Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Vegetarian night out (Για χορτοφάγους)

A vegetarian reader who is visiting Hania on holiday wanted to know if vegetarians are catered for in the local restaurants. I laughed: "Of course they are! Most Cretan cooking is actually vegetarian, especially our signature dishes!" This is what I often state on my blog: Greek cooking is in fact  vegetarian, especially if one considers that many dishes like salads, horta, chips and dips serve as main meals in Greek households, unlike in the tavernas where they are treated as side dishes, while meat and fish tend to be the focus of a meal. This is due to the way Greeks order (or should I say 'used to order'??) a meal when dining out. Vegetarian dishes are regarded as accompaniments to a main meal and their vegetarian element is not considered - they are simply seen as sides.

In this day and age, if you don't order a meat/fish dish, this isn't regarded as completely unusual; most of the time, you can get full just on appetisers in a Greek restaurant - but it's highly likely that some of those appetisers will also contain meat/fish, which may confuse the issue. The concept of vegetarianism isn't popular at all in Crete. It is still regarded by the older generation as reflecting a state of poverty, which some may wish to argue that we are returning to, as if going without meat is a kind of sacrifice. Meatless dishes are seen as frugal, cheap, poor, parsimonious, informal. When I first came to Crete, my relatives were always very wary of serving me the meatless food that was often cooking on their stovetops for fear of offending me; they thought I would think that they were being stingy. If I popped into their house uninvited, they'd say: "Oh, the food's not good today, we're not having meat." As they got to know me better, they realised how much I liked those meals, which is now what endears them to me: they tell my husband that "she isn't a fussy eater".

Vegetarian baked pasta with spinach - it's like a eating a vegetarian lasagne, or a spanakopita made with pasta.
I recommended to my reader a place where she could be guaranteed to have a a good meal while she was here. She messaged me back, asking me to make sure it had vegetarian options, which I found quite strange. Didn't I tell her that Cretan food mainly IS vegetarian?! What was she worrying about?
My rather scruffy yemista and dolmadakia, cooked on the stovetop, the way my mother used to cook them. For some reason, whenever I upload a new photo of them on my facebook page, they become one of the most popular posts! I wonder where this could be attributed to: perhaps people don't have the chance to eat them or even see them often enough these days, due to the different pressures involved in daily life, where people don't have time to make a simple cheap meal such as this one (I made it last week with last summer season's freezer leftovers).
I did an online search of a few tavernas in the town to see their menu cards. Here's what I found:
TAVERNA 1: only the meat specialties were mentioned on the website - the full menu was not given
TAVERNA 2: a sample indicative menu (half vegetarian) was provided, listing 5 dishes - the full menu was not given
TAVERNA 3: no menu was provided (the website advised people to look up tripadvisor!)
Samosa - when the summer garden kicks in, I will try using zucchini, eggplant and peppers to make this same dish, instead of the classic pea and potato combo.
I then googled the top-end restaurants in the town to see what results they would yield. It should be ntoed that they do not serve traditional meals, cooking more creatively and using a variety of :
RESTAURANT 1: no menu was provided
RESTAURANT 2: no menu was provided
RESTAURANT 3: an extended menu was provided - but, embarassingly, mainly the meat dishes were being showcased; even the salad menu contained a bright photo featuring meat in it!!!
Omelette with mustard greens and salad - you will only get a taste of this kind of egg dish if you go to a tiny place in a tiny village which has one cafe with no menu card and the owner will cook something without using a recipe, using whatever is in the fridge or store cupboard. 
So what's happening in the restaurant trade in Hania concerning the vegetarian issue? Here is my opinion:
1. In Crete, vegetarianism as a concept is still considered an oddity.  Greeks are generally not vegetarians. Having said that, a vegetarian will always find something to eat at a Greek restaurant.
2. Restaurants and tavernas vie for business, very often serving similar dishes. So they just keep mum about what they are serving (they generally don't place their menu on their website) to ward off competitors. Greek tavernas in particular very often serve similar dishes with standard menus. Sometimes, there is little to choose between them if you compare them simply on the basis of a menu card.
3. Vegetarianism is not accorded the prominence it is given in Western culture. When Greeks do religious fasts, they will abstain from meat and fish, but they continue to eat shellfish. Vegetarian dishes do exist, but they aren't singled out. But vegetarian dishes do actually exist - they simply aren't pointed out as such on the menu card (whereas lenten meals - νιστίσιμα - are).

