Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Urban cuisine (Aστική κουζίνα)

Have you noticed the preponderance of product placement in Greek cookery programmes, showcasing Philadelphia cream cheese and Oreos biscuits? LIDL supermarket sponsors another one and Lacta chocolate is going to the big screen...

I can't say I miss going out for a taverna meal because I know I cook the same kind of food as what you will find in a traditional Greek taverna in Crete. This provides some comfort to me, because I know I don't really need to go out to have such a meal, and besides, it's cheaper to cook the same meal at home. What I'd really like to be able to do is to go out for a cheap meal to a place where I can order and enjoy the kind of meal I don't often cook at home, something like a Chinese or Indian meal. Not that this is going to happen any time soon; although there are new eateries opening up on a regular basis in the town, they don't necessarily look as thought they are going to serve anything novel that I can't prepare at home more cheaply.
Meals on the overnight ferry from Hania to Athens: you can choose between Greek and global cuisine, but there is more of the latter than the former, and even when you do try to choose the former, it is not really 'authentic' for want of a better word. Potatoes are always pre-cut, rice is par-boiled and bread is made from ready-made dough (ie it is not bought fresh from a bakery). Price is the main indicator in the food choices of the ship's owners. The bun shape in the photo is never - ever! - sold in Hania, even though this ferry boat is owned by a Hania-based firm (it must be cheaper). Sun-dried tomatoes never appear in a Cretan taverna menu, nor does halloumi cheese (which turned out to have fake grill marks on it, made by BBQ sauce). Apart from the youvarlakia and tzatziki, everything else on the trays in the photo could have appeared in any part of the world. On a monopoly such as the ferry boat, I paid €26 for what you see pictured above.

Haniotes never really had a chance to experience cheap international cuisine, and I think this phase of social growth and mind-broadening is going to bypass us completely. International food is expensive to reproduce in Crete; despite the abundance of fresh products on the island, it's not easy to substitute certain tastes. I'm lucky enough to have had the chance to enjoy not just this kind of food, but also the atmosphere involved in eating such meals, throughout my travels. Most Cretans have never experienced a "food court", for example. Meals out are definitely changing, even in a stalwart traditional Mediterranean town like Hania, but they aren't going towards international food - they are going towards global food.
My first meal in Athens comprised a fixed menu (included in the price of the hotel - special pre-arranged reduced group rate of €30pp/pn, sharing in a double room) at the hotel Civitel Attik. Note the lack of any real Greek look to the salad which was flavoured with balsamic (not red wine) vinegar, the bread served with the main meal (exactly the same bun as on the ferry boat), the potatoes served with their skin, the turmeric-flavoured rice and the boneless chicken. 

The only place I've seen anything resembling a food court in Greece is at a shopping centre, close to the hotel where we were staying. You could choose any meal from a range of international choices, including crepes (~ 3.50), rolls and sandwiches, burgers, ice-cream, frozen yoghurt, elaborate coffees and all sorts of other 'to-go' food and drink stalls lining the dining area. The Far East stall (visible on the right of Everest) was the only 'international' cuisine on offer that differed from the regular European/American 'global' food.

During last weekend's trip to Athens, I had many opportunities where I was able to try food that I don't normally eat or cook at home. Even though I was still in Greece, I found that I had far fewer opportunities to eat food that I could truly categorise as a Greek meal. Save Friday night's ship journey (where I was effectively still in Cretan waters), I did not once sit down to eat a Greek meal. All I ate was international food, all served denuded of its cultural origin. Even the meat was completely boneless (I've never cooked boneless meat at home) which brings to mind the recent food scandal involving horse meat: I really did not know what I was placing between my jaws, even when I thought I did.
The hotel breakfast (included in the room price) presented all the delights we like to indulge in when we're staying away from home, but very few of these delights were actually Greek-tasting in origin. But a hotel can be forgiven because they cater for the tastes of many nationalities which means that the food they serve often reflects global standards. Not many people are used to tomatoes and feta cheese with their coffee, for instance!

What is more overwhelming is that this food tasted good, in the same way that hi-fat hi-carb hi-salt food (and who knows? it may even have contained sugar) always tastes good. I can't directly label it all as junk food because most of the time, it was served on a plate with a knife and fork. It felt like a proper meal, although I rarely prepare food in a similar way.

