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Sunday, 23 March 2008

Taste sensationalism (Αίσθηση γεύσης)

I do a lot of shopping these days, but it's mainly trips to the supermarket, to help out other members of the family. The supermarket is a nightmare - never take kids with you, avoid bargains and sort out your trolley before you get to the checkout. You might have beard this advice before many times; try and heed it as often as you can. This time round, it was I who fell into temptation.

I like to try out new ingredients and flavours, just like any foodie. Fellow food bloggers do the same thing, and learn all about new ways to cook old recipes. Laurie recently tried saba in a lentil stew, Peter added liquid smoke to taramasalata, and I hear dukkah is all the rage in New Zealand, plonked on the table and doused over anything else that's being eaten. We all like to treat ourselves every now and then. For a number of years, I'd been tempted to try out olive pate. Posher restaurants offer it with bread as a dip before the ordered meals arrive. This is what first put me off it - you end up eating so much bread with oily dip that you can't eat the meal you ordered. Every time I passed the product on the supermarket shelves, I kept postponing my taste sensation. Just recently, one of the Greek companies that produce it brought out a "buy one, get one free" offer for their complete range of olive pates: 100g jars of each of green olive paste, black olive paste and Kalamata olive paste. I took the plunge. I didn't do it because of the special offer, the discount meant nothing to me. I just wanted to try it.

I like to try new bits and pieces too, but from past experience, I find that I often end up chucking them out because I kept them past their expiry date. Maybe they didn't go with what I was cooking on a particular day, or they waited to be used, but other food preparation took priority. Maybe I just forgot to use them. That's just more proof to say that I didn't really need them, not the way I cook, and for the people I cook.

I don't want to criticise the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson, but their recipes for, let's say, pumpkin soup (Gordon's) and chocolate muffins (Nigella's) aren't really that original or different from the basic internationally well-known standard recipe for these dishes. And I'm not trying to say that Greeks are backward, slow country bumpkins who have no desire to broaden their horizons, and adamantly stand in the way of progress. They may seem like that to some people, but as this is a food blog, let's stick to the food sector. A Greek menu may seem deja vu to a package tourist who has seen the same food listed in hundreds of Greek restaurants within and outside of Greece. No matter where you go, pastitsio, fasolada, and moussakawill taste pretty much the same, with similar ingredients used to make the dishes. A pastitsio can't contain soya mince (but if it did, then you'd have to label it vegetarian lasagne), fasolada can't contain red kidney beans instead of white haricot beans with a bit of chili mixed into it (because that would be a chili con carne without the carne), moussaka can't have parsnips instead of potatoes (otherwise it would be called parsnip moussaka), and you can't "cook a moussaka without aubergine" (as someone asked using a google search, and ended up on my site), and nor can you cook "Greek lentil stew without tomatoes" (another poor sod asked this). A Greek village salad could only differ from one place to the other in terms of the firmness of the tomato, or the genuineness of the feta cheese used to make it.

Don't get me wrong, but most times, Greek cuisine just doesn't need all these newfangled bits and pieces added to it. Greeks love to eat the same old stuff day in, day out. If you change the recipe just a little bit, they'll tell you that what you say you cooked isn't that at all, it's something else, and you shouldn't give it the name of a famous Greek dish, because it's not made in the same way as that famous Greek dish. When Greeks talk to each other about what they eat, they'll say, for instance, "We had biftekia today", "We're having soutzoukakia for lunch" ορ "I'm cooking bakaliaros today", an image is conjured up in the other person's mind, not much different to the one that first speaker had in his mind. The conversation might take a turn such as this one: "Biftekia? My father's favorite dish!", "Soutzoukakia? My mum makes those, too!" and "Bakaliaros? With skordalia (garlic dip) and beetroot salad, right?" They have common beliefs about those foods. By serving them up with a new flavour added to (or a traditional flavour subtracted from) them, those people are likely to say: "Did you notice that the biftekia smelled of coriander? He has no idea about Greek food!", "She served beetroot salad with soutzoukakia? She's crazy!" and "Bakaliaros without beetroot salad and skordalia? What a scrooge!"

So why could a particular traditional Greek dish taste so different from one cook to another? To my traditional Greek family, the answer is perfectly simple: there was too much/little salt, there was too much/little oil, the ingredients weren't fresh, it was over/under-cooked, a sauce tasted soupy because there was too much water in it, a soup tasted stewy because there was not enough water, and so on. Here's what happened one day, when I served up lentil stew, and left for work just as the whole family had sat down to eat lunch.

