Sunday, 15 August 2010

Coleslaw (Λαχανοσαλάτα με μαγιονέζα)

Today being the Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, Happy Nameday to all of us called Panayiotis, Panayiota, Depsina and Maria - except in Crete, where only married women celebrate their nameday today: the unmarried ones are relegated to celebrating their nameday on November 21, the Feast of the Presentation to the Church of the Virgin Mary...

The table had been set on the covered balcony. A long white broderie anglaise tablecloth covered the wooden buffet table, with the edges embroidered in red cross-stitch. Along with the chairs forming the outdoor furniture, they were some of the very few household goods items that Zoe had not bought from the States when she and her family decided to move back to the πατρίδα, once her parents retired. They left soon after they had completed the necessary paperwork allowing them to pick up their pension payments in Greece; this all took place nearly a decade ago.

Everything in their former home had been carefully packed (with the word 'fragile' written clearly on the outside of the parcel where appropriate), and repatriated to their new home on the island, which had been built according to plans made by a Greek architect who lived in the States. The house had a slanting roof on the front facade, which looked out onto a busy traffic route on the hilly road where the house was situated. This road hadn't yet been paved by the local council, which always made this modern building look slightly out of place in the area, as though it was still under development. The back part of the house which led to the garden had a few glass bricks set in the walls to let in the light, while the front consisted mainly of glass doors, with green iron gratings covering them. The windows did not have shutters, as Zoe had deemed them unnecessary, since she wasn't used to them in the first place; the only other home she had ever known was the two-storey house in New Jersey where her family had previously lived, and whenever the locals asked her if the hot Mediterranean sun bothered her, she gave the excuse that having shutters and thick curtains was like doubling up on items that did the same job. The air-conditioner sufficed to keep the temperature to a tolerable level during the summer, which lasted nearly seven months of the year, as Zoe was to find out once she moved to Greece permanently; before that, she'd only been coming to Greece on her family's annual two-week summer holiday.

Zoe took great pride in the way she decorated her house on that one time in the year that it was opened up to the family's guests, on the day of her husband's nameday. In the middle of the table was a large carved watermelon, in the shape of a gigantic rose. She had paid good money for this to be made specially for the event, and had asked the sculptor - a local restaurateur who often sculpted various squash and melons to decorate his own business - to ensure its freshness by not starting it earlier than on the evening before the day's planned event. Everything had to be perfect for the day.

This year, she had decided on a Mexican theme. On top of the white tablecloth, she had placed two large orange tassled sashes stretching the length of the table. The thick terracotta plates were set on woven brown placemats which had a colourful daisy design on their outer rim. Zoe had acquired these items (among many others) over the years from the sales in the large department stores in her Jersey hometown. At the end of every season, she would add a few bits and pieces to the miscellaneous stash in her trousseau. In the case of the terracotta plates, she had never quite got round to using them. it was quite a task to coordinate all the accessories so that they gave off the right air. Panayiotis couldn't understand why she had taken down the overly large framed photo of their wedding - the most glamorous the village had ever seen - and replace it with a cone-shaped hat.

"It's a sombrero, Panos," she informed him. She often spoke to her husband using a schoolteacher's voice. She did not expect him to 'know' as much as she did, which she put down to her foundation college education. Panayiotis had barely finished Greek high school and had never been out of the country before they met; Zoe did not expect him to be as well versed in general trivia as she was herself. She felt obliged to educate her husband on global knowledge. "A sombrero," she continued, "is the hat men wear in Mexico." Not that she had been to Mexico in the first place. She was simply relaying what she had seen in pictures and travel brochures. Many of her American Greek friends had been to Mexico on their honeymoon. She would have done the same had she stayed there and married Aristides. But she didn't; she came to Greece the following summer after their break-up, convinced herself that she had fallen in love with a local man, and got married here. After the wedding ceremony, the happy couple left for the States, so that Zoe could introduce Panayiotis to Jersey, so that all her friends and acquaintances could meet him. Zoe had taken her honeymoon in her hometown. It was Panayiotis' first and last trip out of the country. 

The invited guests all seemed to have turned up, more or less at the stated time (she had specifically told them individually over the phone not to arrive too much later than the stated hour), It was time to get the rice cooking for the pilafi. Zoe dialed her mother's telephone number. Her parents lived in a small apartment, kind of like a bachelor pad, that they had built next to the garage of the main property, their daughter's house, to give Zoe and her husband some privacy. The original plan was to build a classic upstairs-downstairs Greek house, maximizing on building space on the modest plot of land they had bought with their hard-earned dollars, but Zoe had objected. She wanted a house, not an apartment. Her father's original idea to grow a large vegetable garden in his retirement had to be downgraded.

