Friday, 1 April 2011

Myths and legends associated with Greek cuisine (Mύθοι και θρύλοι)

The 1st of April is the day that people around the world generally recognise as a day when it is permissible to lie, so today I will present some myths concerning the subject of Greek food. I recently came across a chunk of web text, whose every idea I dispute: 

"Since most Greeks don't barbecue at home (this applies to urban/apartment dwellers; non-urban/single-dwelling Greek houses always have some sort of BBQ installed in their yard), Tsiknopempti is one of the busiest restaurant days of the year (this may be true in Athens, but August 15th is far busier in most other parts of Greece - this day falls in the middle of summer, when Athenians are usually away from home, on holiday, somewhere in rural/island Greece). Most Carnival specialties are made during the final week (highly unlikely; in Crete, at any rate, they're made throughout the year!), when cheese and dairy are embraced (as they are all year!!) in preparation for the 40 days (it's NOT 40 days!!!) of Lenten abstention -- many Greeks still observe the period's traditional rigorous fast (this statement does not take into account the modern meaning of fasting in the Greek context).

This is how myths are born: by perpetuation. And there are plenty of way to perpetuate myths, the common modern one being the internet.

Let's start with feta cheese.

The most popular cheese in my house is feta: it is produced in Central Greece.
Wikipedia tells us that the first recorded instance of this kind of cheese was found in Crete: "Feta cheese is first recorded in the Byzantine Empire under the name πρόσφατος (prósphatos, "recent", i.e. fresh), and was associated specifically with Crete. An Italian visitor to Candia in 1494 describes its storage in brine clearly." While this is the oldest reference to white brine-preserved cheese (like feta), the entry also tells us that the name of the cheese (φέτα: feta = 'slice') came into use in the 17th century, even though the 1494 cheese reference is the precursor to feta. Nowhere does the wiki entry for feta mention the importance of this cheese in Northern Greece today, while it has never been associated with Cretan cheesemaking in modern times (a very few dairy stations on the island make their own local non-PDO with their limited supplies of sheep and goat's milk). Yes, I know that wikipee can be edited by any Tom, Dick or Harry, Maria included, but I'm still waiting for the expert on feta cheese to do this, and that's not me.

Moving on now to souvlaki.

A Greek favorite right around the country

We find more wiki pee under the entry of 'gyros', what most Greeks will call chopped meat wrapped in pita bread (as opposed to skewered meat - that's also termed 'souvlaki' in Greece): "There are several stories regarding gyros' origin: One says that the first "gyrádiko" was "Giorgos" who brought gyros to Thessaloniki in 1970; another story says that döner was first introduced in the 1950s in Piraeus by a cook from Constantinople." Hang on! My husband remembers eating gyros in Hania nearly 50 years ago! History of Greek Food tells me that an Armenian (Isaak Anispikian) probably opened the first souvlaki-kebab shop in Nikaia (a suburb of Athens) in 1924 - note that this was after the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1922. And let's not forget the actual origins of gyros: souvlaki comes from οβελίσκος (oveliskos), meaning the spit used to roast meat, from Ancient Greece. 

Still on the subject of souvlaki, what kind of meat does a typical souvlaki contain: lamb, pork or beef?

doner kebab thessaloniki
A souvlatzidiko in Thessaloniki, offering both pork (the first two meats) and beef (the smaller round) souvlaki

This one causes the most confusion abroad. The precursor of  the modern 'souvlaki' was the 'doner kebab', which was made with beef. Beef continued to be a meat choice in Greek souvlaki, but pork also made inroads in this sector. For a start, it was cheaper than beef, and Greeks don't have a religious reason not to eat pork, as did the Muslim Ottomans where the idea of the doner kebab started. Souvlaki is still generally a pork dish in Greece; it's only in the last 4-5 years in Crete that beef has suddenly reappeared in the souvlaki trade (still only available in the larger souvlaki shops). In any case, it is never made with lamb, as it is in the souvlaki shops of many Greek communities abroad, notably those of Australia. The different meats used in each different country to make souvlaki often reflect the cuisine of that country, rather than the origins of souvlaki. In the last 15 years, chicken is also offered in Greece, as a healthier alternative to pork.

Here's a good one: did you know that hummus is a Greek food?

"Of course hummus is Greek, Maria," you reproach me, "it's on every single menu card in Greek restaurants" - in America, the UK, et alia, right? It's never actually found on a Greek taverna menu in Greece. As Mariana Kavroulaki rightfully pointed out to me through my facebook page, no Greek yiayia living in Greece will know how to make hummus; it's eaten all over the Mediterranean and the Middle East (Cyprus included) - but not in Greece. Ask the average Greek what χούμος (hummus) is, and I'm sure they'll say 'soil'. The only aspects of Greek life that Athenos actually got right in their series of three advertising spots for hummus were the Greek yiayia's clothes and the Greek landscape. The word 'yiayia' is pronounced incorrectly (it should be yiaYIA, not YIAyia), and the average Greek yiayia - at least from Crete - would never accuse a well-dressed young girl of being a prostitute, nor would she tell her that she will go to hell if she is unmarried and living with her partner. The ad with the house-husband will simply be dismissed as a case of the impossible: few Greek couples can afford to live in relationships where only one partner works.

Can Greek yoghurt only be made in Greece?

If you want your Greek yoghurt to be 'Greek', you need to make sure that the milk used to make it was also produced in Greece; wording like this ('from 100% Greek milk') makes economic sense.

