Thursday, 17 July 2014

Greek cuisine, Greek identity and the economic crisis: a crisis of taste

A dietitian friend of mine in Germany recently asked me about the relationship between Greek food and the economic crisis. Here is a seminar I presented last year about this very topic. Presenting it again this year has given me a chance to give it a reality check - yes, it still holds true. 

Maria Verivaki
English teacher, Food blogger
Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania

Greek cuisine is often associated with concepts such as hospitality, homeliness and tradition, all of which require certain sacrifices, in terms of time and money. It is also seen as an important and defining element of Greek identity. But the economic crisis has affected standard Greek values and the Greek identity is being reshaped as developments change the structure of Greek society. The traditional cuisine associated with Greece cannot remain untouched by this. What changes has Greek cuisine, as related to Greek identity, undergone due to the crisis?
The economic crisis brought this 'new' form of heating - and 'old' form of cooking - into my home.

This paper does not attempt to answer the question directly. Rather, introspective insights will yield partial answers to this issue, using personal experience and knowledge gleaned from various sources, mainly from the Greek national and international press coupled with personal experiences, with particular emphasis on the area of Western Crete, where the author lives and works. The question will remain open, as a recommendation for further research into the topic of Greek identity and how it relates to Greek cuisine.

Greek cuisine is mired in the myths created about it by the nostalgic diaspora, history enthusiasts and sun-seeking tourists. Numerous books have been written about it, acquainting the whole world with the concept of Greek cuisine, while at the same time standardising Greek food in the minds of both those of Hellenic and non-Hellenic heritage. While there are many standard dishes instantly recognisable as Greek food, the basic ingredients and meals that are often ascribed as Greek and known to the non-Greek world represent only a limited range of the full gamut of Greek cuisine. What's more, what is prepared in the Greek home is rarely representative of what is cooked in the tavernas and restaurants for the tourist.

Greek food is glorified in pictures. Sometimes the setting is more important than the food. 

The country of Greece is as varied as its cuisine. The north is known for its redolent pita, the south for its great variety of horta, and the islands for their regional specialties originating in their limited supply of ingredients. But what is often presented in restaurants in a country with a booming tourist industry associated with it is a variation of mainly summer specialty dishes such as yemista and horiatiki salata. In Crete, some regional specialties will be added, perhaps boureki and kalitsounia. In the north, these regional specialties will be replaced by the locality's specialties, maybe tirokafteri and some kind of pita. But all Greek eateries will unfailingly mention (for example) tzatziki and moussaka, and these dishes will be presented in such a way that one expects them to be commonly prepared in the average Greek home by the average Greek home cook.
Haniotiko boureki: a very regional dish from Hania

The truth is that Greek cuisine is made up of a regional range of different cuisines, in the same way that a number of regions make up the country. Many of the locally well-known dishes will not necessarily be well-known to Greeks outside the region concerned, nor will they even appear on a tourist restaurant menu. But these specialties are now appearing in high-end Greek restaurants, often in variable forms from those originally found in the home and non-tourist kitchens where they are still commonly prepared. One of the reasons for this is the economic crisis: as Greeks are rediscovering and reshaping their identity, they are digging up and uncovering more basic elements of their culinary history in an attempt to reach beyond the surface of the traditional identity that they have - often mistakenly - become synonymous with.
Bougatsa Iordanis: a local specialty of Hania, different to other forms of bougatsa in Greece.

The Greek diaspora has always played a major role in the global dissemination of Greek cuisine. The diaspora is made up of people of Hellenic origin who congregate in different places around the globe outside Greece. Their regional differences are not accentuated as they relate with each other abroad for the simple reason that they find themselves outside the country - there, they become Greeks, and so does their food. In the diaspora, they are no longer a Cretan, Athenian, Samioti, etc; they are Greek. Their shared Greek experiences are expressed in their shared Greek food.
Sometimes the only Greek element of Greek yoghurt sold abroad under this label is the design of the packaging.

The economic crisis has created a new Hellenic disapora wave - this in turn will have some influence in the dissemination of Greek cuisine and how it is being redefined in global terms, as expressed in the homes of those new immigrants and the food businesses that are operated by them. In the same way that the 1922 crisis in Smyrna reshaped Greek cuisine within the Greek borders, so too are the new Greek migrants likely to redefine Greek cuisine outside the country, in the food that they prepare in their home, the products they import, and the Greek restaurants they operate.