"Έλα μαμά," she spoke quickly, "το πιλάφι, OK?"

"Ναι παιδί μου," her mother spoke softly, "θα το βάλω τώρα." She had hardly got the words out of her mouth when Zoe had already hung up. 

The guests were seated both indoors and outdoors, enjoying the view which looked out to the small island of Thodorou. They had all come to Zoe's house carrying their customary little gifts: some bought sweets and πάστες from the zaharoplasteio, others bought decorative ornaments from the cheap glassware shops in the main town, and the ex-pat Americans carried little reminders of her former home that Zoe did not often recall, but which created a slight flutter in her heart and a surge of nostalgia in her mind every time she opened the carefully wrapped presents, complete with ribbons and decorative motifs: Hershey's chocolate kisses, Betty Crocker pancake mixture and pistachio pudding Jell-O, all staple party foods at the huge buffet tables of the parties of her American friends, both Greek and not, which they held in their equally large houses.

When she heard the two short rings of the telephone, the agreed signal from her mother, she knew that the pilafi was ready. She sent Panayiotis down to her mother's to bring the pot. As the hostess of the event, she felt she could not abandon the scene herself, especially since her cousins had arrived with their young children. She was very worried that an accident might take place right before her eyes. Her previous evening's dreams included visions of glasses of coloured liquids - coke, juice, red wine - spilt onto the plush beige denim twill couch and feather pillows, plates and glasses laid precariously at the table's edge and being smashed into smithereens once they fell off the table, and palm prints on the window and oily fingers touching the taffeta curtains.

Zoe picked up a crystal Lenox glass. She carefully placed it - the only one - in the middle of the buffet table so that everyone would think it had been used. She had decided against using her Lenox set for this event - in fact, it had never ever been used - because of her fear of breakages. These items were now irreplaceable (not to mention very expensive), there being no Lenox supplier in the town. They remained in the (locked) wall cabinet in the open-plan living room where she kept many other items of crockery and glassware that had never been used. This did not worry her in the least - they were not there to be used, they were there to be admired; look but don't touch. She tapped the Lenox glass with a silver-plated spoon (the silverware was OK to use; it didn't break and was not damaged by the dishwasher) to get the attention of all her guests.

"Καλωσορίσατε!" She spoke loudly and clearly, with the tone of enjoyment ringing in her voice, and her smile beamed around the room as she watched everyone's faces turning to look at her.

"Καλώς σας βρήκαμε!" the guests replied in unison.

"Χρόνια Πολλά, Παναγιώτη!" The guests all bid her husband the customary good wishes, and the official feasting began.

"ΕλΆτε, παιδιά," Zoe said gleefully, "σηκωθεΊτε, περΆσετε να πΆρετε ένα πιΆτο!" Zoe had been born and raised a Greek, but one thing she could never lose was the American twang in her Greek accent. This did not prevent anyone from understanding her spoken Greek; her idiosyncratically placed stress marks were just taken to denote a part of her personality, the former ex-pat US citizen, used to different ways and manners; to the locals, it matched her foreign ways and gave them a hint of flavour. Had her speech rhythms assimilated completely to the Greek accent, she would have been mistaken for an eccentric local. Now she had an excuse to sound different.

As much as the locals didn't always understand her, Zoe had the same problem when she tried to make sense of them most of the time. She found their make-do-and-mend lifestyle too simple, their cheap standardised choice of attire too dour, their insular surroundings too restricted. She had not contemplated these daily facts about living on the island before her permanent arrival. Sometimes, it helped not to think about it, but to just file these thoughts away in her mind, like a disused room where there may be some old unsightly furniture covered with well-worn sheets to stop them from getting dusty. It also kept them out of public view. She did not need to view them in her daily surroundings; they were conveniently hidden away and she had to face them only infrequently. It was kind of like putting up with an uncomfortable situation for as little as one needed to, before normality would return.

