Saturday, 2 August 2008

This is not lasagne (Αυτό δεν είναι λαζάνια)

Today I cooked lasagne. Or did I?


Just in case you've missed it, there's recently been a great debate raging over the blogosphere about traditional food, and what can be named as such. All it took to spark it off was Laurie's use of the word 'kleftiko', a word in Greek cuisine usually used to denote a particular cooking style: a dug-out pit in which meat (lamb or goat, the traditional meat at the time 'kleftiko' cooking was invented) is cooked (and clearly, Laurie didn't go to such lengths). The pit is sealed so that the flavours and aromas are all sealed in with it. Only when the seal is cut away is the cooked meal revealed. So how controversial can the name of the cooking process be?

The meaning of a word takes on great significance when the word becomes a name. Names are the be-all and end-all of understanding, and when it comes to food, the name of a dish evokes the earliest of childhood memories in traditional culinary culture all over the world. Say 'boureki' in Fournes, and there's no doubt about what that denotes. But say 'boureki' in Kambi, and there may be quite a different version of it floating around in people's minds. Then go to Macedonia and say 'boureki' there: you'll get a different image conjuring up in the minds of the locals. Say 'malaka' in Hania, and your host will bring out the kalitsounia. Say 'malaka' in Athens, and you'll get a black eye. Say 'Zambia' in Hania; no one will even think of Africa.

(The photograph of my mother was taken in the early 1960s. Phivos Nicolaides featured this post on his blog.)

Zambia (on the left) was the name of my mother. My mother left Crete when she was 30 years of age. As an olive picker from a poor family, the island offered no prospects for her in the 1960s, so she emigrated to New Zealand, where she lived the next 30 years of her life. It was a very prosperous life, albeit a very short one. She's standing here with a friend at Agious Apostolous beach, where her grandchildren (unfortunately, she didn't get to meet them) now go for swimming lessons. The buildings in the background were once used as a military training centre, but are now disused, left in a state of ruin.

Zambia is an unusual name. It's common in the villages around where she was born (Kambi, Keramia, Hania, Crete), and in a few other pockets of the island, but is hardly known in other parts of Greece.
There is another similar woman's name in Rhodes (Tzambika, where churches are dedicated to St Tzambika), but I'm not sure if it is of the same origin. An archaeologist friend of mine told me that the name has pre-Venetian origins, possibly relating to the name Isabella; this means that my mother's ancestors have been living in this town since before it was occupied by the Ottoman army, ie before 1500. My mother's history is an integral part of the history of the region where she was born.

It's the custom to name children after their grandparents, but I clearly remember my mother telling me that she didn't like her own name (because it was so reminiscent of Greek peasantry), so I gave my daughter her other grandmother's name (Christine). I didn't want my children suffering from the repercussions over their names that Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii in New Zealand did for a long time, until her 9th birthday when a judge intervened and let her change her name; but spare a thought for Superman (again in New Zealand): I wonder what happens whenever he walks into the room: "Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Superman!" I suppose it's better than the original name his parents had planned for him: imagine if Superman did eventually get called 4Real: "Are you for real?" everyone would be asking him. Some parents have no foresight; they are oblivious to the fact that they have
screwed up their child's life before the child can have a chance to do it for himself.

My mother's name caused me some strife when I first came to live in Greece. I needed to get my university transcripts translated by the official translation office in Voukourestiou St in Athens, in order to be granted an official teaching license by the state to teach in the private sector. Armed with the originals and copies of various bit and pieces of paper that an information officer had told me I would need – passport, birth certificate, health certificate, school leaver’s certificate, another certificate, and another, and another – in order for my New Zealand education to be legally recognised by the Greek state, I entered the building, and joined the queue. Finally, after what seemed like hours, it was my turn.

“Your papers?”

“Ah, which one do you want fi---?”

“Your papers! Just give them all to me!” Don’t I keep the originals? I wondered, feeling the usual dread one has of passing over important one-copy-only documents to a stranger.



“I meant your SURname!”


Verivaki? Are you related to the voulefti (Member of the Greek Parliament)?” The clerk was being polite now.

verivaki MP

“I don’t think so”, I lied; having been snubbed once on account of this fact, I decided to keep the information to myself.

“Oh.” I could see the novelty had worn off immediately. She'd already lost interest in me.

“Address?... Telephone number?... Father’s name?... Mother’s name?... Zambia?... You're not Greek?... That’s not a Greek name! Where was she from?... She WAS Greek?...”

It was at this point that I got irate. No stranger has the right to talk about my mother like that. “It’s a perfectly good Greek name in the village where she was born, there are about half a dozen other women who share the same name as hers, you just haven’t heard of it before.” I decided to get smart. “Have you ever been to Crete?”

The woman behind the counter looked at me, slightly embarrassed. Her face had visibly toned down to a softer hue. “I haven’t come across this name before… It’s unusual, isn’t it?”

*** *** ***

And so it was with Sam and Ivy who saw the word 'kleftiko' beside the word 'salmon', with a photograph of an aluminium-wrapped baking tray, all of which stirred great emotions in them, resulting in a heated debate, due to the use of the word 'kleftiko' by Laurie (an American barbarian, with the blood of an alien running through her body) to denote the method that she had used to cook the salmon (which certainly wasn't lamb or goat meat in the first place), branding her a fraud - but only in the eyes of some: Dimitris Rousounellos thinks she has the heart of a Greek, which again, some Greeks do not possess themselves.

Well, let me tell you, I'm not going down that lightless tunnel. I'm going to admit that what I cooked today is something that looks like lasagne and smells like lasagne; it even feels like lasagne - but it's not lasagne.

lasagne sauce

The pasta packet (Barilla) did in fact state that its contents are known as lasagne. It even contained a recipe. But I didn't follow it. For a start, there was no meat in it (I used soya mince), it had green and brown bits sticking out (the aubergines and peppers have created traffic problems in the refrigerator; it's like a jigsaw puzzle trying to remove, let alone find anything in it), there was no basil in the sauce (sorry, we don't 'do' fresh basil in our food here in Hania), and the cheese sauce had no cheese in it. So I won't mislead any of you into thinking that I made lasagne today - it's just not lasagne. Is it?

lasagne construction

If you want to cook the real thing, the lasagne that the whole of Italy cooks when they cook lasagne, I recommend that you ask Anna Maria Volpi to point you in the right direction, which she will probably do using all her fingers and toes in the process.

lasagne cooked

So what do I call my lasagne that isn't lasagne? Vegetable-medley baked with pasta layers? Lasagnesque summer vegetable bake? Tourlou tourlou? When we were ready to eat, I simply hollered: 'The lasagne's ready!' No one noticed it wasn't lasagne, and to this hour, no one knows about the soya mince.

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