Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Panspermia: Pallikaria (Παλλικάρια)

Pulses (beans) are the most ancient food known to the non-nomadic human. By being able to store their food, people then started to live a more stable life. I owe my organised household cooking regime to the ease of cooking pulses on a weekly basis: I can make a double-quantity of bean stew on a Sunday night, get all my errands done on Monday morning, serve the bean soup for lunch that day, and whatever remains (they keep well) is stored in the fridge and used as leftovers, not the next day, but the day after (by that time, everyone will have forgotten that we had already had this meal earlier in the week).

pulses ospria beans
Every week, I choose one of these bags and turn them into a family meal.

Through this blog, I've showcased the full range of staple bean dishes commonly served in Greek homes on a regular basis all over the country. Paradoxically, they would never be served to a guest, even though they are the healthiest and often the most colourful meals cooked in Greek homes throughout the year. Here's the basic list:
  1. fasolada (white bean soup), the national dish of Greece; my version is currently listed on the first page (!) of any google search using this search word
  2. the second all-time favorite pulse in Greece, fakes, aka as Greek lentil soup, another google first-pager for me, as long as you don't think 'fakes' are phoney, if you get my gist (try 'fakes soup', 'Greek fakes', etc)
  3. another hot favorite, baked Macedonian elephant beans, what we call gigandes (but only this transliteration puts me on the first page: other versions of the word include yigantes, yigandes, gigantes and yigantes),
  4. black-eyed bean soup, or as we say in Greece mavromatika, another of my google first-pagers (with this spelling)
  5. revithia, another Greek favorite using chickpeas cooked as a white or red soup
  6. Greek fava, the least confusing transliteration, probably one of the helathiest dips in the world, made with split yellow peas
  7. koukia, known as broad beans in English, what is commonly known as fava in other Mediterranean countries, eg Egypt.
My fellow food blogger and very good friend Laurie from Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska is hosting the latest round of My Legume Love Affair (MLLA), a blog event created by Susan of the Well Seasoned Cook featuring pulses. I could not possibly miss out on this event, since beans form the basis of the Mediterranean diet which has its origins in my island, Crete. Having already covered the whole range of pulses cooked in the daily Cretan diet, I found it a little difficult to think of an original Cretan way to use pulses from what I have already presented.

I got my inspiration from Ilias Mamalakis, a respected Greek TV chef, who recently presented a bean dish cooked in Northern Greece predominantly by the farming community. It is one of those very special dishes that has almost become forgotten due to the modern lifestyle, which is a terrible shame because it carries a profound significance in the agricultural world.

As stated previously, pulses became the reason why human beings could settle in one place instead of moving around, due to their ability to be stored in dried form. This became a cause for celebration among the earliest farmers in the world: they had finally found what was to become for them a modern convenience. Once a year, in honour of the humble legume that provided stability in their life, a special dish was made using all the varieties of pulses stored in a farmer's house cooked together. In Crete, this mixed legume dish is known as pallikaria or mayeria, a dish I remember trying for the first time at a taverna in Paleohora in Southern Crete. It is a vegan meal suitable for lenten periods. As Nikos and Maria Psilakis write in their book Traditional Cretan Cuisine (I have translated this passage from the original Greek):

"All the pulses were cooked together, an ancient meal strongly reminiscent of the ancient Greek belief in panspermia, as well as the Minoan offerings to the deities. It's possible that this meal was eaten in pre-historic times for which written evidence was not available... It was customary to gather a handful of all the varieties of the newly harvested seeds, boil them together and offer them to the gods as a token of appreciation for the bounty of nature. This dish was placed in a decorous position on the table, and every member of the family had to have their portion of it.

"In Crete, the custom survived for many thousands of years until recent times. In Eastern Crete, it was called 'palliKAria', a word that reminds one of the ancient 'polySPOria' (also known as panspermia; the capitalised letters are where the stress goes in the words), possibly deriving from this word. It is cooked on the 5th of January, the Eve of the Epiphany. All the family ate the same food, including the animals belonging to the family, as they had helped to prepare the earth for the growth of these seeds. Women from the older generation have been known to this day to strew a plate of this food in the yard for the wild birds to eat."

The recipe for pallikaria should not really be called a recipe, as it is simply a variety of boiled beans dressed with the ubiquitous olive oil. I've made up my own version of pallikaria to include tastes that my family associates with their weekly dose of legumes.

Soaking the beans overnight: the lentils can be added the next day, while the broad beans need to have the black strip removed before they are cooked.

You need:
a handful of all the pulses commonly used in Greek cuisine (yellow split peas and elephant beans were not commonly grown in Crete, which is why I've omitted them from my version)
a handful of bulgur wheat (I didn't have any handy so I omitted it)
a handful of corn (optional; if using the dry form, treat it like the beans)
1 large onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
the juice of a lemon
fresh dill and/or parsley (I only had some spring onion handy today)
olive oil
salt and pepper

Soak all the beans (except the lentils), (dry) corn and wheat overnight. The next day, boil all the beans and wheat for ten minutes to remove possible legume toxins. The broad beans need to have their 'black eye' removed before they are cooked. The lentils only need to be washed clean; they soften more easily during the cooking process than the other harder beans. Now boil the beans and wheat together until they are softened (about 45-60 minutes). The beans are now ready for use.

Heat some olive oil in a large saucepan, and saute the onion and garlic. Add all the legumes and grains, and mix well. Add enough water for the beans to cook as a stew rather than a soup; do a taste test of each variety to check for doneness after 45 minutes. When they are ready (they should all be soft), add the lemon juice, stirring it around. Add salt and pepper at this point, and let the beans cook for a few more minutes. The meal will have thickened naturally from the broad beans (fava), which have a tendency to mash when cooked.


When serving, sprinkle each bowl of pallikaria with some freshly finely cut herbs, and extra lemon juice and/or olive oil. This dish is best enjoyed on its own as part of a frugal meal. We had it with avocado dip, olives, cheese and bread, a combination which worked surprisingly well. Don't eat it with meat - protein combined with protein will ruin its soothing qualities. Don't be put off by its simplicity - it is delicious.

In Northern Greece, this bean dish is cooked in red wine, without olive oil or any other seasonings. However you cook it, don't forget to serve it to all the members of the family, including pets, and sprinkle a little in your garden or a maybe a flower pot, giving back to the earth what it gave to you, for the sake of tradition in honour of the humble but meaningful legume.

And if your name is Evangelos, Evagelia, Angelos, Angela, Eva and some other transliterated version of these names, Happy Nameday to you today.

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