She did not have a lot to do with the locals herself; she did not approve of popping in and out of each other's houses, as was commonly practiced by most of the neighbours. Visiting had always been by arrangement for Zoe. She did not feel comfortable dropping into people's houses herself. What if they were busy? Or sleeping? Don't they want some privacy themselves? And how can you enter someone's house without carrying an appropriate gift? Her front door was always closed, and the house could only be accessed at the front gate by an electronic tracking system (that travelled from the States, in the container with the furniture). Hers was the only house in the village that possessed such a device. Most people couldn't understand why she had also installed a burglar alarm in the house. "Σαν φρoύριο το έκανες!" her neighbours would tell her. But Zoe did not like to take chances. 'Better safe than sorry' was a motto that had been instilled in her since primary school in the States.

The plates and forks had started making tinkering noises, as everyone stood up and passed slowly round the buffet table. Each bowl or plate had its own ladle or serving fork in it, and all the guests took great care not to mix them up or leave the tablecloth unstained. This was not your average 'τραπέζι'; the scene had come directly out of a 'home and garden' magazine and it seemed a shame to ruin it by placing the wrong ladle in the wrong bowl or - worse still - allowing sauces and oil to drip onto the crisply ironed tablecloth. Zoe had spent the best part of the previous evening ensuring that the decorations would be perfect, while her mother had spent the best part of her own evening preparing most of the meals. Zoe was responsible for transferring the dishes to an appropriate item of crockery, to be diligently plated. Her arrangements often looked too good to eat.

Zoe did not serve herself right away. She chatted with her guests as they passed by the buffet, pointing out what they had not put on their plate. When most of the guests had finished their first tour of the table, Zoe picked up a dish and began to mingle around the guests, serving it onto their plate, so that they didn't need to stand up again and take themselves for a second tour round the buffet table. Salads and pastries were what people craved most of all, and Zoe had made sure that there were plenty of them at her τραπέζι. There were kalitsounia with spinach, kalitsounia with mizithra, mini-pastries filled with potato and bacon, tiropitakia, mince-filled crepes and Chinese-style spring rolls. She had come across them at the supermarket, and couldn't resist the temptation of buying some; it had been a long time since she had had Chinese food, which she didn't really miss. It just felt more of a normality for Zoe that she could keep this kind of food in her home freezer, in the same way that everyone (that she knew) did in Jersey. 

She had also prepared many salads (she couldn't handle those quite well, as they didn't need any cooking), and made sure there were plenty of cooling dips on the table: Greek salad, maroulosalata, lahanosalata, taramosalata, melitzanosalata and the classic all-time Greek favorite tzatziki. Although the fasting period for the Dormition of the Virgin Mary had just finished, she had insisted on including a bowl of taramosalata in the range of dishes. Panayiotis thought it odd that she would include this particular fasting recipe on a feast day, but Zoe explained to him that there would be many American guests from her side of the family at the party, and they would expect it.

"We used to eat taramosalata all year round!" she exclaimed (she was conscious of her schoolmarm voice being over-used in one day). "It's only here that I've been told I can only eat it at certain times of the year!"

She picked up a bowl of tzatziki in one hand, and in the other, the platter of kalitsounia and walked around the room.

"Τζατζικάκi, να σας βάλω; Καλιτσουνάκι, πάρτε ένα!" she bid to each person, who most likely had already taken one, but Zoe was very insistent, and so they took another one out of politeness. Zoe liked to see her guests filling their plates. This was a sign that the food was being appreciated in the way that it should be. It also meant that there would be few leftovers; she preferred to eat vicariously by watching her guests.

"Πολύ νόστιμα, Ζωϊτσα μου," her neighbour Kiria Popi was complimenting her on the taste of the pastries, "τόσο πιτίδια δεν τά 'χω δει ποτέ μου! Εσύ τά 'φτιαξες κορίτσι μου;"

Zoe laughed. "Η μαμά έφτιαξε το μείγμα, και εγώ τα δίπλωσα," she explained. Her mum knew what to put into those pastries to make them so tasty, and Zoe knew how to seal them into perfect little square envelopes to make them look like the prettiest kalitsounia for miles.

"Ντρέπομαι να το φάω, τόσο όμορφο που είναι!" Indeed, each kalitsouni was a work of art. It was a pity that one had to bite into it and ruin its form; it had taken much longer to shape each one than it would take to gobble it all up.

"Άσε με να σου βάλω και λίγο τζατζικάκι στο πιάτο σας!" Zoe never let her mother use fresh garlic in the tzatziki. She used garlic powder instead because it didn't taint the breath in that undesirable manner that Kiria Popi's tzatziki did.