Before looking into Greek cuisine abroad, we need to understand what it is all about in the domestic environment: what Greek cuisine means in the urban/rural context, lifestyle choice, the concept of a Greek product and its promotion, shopping trends, the difference between eating at home and eating out, the influence of unemployment and soup kitchens, the resurgence of gardens, chicken coops and foraging and Greek television food programs.

One of the reasons for the varied range of cuisine that one will come across at any one moment all over Greece is the different landscape that Greeks live in. Mountains and coastlines yield different food in different quantities. This is in antithesis with the urban landscape, particularly that of a densely populated capital city like Athens, which is concreted and does not give people the opportunity to be self-sufficient to any degree. The local seasonal abundance which rural life depends on for its culinary creativity is to be found in the street markets (laiki) of urban Greece where producers and/or their products congregate from all over the country. Hence, urban Greeks conceivably have a greater range of products available to them at any one time compared to the rural Greek.
My home cooked summer meals often depend on what is in the garden. I obviously had access to cucumbers and vine leaves and herbs to make this meal. 

But in an economic crisis, where money is scarce, food choices become limited by what you can afford, which is especially true in a city. The rural Greek household, on the other hand, despite having always been much more limited in terms of the range of products found in the average rural kitchen, will not be greatly affected by an economic crisis. Rural Greek kitchens are supplemented not by a weekly laiki, but by the gardening season. In a crisis, this is hardly likely to change, as people continue to grow a good deal of their own produce, maybe even more than they used to before the crisis as a way of safeguarding their future.
The colours of my local laiki last weekend.
A Greek laiki shopping experience is not complete without one of those clunky wire baskets with wheels. Personally, I prefer the shopper.

Unlike the more technologically advanced nations, Greece has a relatively more balanced urban/rural population, at 60/40. This means that for every 1 person living in the city, there are approximately 2 people working in the countryside, which often involves work that has to do with food production. Compare this figure to the UK's urban/rural population, which stands at 80/20 - each person living in the countryside equates with 4 living in urban areas. In Greece there are more people working with food, compared to other European countries. This factor accentuates the relationship of the Greek people with their culinary heritage. Food is seen not just as a means of survival, but a form of expression, and a regional one at that, as each Greek region produces a variety of distinct products. 

My husband is a keen gardener. 

The different food available in the rural and urban context will naturally give rise to a different kind of cuisine. An urban cook looks for inspiration from the range of products in a store, while the rural cook will look into her garden and base meals around it. An urban cook will also be able to use prepared ingredients while the rural cook may be spending more time processing a product before preparing it for a meal. A possible influence of the economic crisis may be that the finished meal cooked in either kitchen - the rural or the urban - will not necessarily reflect what is traditionally labelled as Greek cuisine: the urban cook will prepare a meal according to her pocket, which may mean cutting corners (eg my pastitsio which contained leftover makaronada mince and much more pasta), whereas the rural cook may prepare a frugal meal using a wide variety of whatever is available in the garden with a less conventional mixture (eg my spanakopites which contain a variety of horta rather than mainly spinach, or adding orange in a salad, like it was added during the war as related to me by my mother-in-law).

The modern world has given people the choice to live however they like wherever they like. Whether you live in the city or the countryside, you can eat the same food. Supermarkets, refrigeration and the free market have given Greek people the opportunity to eat all kinds of food that even their parents may not have dreamed of eating in their youth. These days, most Greek people, wherever they live, are within reach of pre-cooked packaged beetroot available at fresh produce stalls, ready-to-cook refrigerated pizzas and a store (usually a supermarket) that sells Chinese noodles as a standard product. Soya bean meat substitutes are readily available for vegetarians, which is quite a different concept to fasting according to Greek tradition, as is gluten-free food, an unknown concept in Greece until only relatively recently.
My Greek guests like to be surprised by my international cooking. These Chinese dumplings were made using local ingredients, flavoured with Asian sauces.

The freedom to choose what we eat allows us to diverge from tradition and eat in a way that does not reflect our cultural background. Indeed, with the rise in travel, a more conscious attitude towards healthy food (meaning less meat, less fat and less fried food), and the wider availability of products among the range generally regarded as global cuisine has paved the way towards a move away from Greek cuisine. Freedom of choice has also helped working people immensely; when there is no one to do the cooking for you, you can choose between a packet of ready-to-cook spanakorizo or a pizza in the freezer section of the supermarket; pre-cut salads with less conventional leafy greens (eg red lettuce varieties or baby spinach) are now common (and many supermarkets sell imported salads of this sort); and if you don't have the time to make a spanakopita yourself, you can buy ready ones at a range of prices to suit your pocket. The same applies to a dinner party - these days not everyone cooks a traditional Greek meal for their guests (this is mainly done in villages), while having your party catered for, or cooking something less conventional is becoming all the more common.

