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Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Baba ganoush (Μελιτζανοσαλάτα)

Much as I like to say I cook Cretan food in my kitchen, nost of the time, I'm actually cooking something that goes not just beyond the borders of the island, but the very country it belongs to, exhibiting a high degree of similarity with that of our neighbours, whose ancestors imported their cuisine into whichever land they conquered. Today, we're having baba ganoush (since there were no snails 'yiahni' leftovers), with eggplant dolmas, topped with yialantzi dolmas. The river of zucchini in our summer garden is still flowing, as it is in Riana's, but it now has a tributary - the aubergine.

As a trained linguist, I have always been interested in finding out the origins of the words we use in the language we speak. I was lucky to be bilingual, as were most of the children who attended Clyde Quay School in Mt Victoria when I was growing up. On leaving primary school, I was enrolled at Wellington Girls' College, where only a few of the 1000 girls attending were bilingual (poor souls). Although my English language skills were not as developed as my classmates', I never had any problems with academic language, since most technological and scientific vocabulary is derived from Greek or Latin, which I was studying anyway.

English belongs to the Germanic languages; in other words, it is related to a number of other languages (i.e. it isn't unique) like German, Swedish, Danish, among others. Greek comprises its own language group with no other related languages (i.e. it is unique); this is also the case with Armenian and, paradoxically, given its proximity to Greece, Albanian. Like all languages, in order to develop, they must borrow, and Greek is no exception to this, as our food words will attest.

Of course, a Greek would never call eggplant yemista 'dolmas' (we reserve that word for leaf parcels), and neither would they call melitzanosalata baba ganoush (nor would a Turk, for that matter), but vine leaves stuffed with rice are still called 'dolmadakia yialantzi', while our various regional versions of cheese pie are still called something that sounds like 'boreg'. One of our main herbs is 'maydanoz', which we often add to the 'kiyma' in our 'kofte'. Bairaktaris restaurant in Athens serves the best 'tas kebab' in all of Greece, and good 'baklava' is found all over the country. When we haven't planned anything for dinner, we might look into our fridge and prepare a meal 'tourlou tourlou'. All the words in inverted commas can be found in the Turkish language to denote the same food that they signify in Greek.

Here's a little quiz. See how many of the following words you recognize that are used in both Turkish and Greek cuisine:

cacik, pastirma, fasulye, pide, borek, ciger, karides, roka, Enginar, Dolması, Türlü, Ispanaklı, Pilav, Madaynoz, Kofte, Bamya, Defne, Lahana, Yahni, Helvasi, Guveci, tahin, yogurt, Peynirli, Portakal, Pekmez, Fistikli, Kaymak, Baklava, Sarması, Yalancı, Barbunya , Kiyma, Pırasa, Bezelye

When I was young, my mother would say to me (among the many down-to-earth things she said, at the risk of insulting her own race) that we must all have had Turkish ancestors in our family line, simply because Turks were living in Greece for 400 years. I remember her saying things like this when she felt angry about being put down by other Greeks in New Zealand, who might have seemed to her to be putting on airs, seeing themselves as more refined and cultured, quite unlike that of the country bumpkin that they once were when they first emigrated. She was too polite to tell them what she really felt, that we're all the same underneath.

Even though she hinted that her own origins might not be purely Greek, my mother never cooked foreign food; at least, she thought she never did. Our Bulgarian live-in taking care of my mother-in-law has on occassion cooked for us; all the meals were reminiscent of the ingredients and cooking style we are used to in our own homes, yet she insists that her recipes are Bulgarian. The Ottoman cuisine was more far-reaching than the regime, influencing the local food of the people living in the areas it passed over. Even though the Turkish yoke has ceased to exist in Greece, the Ottoman cuisine is still an integral part of life in Greece, and other parts of Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa, all of which are inextricably entwined.

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For a diachronic view of traditional Greek cuisine, click here.

Answers: tzatziki, pastrouma. fasolia, pita, boureki, tsiyeri, garides, keftedes, roka, anginara, Dolmas, Tourlou, spanakı, pilafi, maidanoz, Bamia, Dafni, Lahano, Yahni, Halva, yiouvetsi, tahini, yaourti, Peynirli, Portakali, Petoumezi, Fistiki, Kaymaki, Baklava, Sarmas, Yalantzı, Barbounia , Kima, Prasa, bizelia