Her load became lighter and lighter as she walked round the whole of the living room, and onto the balcony, making sure to leave no one out. When she finally returned to the table, all the kalitsounia were gone, and the bowl of tzatziki was nearly empty. Feeling quite good about herself, she proceeded to take the empty plates to the kitchen sink and came back to the table to pick up some more dishes, selecting the ones that looked rather untouched compared to the other half-cleared platters.The cabbage salad was looking quite forlorn. Ladling out this dish would be quite a challenge, so she picked it up on its own and began her rounds once again.

cabbage salad
This Chinese cabbage was imported from Spain and sold in Greece; carrots are mainly grown in central Greece, with much fewer quantities being grown in Crete - the weather is not particularly suited for the commercial cultivation of carrots in Crete.

Zoe took the same route as before. "Λαχανοσαλάτα, everybody!" she exclaimed, melding the languages together, as she often did. Kiria Popi swayed her fingers in the air, indicating that she didn't want any.

"Μα γιατί!" Zoe cried. She always felt very nervous when a bowl of food did not go as quickly as she thought it would. It reminded her of the times when her parents ended up binning the food that people complained about at the Greek restaurant they ran in Jersey. It usually meant there was something wrong with the dish; it may not have tasted the same to the customers as the last time they had it, so they knew they had to bin it or eat it themselves.

salad dressing
 What essential ingredient is missing from the dressing for my lahanosalata?
Click on the photograph to see what each item is.

"Τί είναι αυτό;" asked Kiria Popi's daughter. Rania was a chef in a local hotel situated by the sea. She worked long hours every day, with only one day off a week. On her working days, she often came home as late as midnight, but she never shunned any work she was given, because in winter, she was always laid off and had to register with the unemployment department. She often helped her parents in the olive harvest during that time. She lived at home and her parents always expressed their wish that they see her happily married one day, so that she didn't have to work so hard, even though Rania herself never complained about her job. She was satisfied with her lot, and glad to be working in a job that she enjoyed. "Better than being a cleaner," she said, showing compassion for her work colleagues, and re-telling some of the horror stories they had told her about - vomit on the bedsheets after a drunken night out, blood on the walls after an argument, and levels of cleanliness: the English left their underpants lying around the floor, the Greeks never picked up their paper mess, and the Germans acted like they had never used the bathroom, because it would be left as clean as when they had first entered it at the beginning of their stay, leaving all the hotel staff to wonder where exactly they did their business.

Zoe had a good relationship with Rania. It could be said that Rania was her only real friend on the island, since Zoe was very family-oriented, and in truth, did not fit in very well with groups outside the family circles. Rania had helped Zoe get a job in the same hotel where she cooked. Zoe worked in the souvenirs and accessories shop, one of the hotel's sidelines. She had come into the job at the right time, and had managed to secure the day shift; another shop assistant picked up where she left off every day. Initially, the owner wanted her to work all day, with a break in the middle of the day, but Zoe insisted that such working conditions were inhuman. "Τι νομίζετε πως είμαστε, Αλβανίδες", she complained. The hotel owner could not afford to lose Zoe as a member of his staff. For a start, she was a native English speaker. She also had a knack of selling expensive items, and many of them; she had the gift of the gab. The profits Zoe brought in from the sales of accessories and souvenirs were worth it. To keep her in the shop during peak-hour trade, he asked her to come in at 10am and leave at 6pm, thereby completing a 40-hour week during the the busiest times of the day: after 6pm, most tourists would be having their evening meal, and if they weren't going to a bar or club after that, they'd then return to their hotel room, take in the view of the sea and feel the cool evening mist on the balcony.

When she wasn't working, Zoe and Rania would often go out together (if their days off coincided) for a drink. Zoe especially enjoyed these outings, a rare moment of getting away from the limitations of the village surroundings. They would go to to a beach bar and sit at an outdoor cafe, sipping away the evening on a frappe or something more alcoholic, according to their mood. They would get whatever was bothering them off their chest, Zoe letting off steam about their husbands, Rania talking about all the μαλάκες she had met which most of the time put her off marriage. Even Zoe had taken an active part in this kind of conversation, after her husband had left for work without flushing the toilet.

"Άκου να μην πατήσει το καζανάκι," Rania repeated her words comfortingly, but her face showed sarcasm. She was laughing.