Unlike feta cheese which has a PDO status and can only be made in certain places in Greece, Greek yoghurt does not, which is why Greek yoghurt is found all over the world. Coincidentally, we never say 'Greek yoghurt' in Greece; we call it σταγγισμένο (στραγγιστό), straggismeno/straggisto, meaning 'strained'. The phrase 'Greek yoghurt' has now become synonymous all over the world with strained (ie Greek-style) yoghurt. Strained yoghurt in Greece isn't always made with milk originating in Greece (a well-known yoghurt manufacturer in Greece uses a mixture of cow's milk imported from Germany (50%), France (25%), Holland (22%) and Italy (3%). But this isn't necessarily a bad thing; there are worse ways to produce yoghurt; the more informed you are, the more informed choices you will make.

Misunderstandings occur both ways. For example, what is the average Greek person's idea about 'toast'?

My children still think of this as a 'toast': cheese and ham toasted sandwich (drizzled with olive oil).

Just as many people misunderstand Greek food and confuse it with similar kinds of food served abroad that are passed off as Greek, most Greeks living in Greece are horrified when they eventually find out that the English word 'toast' consists simply of a toasted slice of bread from a square loaf. What Greeks think of as toast (they call is 'tost') is in fact a toasted sandwich.

And now for the icing on the cake. A US reader recently asked me: "We've been to Greece four times in the past five years, and every time we eat at a taverna, my mom asks the owner if the bread they serve is truly Greek bread. My mom is convinced that she read somewhere that Greece imports its bread from African now and no longer has bakeries that make the bread on the premises. She insists she read that somewhere back in the 80s. Do you know anything about this? Could this be true?"

Yes, of course the bread Greeks eat comes from Africa. Greece no longer has bakeries. Happy April Fool's Day. (Χαλασμένα τηλέφωνα* all round...)

*** *** ***
There is a lot of misinformation out there in the web world, where anyone can write anything they want, without making any reference to previous research, without providing any evidence or empirical observations. Opinions are often understood as generalisations, and untested hypotheses are taken as facts. Students, scholars and laypeople are all taught to embrace the web to get access to the latest information instantly, but few people are taught to scrutinise the information they access. A lot of what is believed about Greek food in wider 'foodistic' circles is often based on generalisations and/or biased sources as well as cases of misreporting. Current food trends in Greece are not being taken into account in the wider web-based literature on Greek cuisine, possibly due to the language barrier: Greeks generally read in Greek, so they are unaware of the dissemination of misinformation, while non-Greeks usually look for their sources in another language (mainly English), hence the mix-up.

This short video will introduce you to a number of Greek food blogs available on the web. More will have been added since it was produced. To find one of the websites, note the name and look it up as a search string. 

The urban/rural differences of Greek citizens, the different approaches to Greek cuisine taken by the Greek diaspora, the regional differences inherent in Greek cuisine due to the geography of the country, and the recent economic turmoil that the country is facing do not help to avoid the rise of a very generalised view of what Greek food is all about. The worst consequence deriving from this confusion is the misunderstood nature of the Greek identity itself.

To find out what is really truly happening in the Greek food scene in Greece and abroad, the blogosphere is the place to go. Restaurants and tavernas may sound like good places to check out the scene, but that's going to work out to be more expensive for your pocket: turning on your computer is much easier and more satisfying, as the array of food porn begins to jump out of the screen! More importantly, Greek food blogs are generally not commercially slanted, which means that the writers are genuinely interested in passing on a food-related message or recipe to the reader. By looking up Greek food blogs on the web, you will get a feel for what is genuinely being cooked in Greek homes around the world.

Vicky Koumantou, representing GreekFoodBlogs, recently appeared on Greek TV spotlighted the growing Greek food bloggers' movement. Among the many good points that Vicky makes, I've chosen to highlight the following
'There is now no excuse not to know how to cook', 
'You can continue to cook your mum's traditional meals without referring to your mum', 
'Greek food blogs show the direction that Greek home cooks are heading towards, whether they cook with different ingredients to those of the past, or if they use international recipes',
'A blog recipe index is like a cookbook', 
'A food blogger's work leaves behind food memories that children may have grown up with',  
'Later generations will cook and eat more consciously: our mistakes will remain lessons for them'
And finally, the most environmentally-friendly but controversial in marketing terms:
 'Why write a cookbook when you can write a blog more easily, making it instantly accessible instead of worrying about distribution?'

When I first started writing my own blog nearly four years ago, there were already a number of Greek food blogs being written. The English-language Greek food blogs were mainly written by Greek food bloggers outside Greece. Numbers have now grown to around 200 Greek food blogs, 30 of which are written in English. Vicky Koumantou, representing GreekFoodBlogs, says: "The culinary Greek tradition is reflected through Greek food blogs, as it passes from one generation to the other, from grandmother to mother to daughter. It's humble cooks like those who have kept the hearth lit in Greek homes; they're the ones that lay the table at home every day for their families, providing love through food."

Greek food bloggers have their very own portal, GreekFoodBlogs, which unites all Greek food bloggers around the world on one site. The first Greek food bloggers' camp took place in Athens on 16th October, 2010, which gave Greek food bloggers a chance to meet each other and share ideas. Greek food blogs are growing in number, and this should come as no surprise: a) Lonely Planet listed Greek cuisine as one of the best in the world for travellers, b) the Mediterranean diet, often associated with Greece and in particular Crete, is propounded by health specialists as one of the healthiest diets in the world, and c) Greeks have one of the greatest rates of longevity in the world, mainly attributed to their diet, among other factors.

So what are you waiting for? Cook Greek - you have no excuse not to!

*Chinese whispers: lit. 'broken telephones', said when the original meaning of a message is lost through widespread misreporting.

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