The economic crisis influences our choices in our freedom to choose what to prepare, cook and eat, whether we are cooking for ourselves or for others. At my own dinner parties, I often prepare Asian specialties like spring rolls using Greek ingredients. At a recent dinner party I attended in Hania, given by a newly-wed couple, we were served ready-to-cook spanakotiropitakia as an hors d'oeuvre, a baked macaroni-bacon-cheese dish for mains, served with a 'fancy' green salad (lettuce with pomegranate and balsamic vinegar). Such meals are cheap/easy to produce, but not essentially 'Greek' in nature. This style of cooking points in the direction that Greeks are tending towards: global cuisine that does not cost too much time or money.

This leads us to a pressing issue in our times: what exactly do we mean when we talk about a Greek food product? Is it a product produced on Greek soil? Can it include a finished product made in Greece with imported ingredients? What about a product with a mixture of origins and/or ingredients? There are many ways to illustrate this concept. I will use three examples: Greek meat, Greek milk and Greek yoghurt.

MEAT: Greek meat is often regarded as meaning the meat from an animal born/raised/killed in Greece. But few people will read the fine-print on the label concerning the origin of the animal. Beef sold in Cretan supermarkets, for instance, is often born in France, where it was raised up to 5 months old, then it is brought into Greece where it continues to be raised, until it is finally slaughtered in Greece. The meat from such animals is sold as Greek meat. The recent horsemeat scandal has heightened awareness against imported meat - but Greek meat is rarely purely Greek anyway and it is more expensive than imported beef.

MILK: Milk has been a contentious economic sore point for many years, since well before the crisis, when a litre of milk was being sold at about the same price as a litre of petrol. After a long campaign (well before the crisis), the average price of a litre of milk decreased. But truly cheap milk in Greece is never of Greek origin; Greek milk consistently continues to be more expensive than imported milk, selling approximately at 1.5 times a higher price. During the crisis, people tend to buy cheaper products. The cheapest milk on the Greek supermarket shelves is consistently not produced in Greece.
Somewhere in the US...

YOGHURT: Greek yoghurt is a high point of discussion all over the world. What is Greek yoghurt? Is it yoghurt made in Greece? Is it yohgurt made with Greek milk? Is it a particular kind of yoghurt? And when can a yoghurt be labelled 'Greek'? We understand that the phrase 'Greek yoghurt' basically means 'strained yoghurt'. In Greece, the most popular brand of strained yoghurt is made with a mixture of milk imported from France and Germany. Labels bearing the phrase 'Greek yoghurt' appear all over the world - they rarely write 'strained yoghurt'; the closest they come to describing what they mean by Greek yoghurt is when they write 'Greek-style yoghurt'.

The subject of Greek yoghurt leads to the issue of the Greek food craze abroad. Despite the bad reputation of the Greek economy in global terms, we find that Greek cuisine enjoys a record high degree of popularity. Greek food is being recognised in Western countries in ways that it was not considered in the past. This is possibly due to the perceived health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, its high reliance on cooking with olive oil and fresh vegetables, and the taste quality of export-value Greek food products. The economic crisis has partly fuelled this foreign interest because the main export products in Greece are to do with food.
Greeks often sell Greek products packed/prepared in a way that will appeal mainly to foreign buyers, not locals. 

In the scramble for market share, suddenly Greek food is is being exported in all sorts of forms for all sorts of prices. Farmed snails, olive oil in decorative bottle designs, truffles found in Greece, mastich crystals and mastich-flavoured drinks, among others, including some of the more well known products such as wine, honey, feta and olives, coupled with the 'organic' label, are being sold at the high end of the market. Some of these products are not being targetted towards the local market, eg farmed snails and olive oil in decorative bottles; they would be considered by most Greeks as over-priced as well as easily replaced by cheaper and more readily-available products. In terms of the economic crisis, what is the degree to which these enterprises benefited from it? Did they originate in the economic crisis, or were they a natural progression of the Greek food export market? Has food marketing in Greece changed to accommodate a new kind of post-crisis food market or is this Greek food craze a purely foreign export issue? These food-based questions all provide some kind of insight into the Greek identity.