"But Rania, can you imagine how I FELT when I entered the STINKing BATHroom?!" Zoe cried. Bathrooms and toilets were a very serious matter for Zoe. When the house was being built, she insisted that the plumbing be made wide enough for the toilet paper to be flushed through it without creating a blockage, unlike the neighbours' toilets which all had a small open basket for discarding the used toilet paper. She detested the sight of those bins, lined with supermarket carrier bags - 'they sell bin liners in the supermarket, you know!' she had once told Rania, who shrugged off the comment as though she had no idea what Zoe was on about. What she did know was that Zoe had greater spending power than anyone else she knew, which was perhaps the reason why she did not need to re-use supermarket carrier bags.

Zoe was just about to ladle some lahanosalata into Rania's plate, when Rania stopped her. "Who made it?" she asked, looking into the bowl.

"Λαχανοσαλάτα είναι, βρε!" Zoe replied. Rania was always making fun of Zoe's cooking skills, which Zoe never failed to admit to when the girls were together. Rania was also a good teller of jokes. She could always put a smile on the faces of the people around her. She fully deserved the modest popularity she often enjoyed when she found herself in a crowd.

"Oh, it's coleslaw," said Rania, upon further inspection of what was in the bowl. During her training at the State School of Chefs, one of the weekly assignments for her class group was to take a vegetable assigned to them by the instructor, and for each member to create a different dish with it using international standard restaurant dishes as a guideline. During the cabbage season, her group transformed the cabbage into a typical Greek lahanosalata, a German sauerkrat, a French choucroute alsacienne, an Asian stir-fry and an American coleslaw. She was familiar with international cuisine, even though she had only travelled once out of the country, on a college trip during her chef's training, a fleeting visit to that took her to two capital cities, Paris and London. Upon her return, she told her parents that everyone eats Greek food everywhere, but they cook it in a different way and give it different names.

cabbage salad
The dressing in this delicious cabbage salad doesn't contain olive oil, so it lacks Greek character. 

"Wanna try some, mama?  It's nice." She ignored Zoe's comment, because Zoe had a habit of turning trivia into matters of major importance.

"It's lahanosalata, ρε παιδιά," Zoe was trying to justify her creation. "We always made it like this at the restaurant and called it lahanosalata - it used to be really popular and our customers loved it!"

Stathi - another ex-pat who lived in the same part of Jersey as Zoe - jumped into the conversation, dribbling sauce over his beard. "Powli orayo," he said, in perfect timing to save Zoe's face. He was sitting on the other side of the table. "Hey, I remember having this regularly at the Greek Cafe. Nina's Greek Cafe!" He shouted gaily, as he said Zoe's mother's name out loud.

"Hey, Zoe, those were the days, weren't they?" He became very nostalgic, as he remembered older times now long gone, and this had an effect on Zoe. She fought back the tears. She was acclimatising well to life in Greece, but every now and then, when she experienced a sudden jolt back to the past, she would become sick with nostalgia.

"Speaking of Nina, where is she?" Stathi asked Zoe. Stathi was a ping-ponger; he spent half the year in Greece and the other half in the US. He was happy in both worlds, but couldn't live only in one place or the other. His son was married in the States, while his daughter was married in Athens, so that half his grandchildren were here and the other half there. Since he became widowed, they were his whole world. He loved them all and was glad to have the good health to enjoy them all.

"Oh, she's downstairs, Stathi," Zoe explained. "You know my dad, he's not feeling well," she explained apologetically. Her father had been suffering from coronary heart disease since they were still living in the States, and the Greek summer heat did not make him feel any better. On hot days like these ones, Iakovos preferred to stay away from the crowds, not only because of the discomfort he felt, but also because he did not want to hinder his daughter's guests from enjoying themselves. Nina was very wary of Iakovos' feelings. She did not want him to undergo any more unnecessary stress in his condition. It was so much easier to handle health issues back home, where the health service sector, despite being costly, could at least be guaranteed. Here, they were constantly confused as to where to go to be treated in an emergency. The local hospital A&E was always full of anxious unhappy-looking people who all seemed lost, as if they had no idea what was wrong with them and why they were there. And all that waiting amongst patients with high temperatures, coughing fits, vomiting! Heaven forbid that anything happened to Iakovos on a feast day like today, when the A&E beds would be full of drunken revellers having their heads stitched up after a fight at the close of the evening's festivities.

