Monday, 10 March 2008

Potato fritters (Πατάτες με κουρκούτι)

Manolis came to New Zealand as a Greek migrant at the age of 28. He was uneducated, a basic labourer without a trade. Just the kind of person the New Lands needed to help get their countries going. Work was plentiful and guaranteed. You hopped off the plane in the morning, and by the evening you were working the night shift in the Wellington railway yards, or in a factory making nylon thread, which supplied another factory where your wife was working, making women's pantyhose out of the thread that you had manufactured. Plenty of money for the hard-working, and lots of overtime. The unemployment problem of the Greek countryside, and the abuse suffered at the hands of his former Greek employers were quickly forgotten; here, everyone lived in houses with both hot and cold running water, and it wouldn't take long before you could own the house you were living in freehold.

Most Greeks wanted to be their own boss, working in food-related business. Fish and chip shops, takeaway bars and restaurants were all owned by the Greeks and the Chinese. Manolis was just happy enough to sit it out at the factory. The work was easy-paced, the hours were set, the stress was minimal. The 60s and 70s were the golden years, when the Greek migrants were getting married and having children. Every time Manolis attended church, it was for a wedding or a baptism. The funerals came at the end of the 70s, along with the start of the economic recession in New Zealand.

When his wife learnt that she would be made redundant at the stocking factory, Manolis thought hard about the family's future. His daughters were of primary school age, and there was no question of returning to Greece. His brothers and sisters had all left the village in Crete, in search of work in urban centres. Returning home was only a dream. He knew that his factory job would be on the line someday, too. Despite being in New Zealand for over a decade, neither he nor his wife had learnt much English. "Halo, how arrr yoo, lovely day, it isn't" was about all they ever needed to learn; their work colleagues were also Greek. Even if he did pack up and leave New Zealand, what would he be going back to? Not that he wanted to stay in Wellington all his life, but he liked his big fancy house in Mt Victoria: three bedrooms, a huge garden where he grew potatoes, marrow, tomatos and beans, a granny flat to supplement the family's income, a minute's walk from the Greek Orthodox church, and another minute's walk to the centre of town. Owning a home is every Greek man's dream; he did not want to start form the beginning in Greece.

He entered the fish and chip shop trade. He'd heard from all his mates how rewarding it was, despite the long hours and tiring work. No one complained of bad business in this trade; New Zealanders had fish and chips for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He wasn't afraid of the work, or the long hours; he was used to that already. His greatest fear was having to face the customers. No longer would he able to listen to a Kiwi speaking to him and simply smile back and say laughingly, "yes, yes." He would now have to understand what they were saying to him.

It didn't help that most items in the menu had a zillion different variations of their name. Instead of asking for a potato fritter, one customer would ask for a potato flip and the next one would ask for a scalloped potato. To make matters worse, they'd ask for flips and chips, which sounded like fish and chips. That's when communication would break down completely - what's the difference between fish and flips, and if they wanted potato fritters, then why didn't they just say it? It all sounded Greek to him at the best of times; the Kiwis seemed to come from a different village where they all spoke their own dialectal form of English, and somehow still managed to maintain a lingua franca to understand each other. Their dietary preferences left much to be desired. He could understand their liking for spring rolls; they reminded him of the kalitsounia his wife made at home, just like the way his mother and sisters made them in Greece. But when it came to mixing savoury and sweet food, all fried in deep vats of animal lard, he was at a loss. Since when did battered banana fritters go with fried fish?

It was the same every day: he'd get to the shop earlιer than his wife, who stayed back home to cook the family's evening meal. He'd turn on the vats to melt the fat, and start cleaning potatoes and slicing fish fillets. All day long he wore gumboots because he always working in damp conditions. Rheumatic pains were part and parcel of the job, from all those years of standing around in the cold water, draining away from the potatoes and the fish. He was forever pouring water over all the surfaces to keep away the smell. He always worked hard, and never complained about the conditions. He hardly ever spoke while he worked. He and his wife had said all they wanted to say to each other. There was nothing left to say.

He worked in silence, in the same way that he suffered. The fish and chip shop had made him his own boss, something he could never be in his home country. He was stuck with this job. He couldn't leave it. There would be no other. He was living in a prison, removing himself from one cell to enter another one: either he would be sitting on the couch, watching television in the evenings, or he'd be working in the ten-metre-by-ten-metre windowless workspace in the back of the fish and chip shop. That would constitute his life for the next two decades. He yearned to return to Crete. The only time he would ever argue with his wife would be over this issue. She felt that it was too early to get out of the business: times were getting harder and they were only a few years away from retirement age. She always had the upper hand.

Life isn't ever perfect. Manolis did manage to leave the fish shop eventually, and move back to Crete, but not with his wife. He had to leave her behind, because she had become one with the earth and couldn't be boarded easily onto a plane. He lived the last few years of his life in his beloved home town of Crete. And he never spoke better English in New Zealand than he did in Hania. The British tourists loved the stories he told them of the fish and chip shop trade in New Zealand.

Potato fritters, with all its different names, were once considered 'poor man's fish and chips'. They were always the children's favorite in the fish-and-chip shop menu, despite being associated with an unhealthy diet. According to the statistics, fish and chips is still the favorite takeaway food of the average New Zealander.

You need
2 large potatoes, thickly sliced (you will probably get about 20 slices - keep them in water to avoid browning)
1 3/4 cups self-raising flour
1 good pinch of salt
a generous am
ount of ground black pepper
1/2 tsp paprika (optional)
1 cup beer
100 ml water (approx)
about 1 litre vegetable oil

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a bowl, and make a well in the centre. Pour in the beer and water, and mix to a smooth dropping consistency, like a runny pancake mixture. Let the batter stand for an hour to become frothy. When you are ready to cook the fritters, heat the oil till very hot. Dredge the well-drained potato slices in flour, shake off the excess, and dip them into the batter. Drop them into the hot oil and let them cook till they turn golden brown. They need to be turned while cooking to ensure consistent browning. Remove the fritters from the oil with a slotted spoon, and place them on paper towels, to soak up the excess oil (this won't make them any healthier, it will simply make them less oily). Cook the fritters in reasonable batches, to avoid their sticking onto each other. When you remove them from the oil, clear away the batter scraps in the oil (they will burn if you leave them in).

To serve the fritters, take out all your larder and refrigerator sauces: ketchup, tartare, HP, Worcestershire, chutney, whatever. Eat them with friends and remember the good old days when no one watched their cholesterol, and everyone loved fish and chips.

This post is dedicated to my late father, Emmanuel.

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