Wednesday, 10 October 2007

You are what you eat

I read this appalling story last week regarding increasing obesity and heart disease in Greece as a result of the abandonment of the traditional Mediterranean diet in favour of one inclined towards high-fat and processed foods.

There is no excuse for such a trend, which Greeks for once cannot blame on the machinations of foreigners. What we put in our mouths and allow to enter our stomachs is our choice and our responsibility. No one force-feeds us chocolate, crisps and doughnuts.

Furthermore, as the report makes clear, other Mediterranean countries – Italy, Spain, France – have managed to preserve their traditional cuisines and diets. I can also testify that during my recent trip to Cyprus, Cypriots remain satisfied with their traditional cuisine, which is one of the tastiest in the world.

The quality of local Cypriot produce is high, care and pride is taken in the production and preparation of food, eating is a pleasure, a holy sacrament. Rubbish won’t do; it won’t go down. I remember Auntie A’s baked okra in tomato sauce, Auntie M’s stuffed onions, her cherry tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil, so sweet that I ate an entire plateful; and then there was Uncle K’s souvla (barbecue) – a slap-up meat feast, consisting of lamb chops, loukanika (spicy sausages), sheftalia (more spicy sausages), pork souvlaki (kebab) and, Uncle K’s speciality, snails in tomato and garlic sauce.

I’ve never eaten snails before and found them to be exquisite little things – though I did have trouble sucking the slugs Cypriot-style out of their shells and had to be given a toothpick to extricate the flesh, the effeminate French way. I need to work on my suction technique.

Anyway, to show that even 4,000 miles away from civilisation, it is still possible to eat well, like a Greek and a Cypriot, I will from time to time be providing details and photographs of my main meal of the day, particularly when I have the good fortune to savour my saintly mother’s cooking.

Last night, as pictured above, I had louvi (black-eyed beans) with courgettes in olive oil and lemon juice; lots of tashin (tahini paste, lemon juice and garlic); and a couple of loukanika. Delicious. I wish you’d all been here to enjoy it with me.


Margaret said...

All of us...?

I could eat the sausages, but I'm not sure about all that sauce made from tahini. Is it hot or cold?

john akritas said...

Cold. In fact, tashin/tahini should only be served after a good hour in the fridge to allow the flavours to amalgamate. Tashin goes especially well with white meat, and in fact, for me, Xmas turkey is inconceivable without it. How many cloves of garlic, the right amount of lemon, whether water should be used to loosen the mixture – these are the most important questions to be faced when attempting to make a good tashin. Tashin is very versatile and the only thing it doesn’t go with well is red meat. I’ve recently started to use it as a sauce on my pasta. I don't like what the Lebanese do and put aubergine in it. Unnecessary. I have added roasted walnuts to tashin and this is not a bad variation.

Stavros said...

All this talk of food is making me hungry so I just called my wife and her asked her to make some of her world renowned Fakes or Lentil Soup tonight. I will stop by tonight on the way home to buy some fresh crusty bread and feta cheese and salivate all the way home.

Tahini is not something I eat often although perhaps I need to experiment with it more. Personally I prefer melitzanosalata or babganoush as our Lebanese friends call it. My mama makes an awesome shordalia (garlic paste)and I love to spread it on fried eggplant. Yogurt also goes well with fried eggplant.

Mama also makes a killer taramosalata (egg roe dip) although that is probably an acquired taste.

Do you like tahinli? Is it hard to make?

john akritas said...

Kali orexi!

I too like melitzanosalata, though I’ve never really managed to make a successful version. I don’t have a food processor. Fried aubergine with yogurt or skordalia sounds good and strikes me as a very Constantinopolitan dish. Taramosalata can be got from all the supermarkets here – varying quality – but I’ve always wanted to try and make it from scratch, but never been able to find anywhere that sells cod roe in London. I made a pretty good skordalia recently, but I am so devoted to tahini/tashin that I feel if I am going to make a garlicky dip, then I should go for the premium choice, ie tashin.

