Friday, 12 December 2008

Greek language lessons: askrolimbi and broad beans (Ασκρολίμποι με κουκιά)

You came to Greece on holiday, had a whale of a time, ate a whale of everything, and now that you're back home, you want to check out all those weird and wonderful things you experienced in Greece, so you look them up on the internet. To your dismay, what you're looking for doesn't seem to exist, or there are extremely few sites that link to it. (In fact, these days, the main reference to Greece on the web is all riot-related.) The whole process is time-costly and frustrating. Maybe you did find some sites, but expected to come across different ones. To exasperate you even further, you couldn't work out the transliterated spelling of a Greek word and it threw your search off-track completely. Don't worry, you are not alone; this happens to Greek speakers and non-Greeks alike.

sea urchin
Caretta Caretta taverna in the summer; sea-urchin salad

Here's an example. You had a delicious seafood hors d'oeuvre at a Greek taverna and wanted to find out more about it, so you carefully jot down the name of the dish as it appeared in the English translation of the menu card: ahini. You google it, but you don't get a single food rerference. So you try the images; in vain, as none of them contain food. You remember that as the waiter brought you the dish, he mentioned another word as he lay it on your table: ahinous. You try that one (although how you picked the spelling is a trial and error exercise), but still get very few links (the only image I got for this one was for a plate of fried plantain). So you start experimenting with spelling and come up with ahinoos ('ou' could be pronounced in the same way in Greek as 'oo'), achinous, achinoos (the 'h' xound is often transliterated to 'ch' in English) and whatever else takes your fancy, in your attempt to enter the Greek psyche and try to work out a creative orthographical transliteration of the Greek word you heard or saw written. Maybe you also noted the Greek spelling itself: αχινοί, which looks a little like axinoi. EUREKA! Now you know what you were eating: sea urchins, whose Latin species names (echinodermata, echinozoa, echninoidea) all sound a bit like ahinos; and now you also know how the saying "it's all Greek to me" was born...

(Askrolimbi in the nominative, askrolimbrous in the accusative, ascolibri in the village...)

I had the same problem as I was writing this post. I want to tell you what I'm cooking, but I can't find a suitable English spelling of the Greek word 'ασκρολίμποι'. I tried askrolimbi (no results), then I tried askrolimbous (just as useless). I then tried the same words spelt with 'c' instead of 'k', but still found nothing of special interest. Then I thought about where this food item is found (villages and fields), so I tried some dialectal versions of the word. Many villagers pronounce it without the 'm' or the first 'r', which gave me a whole range of 'ascrolibri', 'ascrolibrous', 'askolibri', 'askolimbrous', 'ascolibri', 'ascolibrous', 'askolibri', 'askolimbrous', and so on, ad nauseum. EUREKA! It was in amongst these variants that I had some success. But the joke isn't over yet - of the half-a-dozen various spellings that referred me to what I was looking for, they all directed me to COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SITES!!!

So why do Greek words change spelling all the time? Are Greeks as random in their word choice as they are in their driving skills? How do Greek children learn all those different word endings? I won't be able to teach you Greek in one day, but I can assure you that there is a reason. Let's take the very word in question: ascolimbros (ασκολίμπρος), to throw a spanner in the works, because I didn't include it in the above list. Greek words for names, people and things (nouns) are declined, meaning that they change in form, according to the use of the word in a sentence: ascolimbros can take seven different spelling forms (two below are the same), each one with a slightly different meaning when translated into English. Each form is known as a grammatical case. The examples below will take you back to your days of learning Latin:

NOMINATIVE: ο ασκολίμπρος - οι ασκολίμπροι
The ascolimbros is a root vegetable with thorny leaves - ο ασκολίμπρος.
Ascolimbri (the plural of ascolimbros) are difficult to harvest due to their thorny leaves - οι ασκολίμπροι.

GENITIVE: του ασκολίμπρου - των ασκολίμπρων
The leaves and roots of the ascolimbros are edible - του ασκολίμπρου.
The habitat of ascolimbri is usually on high mountain plains - των ασκολίμπρων.

ACCUSATIVE: τον ασκολίμπρο - τους ασκολίμπρους
I found an ascolimbros in my car; it must have fallen out of the bag - τον ασκολίμπρο.
We ate the ascolimbri our mother bought from the market - τους ασκολίμπρους.