I still don't use a 'vegetarian' or 'vegan' label in my posts; neither are particularly Greek concepts. I only use the 'lenten' label. I could update my blog with the vegetarian/vegan labels, but that is similar to using ads in your blog - you do it to attract people to it. (I have caused enough problems attracting people to it from the 'organic' nature of the name of my blog - there is no such thing as 'organically cooked', just 'organically grown'.)

One thing I can guarantee is that the concept of vegetarian food as it is cooked in a Greek home is quite different to that of a vegetarian meal as it is cooked in a restaurant. I cook vegetarian dishes that restaurants probably would never serve. But if I asked restaurants about serving such dishes, I am sure that they would respond negatively: "No one wants to eat such meals." Since I'm not a restaurant owner, I can't provide proof to refute them, even though I personally feel that they are probably wrong on this one. Never mind the fact that a vegetarian restaurant involves lower costs and more seasonal local fresh food, which is another foodie 'gimmick' that is often under-utilised in the Greek restaurant trade!

Peinirli - filled pizza - made with spanakopita (above) and Greek salad (below) fillings - clever vegetarian twists to a Greek favorite
I had planned to take a stroll by the old Venetian port to check out the menus of all the fancy eateries there, but I find that a pointless exercise. If half the menu isn't vegetarian, I'll be darned. Don't expect any vegetarian meals to be made with meat substitutes eg soya beans, or vegetarian dishes that look like meat eg vegetarian sausages. Neither of these concepts are an integral part of Greek cuisine. Here is a list of vegetarian dishes that virtually all restaurants in Hania serve throughout the tourist season:
  • dakos (barley rusk topped with tomato and cheese)
  • melitzanosalata (aubergine dip)
  • tzatziki (yoghurt with cucumber and garlic)
  • horiatiki salata (tomato, pepper, onion and cucumber salad with or without feta cheese)
  • horta (boiled leafy amaranth greens)
  • marathopita (flat filo pastry pie filled with spinach and fennel weed)
  • sfakiani pita (flat filo pastry pie filled with fresh cheese and topped with honey)
  • dolmadakia (vine leaves stuffed with herbed rice - ask to ensure that they don't contain meat)
  • yemista (tomato/pepper stuffed with herbed rice - ask to ensure that they don't contain meat)
  • patates tiganites (fried potatoes)
  • kolokithakia/melitzanes tiganita (zucchini/eggplant chips)
  • kolokithokeftedes (zucchini patties)
  • haniotiko boureki (cheese and zucchini pie)
  • briam (roast summer vegetables with or without cheese)
  • kalitsounia (traditional pies made with a range of vegetarian fillings, mainly spinach/cheese)
  • fasolada (bean soup - not all restaurants will offer this in the height of summer)
  • fasolakia (green bean stew)
  • fakes (lentil soup - not all restaurants will offer this in the height of summer)
  • bamies (okra stewed in tomato)
  • feta (feta cheese served with olive and oregano)
  • gigantes (large white baked beans)
  • among others
mayeirio hania chania
Typical Cretan taverna menu card

Vegetarian cusine in Greece is simply stating the obvious - meals prepared or cooked with plant-based food. Few bottled flavourings are used which may be deceptive - it's usually oil, lemon, vinegar, tomato sauce, etc. Sometimes, the vegetable is mentioned as a menu item eg batsaria (beetroot), melitzanes me tiri (eggplant with cheese), etc. They generally don't do 'creative' cuisine -that's something a home cook will do. If you're a vegetarian, and you can wade your way through the menu card, picking out the non-meat meals, you'll find plenty to eat!

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