As I said to Margaret, tashin goes with virtually everything. You’re not supposed to eat as much as I have in my plate above – I was being greedy – but tashin is a food which lends itself to being eaten to excess. It must be thanksgiving soon, and I would unreservedly recommend tashin with turkey. Forget the cranberry sauce.

It is not difficult to make tashin. Some recipes recommend only 4-5 tablespoons of tahini paste from a standard jar, but I pour in the whole jar. Crush two cloves of garlic with salt, add half the tahini paste, stir with a wooden spoon, gradually add the juice of three lemons and the rest of the tahini paste and continue stirring. To thin the mixture, add water – up to a cupful – and/or more lemon juice and stir and stir until you have strained your wrist.

Alternatively, forget the manual labour and pour all the ingredients into a food processor and blitz.
At the end, a white mixture, thinner than tarama and melitzanosalata – but not too watery (better too thick than too thin) – will emerge, which should be chilled in the fridge before serving, then dressed with two-three tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of chopped parsley.

john akritas said...

When you said tahinli, I thought you were just misspelling tahini – too long in America and so on – but I see it’s something else altogether. It sounds to me like tahinopitta, which the Cypriot bakeries here in London do and is eaten a lot during lent. I’ve never had it homemade. Is it something your mother makes? Is it Constantinopolitan cuisine? I’ve no idea if they do it in Greece. I’ve never come across it there. Now, you're making me hungry and it's two in the morning.

Stavros said...

My mother never made it although we do put tahini in halva. I heard that tahinli was common in the northern part of Cyprus especially among Turkish Cypriots. Sounded good, something I'd like to try.

Are you a fan of Imam Bayldi, eggplant topped with meat, tomatoes and cheese. It's a personal favorite. Yes, I like eggplant. Thanks for the technical pointers on tahini. I will pass them on to my wife, Anna. Any attempt on my part to replicate anything edible might very well turn into a gastronomic catastrophe.

john akritas said...

Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot cuisine are very similar, if not identical. The TCs even eat halloumi – a sure sign of Cypriotness. Truth is, of course, that most TCs are Greek converts and while they changed their religion, there was no need to change their food – with the exception of pork, not that TCs are especially religious, Greek Cypriots are more so.

I’ve never tried Imam Bayaldi, though it sounds good. Generally, I like aubergine/eggplant, though I am not much of a mousakka man.

Are you the type who’ll eat snails, brains, liver, sheep’s head and so on to prove you’re not squeamish or do you have a sensitive stomach? I can’t imagine that someone who spent 25 years in the US Marines recoils at the thought of ingesting snails.

Where did you come across Constantine Markides? He’s hilarious. Is he related to Kyriakos Markides? That would explain his politics – which I am entirely opposed to, and is why I haven’t put him in my recommended blogs, even though the quality of his writing and observations probably deserve it. He works for the Cyprus Mail too, which I can’t stand.

Stavros said...

Yea, we have more in common than we like to admit to, I guess.

My philosophy about food boils down to this: "I'll try anything once." After all you don't know if you will like it unless you try it. I remember eating some pretty exotic stuff at Jungle survival school in the Phillipines, hunger makes everything taste better. I am at home eating Indian or Japanese, Italian or Chinese. Snails? That would be Anna, she adores her mother's recipe. She balked at Sushi at first, now she cannot live without it. I like mageritsa and kokoretsi very much but pass on devouring a lamb's head although my uncle thinks it is the best part of the lamb.

A friend told me about Constantino and I knew you would get around to reading him, even though you disagree on certain issues, that never stopped you before. Did you read about his experiences in the Cypriot National Gurad and guard duty on the Green line?

john akritas said...

I have read C’s adventures in the finest fighting force in the world, and I’m sure you recognise and appreciate more than I do many of the absurd situations and procedures he’s subjected to.

Certainly, whenever I’ve been to the Green Line – as a civilian tourist, ice cream in hand – you are struck by the surrealism of the Turkish occupation. If I walk another 100 yards in this direction, will the Turks really shoot me? What for? What did I do to them? I’ve got no bad intentions. I'm British. I thought this was the Island of Love.