The young people working at a fun park's hot dog stand did an excellent job. You could choose between the standard frankfurter (3.20) and tasty traditional Greek-style sausage (4.20). Toppings were the standard ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise - none of which are particularly Greek. 

The truth is that this kind of food is much easier to prepare than anything I eat at home, even something as simple as a salad or stir-fry, both of which require copious amounts of fresh ingredients and time spent chopping everything finely. It's so much easier to wrap some food inside a sculpted piece of cooked dough, or to fry something directly from its frozen state.

Pantry staples can easily be whipped up into a carbonara. 

If there is anything that keeps Cretan cuisine going strongly on the island, it is perhaps the islanders' food racism, an aversion to modern food customs pervading Greek society. It is still cheap to buy fresh ingredients in Greece, but the time it takes to produce a meal makes the whole process sound rather unsavoury to the younger generation. A bean stew is economical, filling and tasty - but it's not very modern. It's wrong to assume that unemployment means people have more free time available to cook the old-fashioned Greek way (with fresh ingredients and long slow cooking times). The economic crisis has made people search for easier, quicker and cheaper solutions to feed themselves while they get on with the job of rebuilding their lives after the catastrophe that has befallen them. In Crete, this is a slower process for one simple reason: Crete is not suffering as much as other parts of Greece, for the reasons I have explained many times in my blog.

In Greece, pork ribs are always sold attached to the steak, so you can imagine my surprise last week when I saw a rack of pork ribs at the supermarket. 

If any inferences can be made by observing Greeks' present eating patterns in the capital city, one thing is certain: their style of eating out shows the kind of progress they desire - global food for global citizens. The direction that Athens is taking is that of a city heading towards the future, using its past as a background to the present. In this way, Athens is developing a unique personality - not just in terms of food - from these changes; the way I saw Athens on my last visit, the city felt urban, modern, international and cosmopolitan. That is quite a change to the boring, tacky, traditional, souvenir-kitsch look of the past, when Athens felt like just another concrete jungle lacking any individual charisma. It took a crisis to get to this point, but at least the crisis has its positive side. 

Greek culture is often regarded as very connected with its culinary cultural practices, but the crisis, coupled with modern food trends, is changing this. Elena Paravanti refutes this opinion, saying that people are being misinformed about the true cost of non-traditional meals, but this is taking into account only the cost of food, and not the desire of the average Greek to move in the direction of local trends. Even if we accept that food is not just something we throw our money on, we still have to accept that people don't have much disposable income to spend on traditional choices. Foo must provide value for money in terms of energy. When people do not have much money to spend in general, their main motivation to buy something has to do with the price, as noted by Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a UK (Greek-heritage) expert in consumer psychology, in terms of some food companies' tactics to change to producing a smaller-sized product for the same price as the larger-sized product that they have stopped producing, possibly as a cost-cutting measure:  
"People in the UK only value food as a commodity for energy, rather than on the continent where it is seen as something worth spending money on. In fact, price is often the indicator people will look at – they don't look at nutritional value, or how it's produced... this thinking offers no incentive to shops and brands to improve the quality of their products. "It's a waste of the supermarket's time to focus on quality. The only competitive edge is their price... [The use of cheap additives] signifies how much supermarkets will do to lower the price of food, but also the fact that people don't pay attention to anything about nutritional value. But in reality we are paying a higher price because it affects our health." (The Guardian
Modern urban food doesn't have to be completely lacking in culture, but when price is a significant factor as it is now for most Europeans (and Greeks especially), it could have an effect on the way people think about food. If, for example, Philadelphia cream cheese (readily available at all supermarkets in Greece) is a cheaper option than, say, traditional creamy Cretan mizithra, a young person will more likely move towards it. Pasta baked with milk and cheese (or just a packet mixture) is cheaper, just as filling and less time-consuming to make than the traditional Greek favorite pastitsio, which requires three pots and an oven tray to make. 

My own family complained last week when the pastitsio I made came out more like a macaroni cheese (I used a reduced amount of mince). I remind them that if we reared our own meat in the same way that we grow spinach, possibly our pastitsio would have an authentic ring to it, in the same way as our spanakopitas. For now, they may have to be content with a spinach-based pastitsio instead. That's the difference between urban and rural cuisine: if you have eat, you eat it, but if you don't, you have to think about how much it will cost you to buy it.

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