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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Loukoumades, The Ancient Olympic Treat (Λουκουμάδες)

The official ancient Olympic doughnut - Click to Enlarge Image

The Olympic Hymn

Ancient immortal spirit, pure father
Of the beautiful, the great and the true,
Descend, appear, and emblaze this place
With the glory of your own earth and sky.

In the race, the grappling, and the toss,
Kindle the impulse in all noble contests,
Crown with the perennial wreath,
And fashion the steely and worthy body.

Plains, mountains, and seas glow in your presence
Like some great clear porphyrous shrine,
And every nation hurries here to your temple
In supplication, ancient immortal spirit.

- Costis Palamas (1859-1942)
Translation from Greek by: S. Sotiropoulos,
Canada ©2001

Two thousand seven hundred and eighty four years ago, in 776 B.C., the ancient Olympic Games were born. The very first Games were a simple affair consisting of only one event: a 200 metre footrace known as the ‘stadion’ from which we get the English word ‘stadium’. Over time, the Games developed to include many more events such as wrestling, jumping, discus and javelin throwing, chariot racing and boxing. When the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I abolished the ancient Games in 394 A.D., he not only put an end to a quadrennial pagan athletic festival, but he also put an end to a calendar system that reckoned its dates according to the succession of Olympiads since 776 B.C., a period of some 1170 years. Let us hope that the Modern Olympic Games will last as long.

The history of Greek gastronomy is inextricably linked to the ancient Olympics in three ways. First, and literally so, there was the amateur athlete who claimed the sole wreath of victory in 776 B.C. A cook or mageiros (μάγειρος in Gk.) by the name of Coroebus of Elis was proclaimed victor of the stadion race in the first Games at Olympia. This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has made the mad dash for the kitchen at the slightest hint that something was burning…

Ancient Olympia, August '07 sporting my wild olive wreath - Click to Enlarge Image

The second point of confluence between the history of Greek cuisine and the Olympic Games was the traditional victory prize for athletes in the ancient Games. Victors were awarded a wreath or kotinos (κότινος in Gk.) fashioned from a small branch taken from a wild olive tree that stood in Zeus’ sacred grove at Olympia. The kotinos is an unmistakable symbol of the importance of the olive and its cultivation to the Greeks, both past and present. Olive oil is a fundamental ingredient in Greek cooking and has been so from the most ancient times.

The third and final point of convergence between the history of Greek food and the ancient Olympic Games was the ritual feeding of the victors at ancient Olympia. The poet Callimachus tells us that one of the earliest prizes awarded to the winners were what is commonly translated as “honey tokens” (χαρίσιοι in Gk.), which were essentially fried balls of dough covered in honey. These were offered to the victorious athletes in a highly ritualized ceremony along with the kotinos wreath. Callimachus’ reference to these “honey tokens” is the earliest mention of any kind of pastry in European literature. Today, the “honey tokens” of Callimachus are known as Loukoumades (pronounced ‘loo-koo-MAH-thess) and can be found throughout Greece in special pastry shops that serve only Loukoumades. One of my favourite such shops is Savva’s Loukoumades (Λουκουμάδες του Σάββα) located in a town called Polychrono on the western peninsula of Halkidiki, in the northern Greek region of Macedonia.

In tribute to the origins of the Olympics and as a dedication to the first gold medalist of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Katerina Emmons of the Czech Republic, I present a recipe for Loukoumades - the original doughnuts. This simple recipe is adapted from the one found in the book Greek Cookery by Nicholas Tselementes, and I use it whenever I make Loukoumades at home. There are several more involved versions of the recipe, including my mother’s, but I like this one for its authentic simplicity. After all, there is really no sense in re-inventing the wheel, or in this case, the ancient Greek food progenitor of the modern donut.


4 cups flour
1½ tablespoons active dry yeast
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ - 2 cups lukewarm milk/water
1 cup of good quality Greek honey
Oil for deep frying (I used vegetable oil)
Cinnamon powder for dusting

