Sunday, 11 March 2012

Aubergine with spicy yoghurt, onion, herbs and pomegranate seeds (Πολλά και διάφορα)

Tavernas (ταβέρνες) and restaurants (εστιατόρια) are two quite different things. A taverna is an informal eaterie which serves traditional Greek meals, while a restaurant often has a more formal atmosphere and the food served there may not be recognisable in the Greek culinary spectre. Tavernas are usually cheap, although I haven't been to one since the price hikes (we haven't been to one since last September). A full meal would cost my family no more than 12 euro a head, alcohol included. The food served for this price is mainly fresh, local and seasonal. Last year, I went to a pricey restaurant in my town; the meals there used ingredients not normally associated with Cretan/Greek cuisine.

Why must restaurant food be expensive? Fancy decor, high rents and plush furnishings don't warrant a high price for a meal. Not even the service counts: waiters should always be courteous, chefs should always cook decent food, and service should always be reasonably quick wherever you go.  People go out for a meal for different reasons. I never include eating local food at the top of my list when choosing to eat out, because that's what I eat most of the time. I'm not a locavore in the modern sense: I eat what there is to be found out of necessity, not necessarily by choice. My primary reason would be to enjoy myself, so if I have to pay a high price for the meal, I want to be sure that I am paying for the quality of the food, not the surroundings.

 In summer, I prepared some eggplant rolls filled with mint-flavoured mizithra cheese. To make the eggplant recipe I found ιn the Ottolenghi menu, I defrosted six pieces, scraped off the mizithra into a bowl, and pan-fried the eggplant. The minty mizithra was used to make the yoghurt sauce. 

Having recently used an Ottolenghi recipe, I checked out other items on the menu of his restaurants. The average cost of each dish was about £10. The dishes do not have names as such: they are described by their ingredients. The restaurant has a Mediterranean focus, and the ingredients are all fresh, but they aren't all British: according to the website, 'local' food is both British and European.  Judging from the reviews posted by different diners, you would order about three dishes per person (they are mainly vegetable-based, which means that they don't fill up your stomach too easily), with an average cost per head of approximately £30, which translate to about 40 euro per head. That is not at all cheap.

The description of the dishes goes something like this:
 Roasted aubergine with turmeric yoghurt,
crispy onion, basil, rocket and

Some tweaks to the original description: I shallow-fried (instead of roasting) the eggplant slices to save time and energy; I didn't have fresh basil available, so I used fresh oregano instead; I preferred to use fresh ginger to flavour the yoghurt rather than turmeric because I had that only in powdered form; the rocket I used is a Greek variety with large leaves (small-leafed rocket is available, but it's imported and bagged - probably subjected to bleach for the purposes of cleansing). The pomegranate was the last local one I had managed to secure for the season (and I mean from Hania) - there won't be any more locally grown pomegranates until next year. That's what it means to eat fresh, local seasonal food - everything is eaten or preserved in its time.

It's not difficult to imagine what I'll be getting from such a description. But it's hard to work out if the ingredients are truly seasonal when they are found from a range of different sources. In Greece, aubergine is usually associated with summer, and pomegranate with late autumn or early winter; this was supposedly a February menu. At least one of those ingredients would have to come from a greenhouse or outside Europe (ie not local, according to the restaurant's definition). The cooking techniques sound quite simple - the final taste and quality seem to depend on the appropriateness of the combinations of the ingredients.

My initial idea was to photograph the finished dish with an olive grove in the background. Then I remembered the plants that actually gave me the aubergines: now in winter, they are dry stalks. They continued to produce eggplant up until early January, but the fruit was not the best quality.

The roasted aubergine with turmeric yoghurt, crispy onion, basil, rocket and pomegranate seeds was the first item I saw written on the sample menu card. My first thought was "I can easily recreate a dish like this in my kitchen", because all the ingredients are available to me: in fact, we grow most of the fresh ones ourselves - but not all at the same time! My second thought was: "Oh my God, so many different ingredients." It's freaky to rush around trying to find obscure items that can't always be located at one stop-and-shop place, especially when you really don't need to use them in great quantity; a lot of your purchases will probably not end up being used again for a while, kind of like bottled Asian sauces sitting in your fridge for a long time. And finally: "There's a lot of preparation involved in this dish." You need a lot of hands to create this kind of meal, as well as quite a wide variety of pots and pans and kitchen utensils.

Pomegranate and eggplant are two of my favorite natural foods (in their season). They are also messy to deal with. Skin contact with the white flesh of an eggplant (and the yellow inner flesh of a pomegranate) makes your fingers black. I should know: I have cut a lot of aubergine in my lifetime.  How to peel a pomegranate is the subject of many web discussions. At this particular restaurant, pomegranate is overused. Someone at Ottolenghi's must be peeling pomegranate for a good part of their day. I guess that's what you pay for when you go to an expensive restaurant: imported unusual ingredients, exotic looking food, a lot of manual labour and imaginative decor, whether it's in the premises or the food styling. The plating of the dishes is quite unlike serving a 'piece' of something from a pot or pan, like I do at home: a dish like roasted aubergine with turmeric yoghurt, crispy onion, basil, rocket and pomegranate seeds is all about food styling, artistic effect and detail.

 Plating the same dish at at a restaurant must feel like an assembly line at times. PS: This dish doesn't really need the pomegranate seeds - it would probably work better with a sprinkling of dried crushed nuts to complement the sweetness of the sun-kissed Cretan summer-grown aubergine.

The cost of making this dish in my kitchen was less than 1 (for both portions). This does not include a payment for the cook, leaving me unpaid. To recreate the roasted aubergine dish (together with the purple-sprouting broccoli dish), I needed to spend well over an hour in the kitchen. But I had all the fresh ingredients available to me. When I decided to make this dish, it was a Saturday morning, and I didn't feel like leaving the house. I had everything I needed to make it without having to spend time or money sourcing it. That's the advantage of living in a food-centric society in the Mediterranean. Although I wasn't paid for my own work in producing the dish, I can safely say that my kitchen fun turned into a very rewarding experience, judging by the comments I received from my 'diners': the plates were licked clean. 

A visitor from Iran recently landed on my blog with the search string: "why people prefer to eat out". Good question: cultural norms for eating out differ markedly between east and west, especially between underdeveloped and technologically dependent nations. When I want to eat out, I definitely want to eat something different to what I cook at home, which isn't as easy as it sounds in my own town; most local tavernas offer home-style food, using similar recipes to those of my own. The food doesn't have to be exotic or imported; the atmosphere needs to be fun and the food tasty. It should definitely be an accessible meal to all ages and pockets. The meal out needs to be an enjoyable way to spend time in good company. I'm looking forward to some Asian food in London soon...

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