It was a difficult move for them to make in their old age, after Zoe's announcement that she intended to marry. They had no other children. If Zoe left the country, they couldn't stay on by themselves. They raised a family and they wanted to see that family continue to grow. On the one hand, they regretted the move for the usual reasons that makes adjusting to life in a 'new' country very difficult in their old age: the climate, the infrastructure, the state services - everything seemed out of whack for them, after spending so long in the ξενιτειά, that was in fact where they felt more at home. But on the other hand, they were grateful for the chance to see their daughter happy and smiling, doing what she particularly enjoyed: home-making and decorating.

Her break-up with Aristides had cost the family dearly.  Just when all of Zoe's friends had been getting married and starting their own homes, Zoe's life had fallen apart. She wanted a big Greek wedding with all the trimmings; Aristides wanted something more low-key. She had the money; Aristides had only just entered the IT sector, and was struggling to keep up with Zoe's demands. Her parents liked him; he was of immigrant stock like themselves. He had come to the States on a scholarship, and decided to stay on after comparing the economic situation of the two countries. He chickened out of the relationship; Zoe was too dominant. All Zoe wanted what was everyone else had. And by everyone else, she of course was referring to the other Greek Americans.

"... she's keeping him company, so that he isn't alone," Zoe continued. "You can pop down to see them if you like. You know they'll like that." Zoe collected herself and tried to put a smile back on her face as she ladled out a spoonful of salad onto Kiria Popi's plate.

"Lahanosalata for you, Rania?" Zoe asked, having completely forgotten what the the conversation was about before Stathi spoke.

"It's got mayoneza in it, hasn't it?" Rania asked. "That's why I called it a coleslaw," she explained. "You know what I mean: a lahanosalata looks kind of different."

Zoe had her limits. She was not the cleverest woman in the world. But an egg is an egg is an egg, and this salad was a lahanosalata, no matter what Rania was trying to tell her.

"No, I don't know what you mean. It's a lahanosalata," she repeated."It's got cabbage in it, so what else could it be?" She tried to laugh, but the sound she made could have been interpreted as a cry. She was now clasping the bowl to her stomach, as she was worried that her hands might start to tremble. Whatever did Rania think she was doing?! 

Rania could see that she was making Zoe uncomfortable. She did not like this feeling; it was not in Rania's nature to hurt other people with what she said. But it did not take much to wind up Zoe. Her friend and neighbour often looked lost among her own people, an outsider among the insiders, despite the good deal of money and spirit she had invested in her attempt to resettle in the πατρίδα, which bore little resemblance to the country whose passport she held.

"Hey, now, that's a good σαλάτα you made there, Zoe, you know that," she tried to appease her. "I just thought that the creamy mayonnaise dressing made it look more like a coleslaw than a lahanosalata." Rania was using the typical Greek taverna menu as a guideline in categorising the food she was eating. Now she began to wonder if Zoe's family made lahanosalata with mayonnaise because it was cheaper to buy mayonnaise in the States than virgin olive oil. The color of the dressing reminded her of the coleslaw she had tried the first time she had ever eaten KFC in London. Being the typical Cretan, she wanted some salad with her chicken. A decade ago, that was all KFC  was serving green-wise.

"What do yo put in your lahanosalata - lemon or vinegar?" Kiria Popi asked Zoe.

"Oh, um..." Zoe tried to remember what she put in the salad. "Vinegar." She realised that now was not a good time to tell anyone that the dressing contained both lemon and vinegar.

"Mmm, tastes kind of  sweet to me," Rania said, licking her lips clean of the creamy dressing. "Did you use balsamic instead of wine vinegar?"

Zoe had already moved onto the next little παρέα of guests. She pretended not to hear Rania. What point would there be in telling her that the dressing included honey? Rania would probably then think she had simply emptied out the contents of her pantry and thrown everything into the bowl randomly.

*** *** ***
Zoe was probably right in calling her salad a lahanosalata - after all, it consisted predominantly of cabbage, which is what lahanosalata essentially means (λάχανο-cabbage + σαλάτα-salad). But a Greek lahanosalata would not contain mayonnaise. It's unlikely that you would find a lahanosalata dressed with mayonnaise at a taverna in Greece, except in a fast-food restaurant, and even then, it would probably be labelled 'coleslaw'. And if a salad - any salad - is labelled 'Greek', well then, it must - in my humble opinion - contain one essential ingredient, which is olive oil. And this one didn't, which is why I didn't call it just plain lahanosalata; that would be straying from the truth, wouldn't it?

salad dressings
You can dress a salad in any way you please, but only a certain combination of these will make a truly Greek dressing.

