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Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Souvlaki (Σουβλάκι)

Last Sunday we were going through a heatwave. The barbecue area of our house is still under siege by painters' tools, so our Sunday meat dish had to be a lazy affair - souvlaki, with a garden salad as and some potatoes as a side, sounded like a tasty quick-fix meal. I looked in the cupboard for those delivery pamphlets we tend to keep for those just-in-case moments. I just needed to find the telephone number of our local souvlatzidiko. I ignored the prices stated on the pamphlet - they were way out of date, since the pamphlets had been there for a while: eg €2.50 for a pork souvlaki and €2.70 for chicken

Souvlaki to the Greeks generally means slivers of meat wrapped in a pita bread (often called yiro), or cubes of meat on a skewer (usually referred to as xilaki or kalamaki), with bread as a side. The meat is cooked on an upright grill if it goes in the pita bread, or on a conventional barbecue-style grill if it's on a skewer.
Working at a souvlatzidiko is hot work all year round.
Since the economic crisis gripped the country, the price of souvlaki in all forms has gone down, which shows how far the crisis has penetrated: souvlaki is the most popular Greek fast food, and it was generally viewed as the cheapest. Three years ago, a pork yiro used to cost as much €2.60; now it costs €2 at most places. Chicken yiro was as high as €2.70 - now that's down to about €2.30. A new place on the main road into town has a neon sign advertising yiro at €1.90 - that would be for pork yiro, as that is the meat of choice in Greek souvlaki.
Chicken xilaki (or kalamaki)
A pork kalamaki used to cost as much as €1.50; now that's down to €1.20 on average, although a number of places sell it as low as €1, which they proudly advertise on a chalk sandwich board outside their business. Chicken kalamaki has always been more expensive than pork - it's now €1.40-1.50. Beef souvlaki - which has made a comeback in Crete, after being the souvlaki of choice in the past, overtaken by pork for the last 4 decades - is only served as yiro (never skewered). It costs about the same as chicken souvlaki.

The fact that the price of souvlaki has come down and stayed down shows how much competition there is among souvlatzidika. The fact that the stores in my town don't have webpages also shows how traditional they are. When you need a souvlaki, you know where you're going to find one. Some souvlatzidika have closed down during the crisis, but that was inevitable, because there were too many of them around; the good ones know how to keep their customers.
8 chicken souvlaki, 8 pork souvlaki, a serving of fries and 4 pita breads (not charged) - €24.40; supplemented by a garden salad and some yoghurt, this is a very cheap way to enjoy  meaty meal for Sunday lunch - and you don't cook it yourself. (For 6 eaters - 5 souvlaki were left over.)

I forgot that my local souvlatzidiko doesn't work on Sunday mornings which means that it's doing quite well to be able to close down half a day a week. It has lowered its prices since I last ordered souvlaki there - evidence that prices were too high before, and prices can be lowered. Our other cheap choice was in town, which felt a little too far away for me on a very hot Sunday midday, so I chose the closest one ot our house. I was surprised to find that it was quite a bit more expensive than what we expected to pay according to the local prices - but the servings were actually a little bigger. It's all about competition and trying to keep customers happy. 

For a discussion of what kebab means in Greek, click here.
For a discussion of what souvlaki means for Greeks, click here.

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