Thursday, 26 November 2009

Umami (Ουμάμι)

A little while back, after I had had a satisfying meal which consisted of tasty pastry-topped boureki (the chef at work had cooked it), a healthy (as usual) meal, based on the Mediterranean diet that I have been trying to raise my family on, I had a craving which I couldn't quite place. As I munched my way through the boureki, I thought about how my husband would be ladling the lentils I had cooked the previous night onto the children's plates, and how they would be very thankful for it, as they mopped up the sauce left on their plates with sourdough bread. An apple was offered as desert after the meal at work, but I passed on it. I wasn't hungry, but I knew I still wanted to eat something, something I still couldn't pinpoint. I went back to the office, and began to hammer out the last of the translations in a set of files all about natural resources management.

But my mind was still on food, and the taste (or lack of it) in my mouth. I let some time pass before I went out to the canteen to get myself a coffee. I had had an enjoyable meal for lunch, but for some reason my palate felt dry, though my stomach was full. The canteen was full of those tempting chocolatey biscuity bites that I usually fall for at times like these, when I crave for something to satisfy my palate, without exactly being able to pinpoint what it is that I want to eat. But even there, I found nothing that I really wanted to munch on at that moment.

Back at home, I found the dishes in a neat pile, waiting for me on the benchtop. I opened the fridge, without any particular food in my mind; I hoped that, by looking around on the shelves, I would find something that would tempt me and satisfy my craving. The leftover lentils had been placed tidily in a small bowl in the fridge. Salty lentils was not what I was after. Behind the bowl, there was a bar of dark chocolate with a citrus filling. No, I wasn't after a sweet, either, although this seemed like a logical choice. I even resorted to opening the deep freeze (that's when you know you're desperate). But there was nothing in there either, and even if there was, it would require defrosting and cooking.

I began to think of next day's meal. The vegetable box was crammed with round purple aubergines. The Asian bottled sauces on one of the shelves caught my attention. Thoughts of MSG clogged my taste-consumed mind. I suddenly realised that what my body was craving for was something savoury, exotic, uncommon. But you can't eat bottled sauces straight from the container. So desperate was I to get my taste satisfaction that I decided to cook a Chinese meal right after coming home from work; at least all that cleaning and slicing and chopping would keep my mind occupied... I set about slicing the aubergines into small chunks to make a stir-fry that I could serve with rice noodles.

Just as I had oiled the pan, the phone rang. "Hello?... basketball... first meeting... tonight... gymnasium... 6.30pm... OK." I wouldn't have time to cook a meal now. I left the aubergines on the kitchen bench and got the children ready for the meeting. The phone call had, for the time being, freed my mind of foodie thoughts.

After driving in circles trying to find a place to park the car, we met up and made arrangements with the gym teacher. The children spent some time shooting baskets; I marveled at their energy, feeling guilty about my food-obsessed thoughts when I could have been thinking instead about ways not to eat. When we came out onto the street, darkness had descended but the air was warm, and there quite a few people taking advantage of the good Cretan climate on this early autumn evening, sitting at the outdoor tables of the fast food outlets in the area, with the atmosphere permeated by the smell of souvlaki. Then it struck me: that was my missing mystery taste; umami was on my mind. So much for all that healthy cooking and eating with loads of fruit and vegetables; my body was craving the taste found at the top of the Mediterranean diet pyramid: I want me some meat.

After getting my fix of umami, I craved no more... Four souvlaki yiros and three soft drinks set my family back by 15 euro.

We had a family meal at Vantes, a well-known souvlaki diner in a built-up busy congested area. The sounds of the traffic did not deter from the taste of this favorite Greek specialty. As I greedily swallowed my meat-filled pita, I wondered what vegetarians did when they craved some umami. Chinese bottled sauces, I suppose?

*** *** ***

Since my recent visit to Vantes, I have also discovered that Hania is no longer limited to tried and true Cretan menu favorites. There was a whole host of different souvlaki meat offered at this souvlatzidiko (the traditional Greek fast food outlet), with a variety of toppings, just as one would expect to find in a mainland souvlaki shop: traditional yiro served with yoghurt, chicken yiro served with turmeric-flavoured yoghurt, doner kebab served with tzatziki and something called 'souvlaki Thessalonikis' which I didn't get to try this time round (this obviates the need for another visit - soon). Even bouyiourdi (albeit under a different name) was also on the menu, as was tirokafteri, both north mainland cheese dips, having made their way to Hania and now included as standard fare in taverna menus.

yiro elassona central greece
Souvlaki served close to the central bus station in Elassona, Northern Greece.
elassona central greece

The best souvlaki I have ever tasted needs special mention. It was cooked in Elassona,in Central Greece. It looked like any other ordinary souvlaki, but the taste in that one smacked of umami in its most glorious form. We decided that its superior taste had to do with the animal husbandry techniques and cooking styles of the mainland. And just for the record, in Ellasona, souvlaki yiro is served, not with yoghurt or tzatziki, but with mustard and ketchup: very Greek, n'est-ce pas?! When we asked for yoghurt on the children's yiro and a serving of tzatziki with ours instead of the standard fare of the locality, the souvlaki shop owner said: "You're from Crete, aren't you?" So there you go...

If you don't have a souvlatzidiko near you, you can make this delicacy at home with any leftover roast and some decent pita bread.

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