People like to put labels to most things in life, because it is easier to recall concepts in this way. Categorising also leads to stereotypes - correct or incorrect ones - to which people often assign certain qualities that help them to acquire and remember concepts more easily. Let's take olive oil and vinegar, for example. If we pour olive oil and vinegar over a salad, we have a Greek salad dressing (xitholado = vinegar-oil). But if we shake olive oil and vinegar in a jar together to form an emulsion,  not only will the dressing look different, but it will also taste different. Food-conscious people would more likely call the latter a vinaigrette. The same ingredients have been used in both the xitholado and vinaigrette dressings, but only the former is more representative of what one would expect of a Greek salad dressing.

To take another example, let's pretend that somebody tells you that you are going to eat 'Greek food' tonight. When the salad comes dressed in mayonnaise instead of olive oil with lemon or vinegar, it's only natural that you will be surprised. When the lamb stew tastes as though it has been flavored with bourbon and cream sherry and cooked with almonds instead of red wine, tomato and/onions, surely you should be asking yourself if you heard right (didn't they say 'Greek food'?). And if the filo pastry dessert you ordered had a banana and chocolate filling instead of a syrup-drenched nut filling, well, no matter how delicious the whole meal tasted (and I'm sure it did), it probably wasn't what you'd have expected of a Greek meal, right?

Greeks do in fact use a lot of mayonnaise nowadays, judging from the supermarket shelves which stock all kinds of sauces and ready salad dressings. You can buy just any globalised ingredient in Hania these days. Mayonnaise, along with soya sauce, ketchup and mustard, have all made their way into the Greek diet in the same way that taramosalata, Kalamata olives, strained Greek yoghurt and tzatziki are standard supermarket products in (for example) British supermarkets. Creamy salad dressings are popular here, but they are not typically characterised as 'Greek'; they are part of the globalised convenience-food range of products that are not made at home, but store-bought, kind of like 'poutinga'.

The Greek version of a creamy salad dressing is more likely to use yoghurt, which is a natural ingredient more readily associated with Greek (and other Middle Eastern) cuisine. I've also heard of feta cheese crumbled into a dressing to make it creamy. Again, feta cheese gives a Greek sense to a dressing than mayonnaise.

Diaspora Greeks (Greek people living outside Greece) have developed their own form of Greek cuisine, according to the availability of products in their own environment. Their cooking has adopted elements of both the local and the Greek cuisine, often resembling the basic principles of Greek food; in the melting-pot cultures where many diaspora cuisines are based, it's likely that the development of the cuisine will probably be more divergent. Diaspora restaurant owners probably devise dishes that they know will be popular among their clientele. It's difficult to characterise such cuisine as solely Greek when the recipes contain few (or no) essential Greek ingredients or culinary techniques associated with Greek cuisine (like when a salad doesn't contain olive oil, as one blatant example).

Such cuisines are probably developing into a hyphenated cuisine, a bit like the identity of the developers (eg Greek-Australian, Greek-American, Greek-Kiwi). I can remember instances of Greek food traditions in my own family home which surprised me when I came to Greece, because, somehow, I saw them as confusing. For example, melomakarona and kourambiedes were made and served by most Greek women in New Zealand throughout the year. On coming to Greece, I  discovered that they are only available in cake shops during the Christmas season! Another interesting example is presented in a discussion about Greek-Australian souvlaki, which is made from lamb; it's never made with lamb in Greece, only pork, along with the more recent and healthier addition of chicken meat to the standard souvlaki menu. In Australia, lamb is plentiful, and just as importantly, larger than Greek lamb, which makes it more natural to use it for making souvlaki. Moreover, in the Southern Hemisphere melting-pot cultures, pork is a less popular meat than lamb (unlike in Crete, for example, where it is the most popular and often the cheapest cut), another reason why lamb is being used in making Greek souvlaki 'down under'.

I simply cook for my family according to handed-down traditions with a few modern tweaks included in the recipes; I'm not an expert on the history of Greek cuisine. But I think I know what constitutes a Greek-based meal. And I'm still going to insist that mayonnaise has little to do with Greek cuisine. It's one of those products that's going to characterise what we'll all eventually be eating - global cuisine.

Special thanks to my two editors on opposite sides of the coast.

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