Whilst in Molyvos, volunteers prepare sandwiches for the two hundred refugees who arrived this morning in the village (who knows how many on the island itself), I am asking myself who these people are. According to the refugee organisation UNHCR 60% comes from Syria, and the others mainly are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea.
What food were they used to eating before they left their homes and kitchens? For centuries now refugees, immigrants and guest workers have changed culinary habits. Who in the Netherlands, England or Germany still eats traditional Dutch, English or German dishes daily? Who doesn’t regularly eat pizza, souvlaki, spring rolls, satay, couscous, shawarma or hummus?
That the Greek and Italian shores are now the recipients of large flows of refugees is no novelty. If you take a look at the history of refugees, you see that there have always been refugees somewhere. The many people who fled their countries or were displaced – especially in the 20th century – caused enormous human migrations that had its impact on the culture and the culinary uses in nearly all countries involved. I happen to think that most of the traditional Dutch, German and English dishes are pretty boring. But when I check out some recipes coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Eritrea then I immediately want to start cooking and try out those wonderful combinations of ingredients. The food in those countries also has been influenced by lots of other cultures and it offers surprising variations.
I think Greece is at the crosspoint of the North European and Arabic/African kitchen: it still has that temperate character of the Northern kitchen, but at the same time has a rich tradition of seasonable vegetables and fruit and uses a modest range of herbs. The more southwards you go from Greece, the more spices are used in the food.
Some six years ago and an American journalist strolls together with Anissa Helou, a famous Arabic cook, around in Aleppo and Damascus (Syria). They taste and talk about Syrian food. The colourful markets were full of people and hospitable, as there was no war going on, which now is destroying completely the country. This still was beautiful Syria, where people went out for dinner, where women in their kitchens cooked the most scented dishes, where – just like in Greece – courgette flowers and cabbage leaves were filled with a spiced mixture of lamb meat or/and rice and where hummus was placed on a plate in a special way. Now these women arrive here at the beaches in wobbly dinghies without even a pan to cook with.
Even though after years of warfare the Afghans are left poor and broken, their dishes still come from a pretty rich kitchen, influenced by Mongolia, China, India, Europe and the Middle East. For example they like to eat a kind of tortellini (mantoo) and they prepare their meatballs (koftas) with more spice than the Greeks use in their keftedes.
Next to my house is an orange tree that grows bitter fruit: nerantzia they are called in Greek. As far as I know the only use they have is to cook them into a slightly bitter marmalade. But looking for some recipes I found an Afghan one: Norinj Palau, or rice with oranges: a dish made with bitter oranges, almonds, pistachio, rice and chicken. And all the ingredients are available in Greece.
The Iraqi kitchen differs very little from that of other Arabic countries. The exception may be that the mighty Euphrates and Tigris run through their country, providing them with lots of sweet water and thus giving them the opportunity to have fresh water fish on their menus. But just like the Greeks they also enjoy filo rolls (börek) filled with goat cheese, meat, vegetables or nuts, they serve tsatsiki as cacik, they call all stuffed vegetables (as well as tomatoes, courgette as vine leaves) dolmas, they eat shawarma calling it kass; and like everywhere in the Arabic world they love the divine, honey-sweet baklava. The beautiful and interesting blog of Nawal Nasrallah, My Iraqi kitchen, proves that the Iraqi kitchen has roots deep into history.
The Eritrean kitchen has also known plenty of influences: Ottoman, Italian and Ethiopian. And did you know that (according to Wikipedia) 62.9% of the Eritreans are Christians, of which most are orthodox? And that they also, from time to time, like to have an ouzo? Well, that aniseed beverage in Eritrea is called areki. Both in Eritrea and in Somalia lots of pancake like bread is served with the meals, like injera which is made with teff flour, that comes from a grass with the beautiful name: Williams Lovegrass (Eragrostis abyssinica). Both these cuisines have a lot in common. The Somali kitchen knows the same influences of that of Eritrea and just like in so many African countries one of the best known spice mixes is berbere, a spicy blend that gives your food an excellent Eastern scent and taste.
Can you imagine how it hurts to leave your own herb collection and pantry, your herb and vegetable garden and your apricot and almond trees, which for years have helped you feed your family and friends! How bad can it be that for days, weeks, months and even years you will not be able to cook your favourite dishes, or even enjoy a proper meal? Most people arriving here have lived through such hell they are actually happy when being served a sandwich.
If I was able to, I would start a road restaurant between Kalloni and Mytilini, where many of these refugees pass walking and where I then will cook and distribute those universal dishes like tsatsiki, stuffed tomatoes, lentil stew, hummus or souvlaki, which I will spice with their national blends, so that on their way to a new life in an uncertain future, they might smell the scent of home and renew themselves. For most people Lesvos is just an inbetween station on a very long long journey towards a new home and kitchen.