the honey with the slight residual sourness of the yeast. The texture is even more complex, the crisp exterior given just the right amount of yield from the syrup.

From Yesterdish’s recipe box.

Yesterdish’s Loukoumades (Greek zeppole!)

3-1/8 cups all purpose flour
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
2 cups lukewarm water
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. dry yeast

Mix and rest 1:30 hours to double.

The syrup

In a medium pot–over medium heat–boil and cook for 45 minutes:

  1. 2 cups of water
  2. 8 oz. of sugar [roughly, a heaping cup–technically, 1-1/8 cup, plus a tablespoon]
  3. 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
  4. 1 small cinnamon stick and clove (optional)
  5. 1/4 lemon, juiced [about a scant tablespoon–most medium-sized lemons have around three tablespoons of juice]

After boil add 1 oz. honey (to be added at the very end).

  • After the 1:30 hours rest and rise, fry spoon-size balls of dough in moderate heat oil.
  • Drain.
  • Coat in honey sauce.
  • Roll in cinnamoned [really? we can make that a verb? Okay…] sugar–eat!


2 Comments

  1. Liz

    Wow. Came across your article in researching Loukoumades, and trying to find the source that ties Callimachus to his “poem” about their use during the olympics. My sons entire Greek report on the history of Loukoumades (due in 3 days) is moot and destroyed now. Awesome! LOL

    • Sorry–but I hope the report went well! If he doesn’t get an “A” with all of this information at his disposal, I want to write his teacher a note! 😉 But I went through the same process and even with a reasonable bit of Latin (since some of what survives is the translations by Latin scholars) at my service, I couldn’t find anything that resembled the story. For another example of the Internet creating a legend around a food, see the discussion of capers in the post for breast of chicken with capers: http://www.yesterdish.com/2014/08/08/breast-of-chicken-with-capers/

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