  1. In a mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1 cup lukewarm milk/water then cover the bowl with a cloth and let it stand for 10 minutes to allow the yeast to rise.
  2. Then gently add the flour and salt to the mixing bowl in stages and continue to mix well; sparingly add the remaining (and/or any additional) lukewarm milk/water while continually mixing. The resulting batter should end up as soft and sticky dough, soft enough to be able to drop from a spoon.
  3. Cover the mixing bowl with a cloth and place in a warm spot to rise for a couple hours, or until it has doubled in bulk and has bubbles forming on the surface.
  4. When the dough has risen, heat oil in a deep pan/fryer and prepare to fry the loukoumades in batches. You will need a teaspoon and a cup of cold water for this part. Dipping the teaspoon into the water before using it to spoon up portions of the dough will ensure that it does not stick to the spoon.
  5. Drop teaspoonfuls of the dough directly into the hot oil, helping with your fingertip if the dough does not easily slide off the spoon. (Just remember to wipe your finger before the next spoonful).
  6. Fry each batch of dough balls until they puff up and achieve a golden brown colour. When they are ready, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon and set them on a platter lined with paper towel to drain for a couple minutes.
  7. Place the loucoumades on a serving platter and drizzle the Greek honey overtop to cover. Dust with cinnamon powder and/or crushed walnuts or sesame seeds and serve immediately.
Additional Notes:
Many recipes for Loukoumades call for a boiled sugar-honey-water syrup bath, but I prefer not to mix sugar with my honey as I like it pure and unadulterated. As well, you can sprinkle the Loukoumades with some crushed walnuts before serving. Lastly, Loukoumades are best eaten on the same day as they are made.

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit)
Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.


Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said...

More informative Greek food history Sam..always an enjoyable read. As for the loukoumades, they are a favourite that I will never give up!

Susan Morris said...

Lovely recipe Sam. I've had these tasty little treats quite often, but always with the sugar water mixture not with honey before.

Anonymous said...

My favorite tavernas in northern Athens are those that offer piping hot loukoumades as a dessert treat. Topped with honey, a sprinkling of cinnamon, and a scoopful of 'kaymak' ice-cream on top of the mound of loukoumades. Sinfully irresistible!

deb said...

Thanks for the lesson. My daughter loves to make doughnuts. I will pass this on to her.

Anonymous said...

Just escape from my wordpress moving struggle as soon as I received an email notification about loukoumades:) I love them a lot! Last time I ate them was about a month ago. A treat from my MIL:) A what an informative post again. I am learning a lot from you blog. Off to moving again:)

Thistlemoon said...

Thanks for the history lesson, Sam! :) Those loukoumades look great! I love getting them when we go to the Greek festivals!

Lore said...

I love loukoumades and I agree with you: why mix honey with sugar when all the goodness is in the honey?!

ΕΛΕΝΑ said...

Loukoumades with honey, crushed walnuts and some cinnamon on the top..... just perfect!! Give me dozen of them Sam, I'll not say "stop":PPP
And of corse as you said, they are better hot,and you have to taste them the same day:)

Anonymous said...

What a lovely read Sam and what a gorgeous treat too.

Ivy said...

Lovely post Sam. This is how I would like all my posts to be, mixing history with food, however it is not that easy for me to do it as often as I would like. You made an excellent translation of the Olympic anthem. I just copied a translation I found at Wikipedia.

Shalimar said...

one of my fave greek delights, if time allows I do prepare this or else I just go straight to my favourite lokoumades place in Athens.

hello from florida.. se 4 ebdomades tha eimai stiv athina...

Katie said...

I love them. And now I don't have to wait for my yearly greek fest to have them. Thanks!

Laurie Constantino said...

We served mountains of these this weekend at our Greek festival. They are most delicious when hot. I like keeping them for a once a year treat!

Anonymous said...

The 1st time I ate Loukoumades, I nearly fainted! It's too sweeeeeeeeeeeet for me LOL I can only ate ONE compared to my greek friend who ate several... then I had down with strong black coffee. But it was a sweet experience. Loukoumades is like Gulab Jamun... :-) Only thing is Gulab Jamun used milk powder, cardamom and other stuffs with lots of sugary syrup. :)

Julie said...

I love Loukoumades too. The best I've ever had were in a little place in Paleochora at the southwest corner of Crete, last April. They were made when I ordered them (I watched), served the moment they were ready, and were absolutely wonderful.

Γρηγορης Αντωνοπουλος said...

Great recipe! Thanks for sharing... and may I add you look pretty cute as well ;-)

Anonymous said...

thank you for the recipe. i adore the Greek food! i went to a Greek festival yesterday and enjoyed a whole platefull with friends!!!

Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant recipe, I am goign to try it often...also thanks for the information on Greek food History. It was an enjoyabel read.

tasteofbeirut said...

We make them in Lebanon too, especially for the Feast of Epiphany. My grandma would use potato too in the dough.
Loukoumades, he? the word loukoum in Arabic means "a bite of something"
Great post, very informative

Christina Morrison said...

These were delicious! Our whole family was begging for more. We started searching out Ancient Greek Recipes because we homeschool and were starting to study Ancient Greece. Best Ancient recipe we have found yet! I'll be blogging about finding your recipe here, and hopefully be sending many more peeps to your site. Do you have any other fabulous ancient recipes I should try out?

Unknown said...

Can the dough be frozen for future use??

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

@Suzanne Derive:

No, it's not recommended.