Where we’re from, we’re so used to being able to go wherever we want, whenever we want, and the idea that somewhere is off limits makes no sense to us – but in Cyprus it’s a daily reality. This far and no further. If only the Turks had a sense of humour, they might see the absurdity of it all too.

Hermes said...

Gentlemen (and Margaret), all this talk of food is making me very hungry. Also, its making me want to experiment in Cypriot and Politiki kouzina. Not wanting to sound provincial may I also suggest the world renowned Zakynthian kouzina (kitchen). It is uniquely characterised by heavy stews consisting of rabbit and beef ragouts served with pasta, stuffed chicken and rabbit, aubergine with pancetta and wine etc which all goes exceedingly well with the local Ladotyri and Verdea wine. One of my favourites is boiled Trago (wild goat bred in the mountains and then killed on the day and served in a lovely stew). Also, do not forget the sweets such as Mandolato (a specialty of Zante) and the Fitoures served around Agios Dionysios and Christopsomo around Xmas and many more. There are specialty coobooks from Zakynthos which can be found here:

A very good book with anecdotes from world famous Zakynthian writers.,-breads-and-sweets-from-Zakynthos.htm

By the way avoid the Kefalonian kitchen.

john akritas said...

Rabbit stew! Now you're talking. Now we're getting serious.

Stavros said...


Sounds very interesting. My two favorite cuisines are Greek and Italian. I can just imagine the what the two traditions together might produce. BTW, the first time I had rabbit stifado was many years ago in Drama during the winter. It was in a little cozy taverna with a roaring fireplace. It was a memorable meal.
As for Christopsomo and Tsourekia. Don't get me started. Mama always uses mastika and mahlepi that gives both an aroma and taste that is unique.

Margaret said...

I'm bored by the rugby. What am admission ... and truly frustrated to read a comment about rabbit stew, since I made a beautiful pigeon casserole on Friday, and was even going to photograph it for my blog - especially for Demo - as a fine example of English fare. But one of the disadvantages of an AGA is that you cannot smell anything in it, so I left it there on Friday evening, and there it still sits gently drying out, whilst I spend the weekend at our, well, weekend house, reeling from a Open University Maths seminar.

Demo, you can blame me for the Markides essays. I enjoyed reading them - they made me laugh, especially the bit about the mating dogs. And I think his mother is wonderful, and his Dad's books are pretty interesting too.

Margaret said...

Oh, and the best Iman Byaldi I've ever tasted was made for me as a love offering by a female Turkish refugee who had no money. Trouble was she told me she was a member of a proscribed terrorist organisation, so I had to shop her to MI5. Well, no, actually, I just asked them what they had on the organisation, and they wouldn't tell me anything, so I decided not to tell them any either, and found I had a defence under the terrorist legislation if I told my employer... A very exciting week, and Imam Byaldi brings it all back.

I was raised on rabbit stew because it was the only meat available to my mother during the war (they used to breed their own), and so she got used to cooking it. Friends used to regularly bring round rabbits they had shot. I used to be able to skin and gut them, but I'm not sure I'd fancy doing that any more, especially with a prosletysing vegetarian in the family.

Stavros said...


Pigeon Casserole? Would these particular birds be related to the ones that used to hang out on the fire escape of the tenement building I grew up in in Manhattan. Perhaps renaming it "gamebird" casserole would make it more appetizing and palatable for the uninitiated, like me. I'm sure that I would try it nonetheless given my taste for exotic food and my perception that you are probably a very good cook.

Rabbit stew would not be something I would like to eat frequently either especially if I had to tell the kiddies that Peter Cottontail was lying in the middle of all those tasty potatoes and carrots on their plate.

I must admit that although I could see you turning in terrorists I cannot picture you skinning and gutting a sweet fuzzy rabbit.

john akritas said...

Pitsounia (pigeon) – big delicacy in Cyprus, and in Greece too I think. I remember as a kid my uncle A. not believing his good luck when some pigeons made the mistake of making a nest in our attic.

Stavros said...


You are right, I have been too long in the Promised Land. Tonight I dream of Margaret's pigeon casserole and roasted rabbit on a stick.