My son says: "This doesn't taste like fakes. There's something wrong with it."
My daughter says: "I know what Mum did. She threw all the ingredients in the pot together instead of putting them into the pot one by one."
My husband says: "There's nothing wrong with the fakes - now eat your lunch and shut up!" all the time in full knowledge that there IS something wrong with the fakes, but preferring to hide his fears in front of the children lest they remain starved, or that he would have to prepare another meal himself for them.

When I came home, I was told what happened at lunch. I tried the fakes, and yes, there was something "wrong"; I hadn't added any salt, pepper or oregano. So I did just that, and the lentil stew tasted pretty much what my family knows lentil stew tastes like, no matter where they eat it.

We may be slow to catch on to new ideas, but it's sometimes a good thing, a bloody good thing, in fact. Hania, for example, is a summer resort town which fills to bursting point during the summer with primarily Northern European tourists, but it still doesn't have KFC, McDonalds or Starbucks (yet - I am not saying they will never come here; Starbucks is opening in April, 2008). If you'd like some fried chicken, you have to go to the children's and young people's food outlets and ask for chicken nuggets; otherwise, you can go to a psitopoleio and eat it grilled. Want a Big Mac instead? You'll have to drive out to Rethimno (an hour away), and make sure it's in the summer season, because that's when it's open (guess who it opens for...). Wanna Starbucks coffee? Drive to Iraklio - two hours away. Are you surprised? Doesn't that say something about Hania's cultural heritage? Half a million people descend on our island in the summer months, and no one complains of the lack of these institutions.

Lulu summarises this point quite succinctly: "Like most Americans, I did not grow up eating a well-defined cuisine. My mom is a good cook, and we ate well, but our meals were derived from a chaotic mix of sources: a norwegian recipe here, a few german recipes there, pizza, lasagna, shake-and-bake, and lots of church-potluck-style hot dishes. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it left me vulnerable to the throw-everything-in method of cooking."

At mamastaverna, there is a hilarious dialogue of what could happen if you tried to change a Greek recipe to make it more, let's say, commercially Western. It reminds me so much of how my parents felt about New Zealand food, and is well worth reading. Here's my version of what I suspect would happen if ever I served up Laurie's lentil stew with saba syrup, Peter's taramasalata with liquid smoke, feta cheese and toasted village bread spread with olive oil and sprinkled with dukkah, a perfectly balanced meal, but nevertheless, not quite as Greek as my husband, a stickler if ever there was one for traditional Greek food, knows it:

My husband has just come home, very tired from driving a taxi in a town filled with reckless drivers. "Hi honey, I'm home. Is lunch ready?" "Of course it is, my dearest, we're having fakes and taramasalata with feta cheese today." He loves lentil stew. "Here you are." I dish it up for him. He starts eating. After ingesting the first mouthful of fakes, he suddenly stops chewing. "Ti sto kalo evales stis fakes? Portokalada?" (What on earth did you put in the lentil stew? Orange juice?) I've made a point of lying through my teeth every time I serve up traditional food with a new added twist. "Are you crazy?" I say to him. He dips his bread into the taramasalata and eats it. "Kala, posi ora epsines thn taramosalata? Tin ekapses!" (Well, how long were you cooking that taramasalata for? You've burnt it!) I have a good excuse for that one. "Taramasalata is never cooked, dear, you must be mistaken." He slices the feta cheese, which has a little dukkah sprinkled over it (instead of the normal oregano). It doesn't take very long to watch him choke on it. "Ma ton Theo, prospatheis na me dilitiriaseis mesimeriatika? Ti evales stin feta? Tsili?" (In the name of God, are you trying to poison me at high noon? What did you put on the feta? Chili?) If you want a divorce from a Cretan, this is all you need to do. I'm not the only one to get an earful when I change a recipe; believe me, it happens all the time here.

I so looked forward to trying that olive paste. Buy two, get one free, said the advertising board. Green, black and Kalamata olives turned into a pate spread. I tried the Kalamata pate first with granary bread - my God, was it salty, I nearly choked. Then I tried the black one, this time with carrot sticks - that one was salty, too; λύσσα, as the Greeks say, salty enough to drive you mad. I haven't opened the last pot yet. I am in no hurry to do so. It may be one of those pots that I forget to use one day, because it simply won't suit my cooking and dining regime. Maybe it was just the brand; I could try another one instead. But I am pretty sure that Greek cuisine had other ideas in mind for the ubiquitous olive, and it definitely wasn't pate.

This post is dedicated to Lulu for the great understanding she has for her friend's mother's cooking.

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See also:
Western diets
Googling food

To eat or not to eat?
Eating locally
A day in the field