Ancient Recipe: Ptisane [Barley Water] (Greek, at least 5th century BCE)

“[Barley] groats belong to the wheat family. They have juice that is quite nourishing and tenacious.”
~ Aelius Galenus (Galen), De alimentorum facultatibus (On the Properties of Foodstuffs), early 2nd century CE


Continuing my tradition of posting every ancient beverage I make in this glass…

Even after wheat bread became the favorite of the Mediterranean world, barley retained special significance as the first grain eaten by mankind, the primordial source of sustenance. The Greeks ingested their precious barley in many forms: as bread, as roasted flour or maza (a recipe I reconstructed here), and in beverages like kykeon and ptisane (πτισάνη, ptee-sah-nay).

While the peoples of the Ancient Near East made barley into beer, Greek kykeon and ptisane were not fermented, although both could be mixed with wine. The two are often confused with one another, equated as the same in a grammar lexicon of the fourth century. And both seem to have blurred the lines between our modern categories of food versus drink. In Homer’s Iliad, goat cheese is grated over a kykeon before serving, and later writers like the 12th-century Eustathius describe it as a thick barley soup. Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE mentions ptisane variations containing whole barley grains and warns that these must be cooked to their maximum softness, lest they expand in the stomach and cause indigestion (this perfectly reasonable warning is repeated centuries later by the physician Galen, quoted above).

So what was the difference between kykeon and ptisane? One clue can be found in the etymology of their names. Kykeon literally means “mixture”; ptisane comes from the verb ptíssein, to peel or crush. The main ingredient in kykeon is alphita, ground barley meal or flour, while the word ptisane can refer to hulled (peeled) barley grains as well as the drink made from them. In surviving literature, ptisane exists in strained and unstrained forms; kykeon does not. So while kykeon resembled modern grits or polenta, ptisane consisted of whole grains cooked in water, or, if strained, barley water.

This red-figure vase from around 490 BCE, by an artist named Brygos, is believed by some to depict the kykeon scene in the Iliad, when an enslaved woman named Hecamede prepares a wine and cheese kykeon for the elderly King Nestor. Others identify these figures as the old warrior Phoenix with the enslaved Briseis (there are a lot of enslaved women in the Iliad…)

Aside from being nutritious and plentiful, water leftover from cooking grain would have been safer to drink than fresh water in ancient times, having been boiled. Even today, barley water is enjoyed wherever barley is grown, from sweet jau ka sattu in Pakistan and roasted barley tea in East Asia to the Robinson brand lemon barley water traditionally served to players at Wimbledon. Through Latin tisana, Greek ptisane gives rise to the archaic French and English word tisane (tee-zahn), which can refer to barley water or any type of herbal tea.

Hippocrates and Galen both write at length about the properties and variations of ptisane, though they are more concerned with its medicinal than its culinary value. Hippocrates recommended ptisane for the healthy and the sick alike; indeed, barley is rich in fiber, niacin, thiamine, and other valuable nutrients. Galen rightfully considers unstrained ptisane more nutritious than strained, but he acknowledges the popularity of strained barley water when he uses it as a generic example of a liquid people consume, along with soups (rofēma) and milk, in his treatise on the human digestive system.

Galen mentions many possibilities for flavoring barley water–olive oil, salt, cumin, honeyed wine, vinegar–but he himself recommends dill and leeks. My recipe includes honey and two of the most popular herbs in Ancient Greek cuisine: mint and oregano. As both kykeon and ptisane were general terms referring to a preparation technique, we can assume they varied based on personal taste, what else the chef had on hand, and whether the liquid food was meant to fortify or refresh.


1 cup barley
6 cups water
1 tablespoon honey
A few sprigs each of fresh mint and/or oregano

Bring the water to a boil over medium-low heat. Add the barley, cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the barley is cooked.

Remove from the heat and strain out the barley, reserving the water in a bowl. Save the cooked barley for another recipe (unless you wish to incur the wrath of Demeter, Greek goddess of grain).

While the water is still hot, add the honey and herbs. Remove the herbs after 20 minutes and stir thoroughly to ensure the honey dissolves.

Like other forms of tea, ptisane can be enjoyed hot or cold.



The delicate, milky flavor of barley water takes on a light sweetness from the honey and a slight spiciness from the the oregano and mint. I find it really refreshing when served ice cold, although that’s not particularly Ancient Greek.

In my classes on Ancient Greek cuisine and the Eleusinian Mysteries (secret religious rites in which kykeon was ritually consumed) I’ve served this recipe in place of kykeon. My first attempts at recreating kykeon didn’t go over so well with a modern audience, but I’m determined to figure out an appetizing version of Homer’s cheesy grits with wine. Stay tuned for further barley experiments!

Cheese and Other Updates


I’ve had a busy summer. Aside from my earlier vacation, I worked at an amazing culinary camp through CampusNYC, where I got to teach groups of teens about the history and science of food. Now I’m off on my last major event of the season: Burning Man 2017. This is my first time going to Burning Man, and while I’m not exactly certain what I’ll encounter out there, I know it will delay my next blog post. Expect a new ancient recipe in early September.

For now, I wanted to provide some updates about a recipe from the Medieval Islamic world that I posted some time ago: kamakh rijal, the remarkably simple recipe that uses salt and natural probiotic cultures to ferment milk into spreadable cheese. Last time, I wrote about the first six weeks. For the cheese to reach its final stage, I had to wait a total of 15 weeks before adding seasonings and transferring it from its original container. I am happy to say I am now the proud owner of several quarts of kamakh rijal.

Now that the cheese is officially ready to serve, I moved it from the counter to the fridge to slow down the fermentation process. Following the instructions of the original recipe in the Medieval Book of Dishes, I mixed in equal amounts of garlic and mint leaves (minced) and nigella seeds (one and a half tablespoons of each for the large amount of cheese I had–about 6 cups. That’s almost exactly the amount of milk and yogurt that went into the cheese in the first place). Nigella, also called black cumin or black caraway, is a spice that was widely-used in the ancient world, even being found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The seeds are similar in appearance to black sesame seeds, but the flavor is unique and powerful, like onion mixed with anise. In Armenia and Syria, nigella is still used to flavor cheese today (especially string cheese), while modern-day South Asians use the spice in naan and other breads.


This is what the cheese looked like immediately after being transferred to a larger bowl for mixing. Less solid than it looks.

Kamakh rijal was likely intended to be served on flatbread, ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisines to this day. I’ve been experimenting with different ways to use it beyond its original context. It’s good on crackers and raw vegetable sticks or in a sandwich. Because the flavor is so strong, it is best-used sparingly and pairs well with milder ingredients like celery, tomato or lettuce. I could imagine using it in tuna salad, or anywhere you might use an herb cream cheese or goat cheese.

I used some of the kamakh rijal with milk, flour, butter and spinach to make a cheese sauce. I also made chicken rollatini using it as filling. The flavor of the cheese was a little overpowering in the chicken, but I really liked the cheese sauce on pasta or baked potatoes.

If the garlic/nigella/mint combination doesn’t appeal to you, you could try mixing it with dried rose and cinnamon (another suggestion from the Book of Dishes) or other flavorings of your choice. VII out of X.


Kamakh rijal-stuffed chicken cutlet, topped with dried mint and onions and served with asparagus on the side.