VOCATIVE: (Ω!) ασκολίμπρε! - ασκολίμπροι!
Hey, ascolimbros face! Get a move on! - ασκολίμπρε!
Men, women and ascolimbri! We are gathered here today... - ασκολίμπροι!
(No, we probably wouldn't use these forms of ascolimbros, but in a spelling bee, children would still be expected to be able to produce the right form and spell them correctly...)

In an older form of Greek known as katharevousa (when I was learning Greek in New Zealand, my Greek school books were written in katharevousa), now used only by the church (and some patriotic citizens who see Modern Greek as a bastardised version of their language), there was even a DATIVE form for each word, meaning even more forms for ascolimbros: τώ ασκολίμπρω - τοις ασκολίμπροις.

Children don't get confused with the endings at all, which is why they can use the VOCATIVE case of ascolimbros if they need to. They pick up the linguistic nuances of each word's family from the day they are born, as they hear and speak the language. As they begin to read, they discover how each form of each word is spelt, and their spelling homework includes the declension of nouns.

declining greek nouns
(my son's school grammar lessons: declining 'passenger', 'greengrocer', 'baker', 'singer')

Just for the record, Greek isn't the only language to behave like this: the German language has very similar grammar to Greek, with similar things happening to the endings of words.

*** *** ***
Stamnagathi is selling very cheaply at the moment. Ascolimbri greens (Scolymus hispanicus) have always sold more expensively, despite looking rather off-putting. Now with the economic crisis, stamnagathi has gone down in price (as has the price of petrol), while ascolimbri are selling at the price that stamnagathi was selling for before the economic crisis, around 8 euro a kilo. As the root system is also edible, they are more difficult to harvest, which is why they are more expensive. These days, they are most likely cultivated, whereas in the past, like stamnagathi (which is also harvested in amongst woody thistles, in this case inedible and therefore removed), it was found growing wild only in remote areas of Crete.

askolimbri ascrolimbri
The roots and leaves are separated and cooked separately, as they may need different cooking times.

I have never had ascolibri greens before, probably because I was put off by their cactus-like prickles, and the rather dull colour of their white root, which is also edible. I decided to buy some during my last visit at the laiki market, where ascolimbri greens have always featured alongside stamnagathi when in season. I didn't know what a pleasant taste I had been missing for so long. Ascolibri (both the root and the leaves) are boiled and eaten as a warm salad, together with broad beans (what the French call feves), or added to a meat stew, enhancing their unique flavour: the roots taste of peanuts, while the leaves are sweet and milky. The spiny thistles on the leaves do not need to be pruned off before cooking; like nettles, they soften during the cooking process and do not cause any discomfort.

The broad beans were dry, which meant that, before eating, they needed to be soaked overnight and boiled the next day. The black 'eye' is cut away and the bean slips out like a slinky body in a silky blouse. The roots of the askrolimbri were so soft, that they were disintegrating at the merest touch.

As Crete is an island, eating ascolibri could be said to be an endemic habit of Crete, a bit like eating stifno and avronies, some more nasty looking, possibly toxic greens that Cretans like to add to their seasonal diet. But this is not the case at all; our Eastern neighbours on the Turkish coast have been eating this wild green for as long as we have. Ascolibri are a Mediterranean wild green, and only those lucky enough to know how delicious they are can benefit from their healthy properties. Ascolibri "are valuable sources not only of vitamins and antioxidants, but also of monounsaturated and essential fatty acids, thus playing an important role in health promotion and disease prevention in those who adhere to the traditional diet of Crete," according to a 2005 study of 48 wild Cretan greens: they contain vitamin K (it helps in normal blod clotting), vitamin C (good for fighting disease), lutein (it contains anti-oxidant properties, a factor involved in longevity), β-carotene (it protects you from heart disease), α-tocopherol (it protects you from infertility) and γ-tocopherol (a form of Vitamin E), with a total polyphenol content (having antioxidant characteristics which reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer) of 58mg/100g.

broad beans fish
Dry broad beans and fish (small hake and sardines) fried in olive oil

Combine ascolibri with broad beans and fish, and I don't think you can eat a healthier meal. The fish were fried in olive oil, while olive oil, lemon and salt dress the greens and beans. Don't forget the sourdough bread (unless you're on the Atkins diet, pretty much the opposite of the Mediterranean diet) and a glass of locally brewed village wine (another integral part of the Mediterranean diet). I don't know whether I will achieve longevity, but this kind of attitude to our meal plans just might help.

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