Going out for a meal had always been the norm for many Greeks: taverna food was considered quite cheap in the pre-crisis days. But it is now widely reported in the media that Greeks don't eat out much, and a quick glance in the local tavernas will probably confirm that. Beyond the taverna though, we see the cafes full to the brim on most warm days. It's cheaper to go out to a cafe than a taverna, which explains why people choose the latter. So going out is still important in the crisis period in Greece, but the setting has changed. And so has the expenditure. Due to the change in the setting, no doubt the food has changed too.
Souvlaki is the most popular meal out these days - young people are seen crowding round the often very limited outdoor seating areas.

One of the most popular meals out these days is the souvlaki. Souvlaki stores have opened up at very quick rates in the last year or so. 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. Souvlaki is more than just a meal. It makes you feel good, the equivalent of a family 'happy meal', eaten by all age groups, making an outing to a souvlatzidiko the perfect family mid-week jaunt. Going for out a souvlaki is a psychologically uplifting experience, and it is a very democratic meal - there are various choices available, all being sold for roughly the same price.

Greek television is not without its food shows and they remain very popular. We see home cooks showing us how to cook cheaply, gourmet cooks making fancy foreign desserts, modern cooks using labelled ingredients (the infamous philadelphia cheese that goes into anything and everything, from pennes with sausage to stuffed chicken), and homely cooks doing something exciting in the kitchen on the morning shows of the private free-access channels.

If a host of different cooking shows were all playing at the same time on different channels, and you had only one television and no recording facilities, which one would you watch if you felt like watching a TV food show?

* A program that shows you how to cook a well-known traditional Greek dish
* A program that shows how to cook something unusual, not common or creative, eg melitzanopita
* A program that shows how to cook within the spectrum of international cuisine, eg globally well known sweets made by a famous Greek dessert chef
* A program showcasing frugal food, eg a supermarket-sponsored food show featuring easy-to-make meals that don't cost much
* Something showing traditional Greek regional dishes, eg the kind that home cooks in rural regions make, which don't often make it into the cookbooks

Melitzanopita (eggplant pie), made by myself. 

We can watch all these shows on Greek TV. So, how 'Greek' is the food they are cooking? Is it part of the Greek cuisine spectre, or is Greek cuisine veering towards global cuisine trends, where the traditional tried and tested is being replaced by modern global food? Do people cook like this at home, or are they sticking to traditional Greek cookery? Is it cheap to cook like this, or has the crisis affected us in terms of the nationality of the food we prepare at home? Is this an urban trend, or has it also infiltrated the Greek rural kitchen? Is it a special-use cuisine, or do people aspire to cook like this on a regular basis? using a particular brand-name food product, eg mass-produced cheese spread in a pizza?

All the above options are available to Greek TV viewers, and they are popular all over the country, regardless of the landscape.

Price is the most important factor for most people, as exemplified by the Greek Potato Movement, a move to cut the middleman out of the food-buying chain and get products straight from the producer. Surveys have also shown the following trends in Greek consumers:

82% seek specials
80% compare prices
77% prefer Greek products over imports
74% use a shopping list
71% buy only what they need
70% buy the cheaper alternatives
93% have limited their 'eating out'
63% buy less meat
60% buy less fish
51% buy fewer sweets
48% buy less alcohol

The consequences of unemployment have led to rapid detrimental effects in the home environment. People find themselves with not enough money to buy quality food. The fact that they are unemployed does not give them the luxury of preparing the slow-cooked traditional Greek meals that they may have been raised on. People are constantly on the move in such a way that they do not necessarily spend so much time at home, even if they are not employed. Suddenly, they find themselves in a new situation, one that has often been referred to as reverting to past habits.
This meal was served in a soup kitchen in Hania. 

There is the preponderance of the home garden, which has always been an effective way to save money. Convenience food is also being sought in discount supermarkets, as a way to keep the food budget of a household down. People are always on the lookout for cheap food sources.

Foraging has always been a popular activity in Greece, but it has taken on new proportions during the crisis: there is a certain amount of 'foraging' going on which is not always legal (people may be trespassing onto fields that are not theirs to harvest procuts). For those who live in urban environments, food parcels and various handouts by non-profit organisations are commonly organised. And we have probably all been witness to the sight of people searching in rubbish bins. These people are often looking for something useful in them, which usually means something to eat. Soup kitchens are now found even in places where food insecurity was never an issue in the past, together with community grocery stores and community gardens. Solidarity against hunger is being shown in various forms all over the country.

As Greeks, we all share a common concept of what constitutes Greek food, but we are Western Europeans at heart and our food and lifestyle choices reflect this. The economic crisis has westernised us even more. Despite having less money, we all still eat - we are not starving.

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