(Qifqi. Photo: internet)
Long ago ingredients like tomatoes and aubergines managed to enter into the Greek kitchen. Over the last ten years or so however there have been only little changes in this kitchen, meaning the dishes. In the kitchen itself some things did change: nowadays you will find more and more foreigners stirring the pots on the stoves.
Last week we went into a restaurant where the woman serving narrated the menu aloud in a mix of Greek and Albanian (or maybe it was Russian or Ukrainian; it is not always clear where slavic or other language speaking ladies come from). Patates: understood, salad: understood, but it was not clear what was in it. Finally, after some repeating, she managed to pronounce clearly kokkinisto (stew in tomato sauce); that was ordered immediately, after which a series of totally unknown names followed. We decided to be surprised and we ended up with a perfect Greek meal: imam, fried courgettes, mixed salad, feta, pastourma pie and the famous kokkinisto. When we said goodbye I made a deep bow for the woman and addressed her with ‘chef’, an international word for a good professional cook. Her cheeks coloured as red as her kokkinisto, which was the best I ever ate.
Days later we came into a restaurant that presented nice menus in English — with plenty of unknown dishes: cheese dipped into a sauce and then fried, fish marinated in herbs and a Chef’s Salad, which is always a surprise. But that was just a village salad (choriatiki) in disguise, with some onions, a slice of pepper, three pieces of feta, two strips of ladotiri (a Greek yellow cheese) and especially lots and lots of tomatoes. In the middle of a summer that can be a delicious salad, but in May the famous Greek tomatoes are not yet ripened by the sun and not yet a culinary highlight. I felt a bit cheated, I am not so keen on tomato salads. And also because the cheese pieces dipped into a sauce turned out to be just ordinary fried cheese balls (tiro keftedes) and instead of the fried courgette slices we got fried onion rings and stuffed courgette flowers (louloudia). Only the aubergine dish was a tasteful combination of imam with capers and rocca salad.
Maybe it is fun to promote Greek dishes by giving them extensive descriptions. For instance you could say: ‘cucumber marinated in a garlic yoghurt, sprinkled with snippets of mint’ (tzatziki), ‘zeppelin formed meatballs in tomato sauce with cumin’ (soutzoukakia), ‘ macaroni with special sauce and cheese from the oven’ (pastitio), ‘stewed onions in a tomato sauce in a little oven pot’ (stifado). It all sounds delicious, but these are just the descriptions of the traditional dishes you will find on the menus of nearly all Greek restaurants. Also in this particular restaurant there was a non-Greek-speaking lady cooking in the kitchen, who apparently needed the menu to prepare the dishes and didn’t understand all what was ordered.
The kitchen on Lesvos has become a little bit more international. In the capital Mytilini you can find sushi or restaurants clearly influenced by dishes that refugees like to eat. In the touristic north of the island however it is difficult to find dishes other than what the Greek grandmothers normally prepare.
The international ladies in the kitchen should secretly put some of their own dishes on the menu. I would love to taste, for example, an Albanese Tavë Kosi (a cream like quiche with lamb meat and yoghurt) or Qifqi (seasoned rice balls). Or see a bright red Ukrainian borscht on a Greek menu. Or what about Russian blini’s (small pancakes of buckweat with cream and fish). How good would it be to taste a Lahmacun, the so-called Turkish pizza (thin bread with minced meat) in combination with Greek dishes?
The growing number of expats on Lesvos also can be seduced by international dishes. I always say that fava is a thick pea soup (a Dutch speciality), but which taverna will be the first to serve saté sauce – a beloved peanut sauce in the Netherlands – with souvlaki? Fish and chips can be ordered in all the Greek fish restaurants but which one dares to put on their menu English Steak & Kidney Pie? I am sure that the Greeks will love that dish.
Just a few choices from the international kitchen could dust off the image of the Greek kitchen. I love Greek food dearly, but often wonder why all those restaurants that are lined up along the Greek harbours and beaches try to compete with neighbours business via their table clothes and chairs, but they are all serving the same food. They should learn to tiptoe over the national culinary borders. I am sure that in lots of kitchens there are plenty of foreign cooks ready to do so.