Takeaway

It’s Greek to me

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 27, 2018

Talking wall: The backstreets of Athens are a different world from the central districts where the museums and ruins lie. Photo: Zac O'Yeah   -  zac o’yeah

Sea fare: Cuttlefish at Papandreou restaurant, Central Market, Athens. Photo: Zac O'Yeah   -  zac o’yeah

Reading and eating food history in the streets and agoras of Athens

After the Acropolis citadel with its Parthenon temple, and the museums and ruins of central Athens, I find myself walking through the adjacent area known as Plaka, the site of the city’s earliest settlements ages ago. These winding alleys with colourful houses have been turned into one of the world’s biggest tourist traps, chock-a-block with taverns looking like picture postcards, which reinforces my belief that their moussaka will taste like the cardboard that postcards are printed on.

As experienced tourists know, VFM (value fior money) is usually found not in tourists’ comfort zones, but where locals go — so I walk past the shrilly-advertised souvlaki grills of Monastiraki Square with their pushy touts, and leave the entire zone of sloppy moussakas behind. Ideally, I ought to have come some 2,500 years ago I muse, as I remind myself that despite their ubiquitousness today neither moussaka nor souvlaki were part of any original Greek diet but entered the cuisine when the Ottoman empire ruled Greece.

Instead, I begin my epicurean exploration and gastronomic gallivanting by heading north through the grittier working-class streets of Psiri with shady bars that are trending among bohemian hipsters — Athens at its grooviest with small theatres, concert venues and art galleries. I walk deeper into the backstreets that are living and breathing with pushers, pimps and prostitutes, and smuggled-cigarette sellers, while the occasional pickpocket sidles up to me.

Something tells me that I’ll soon find what I’m looking for as I remind myself that the ancient Greeks were the first epicures. Or at least that word originated here. While today ‘epicure’ might mean gastronome, gourmand, hedonist or sybarite, depending on which encyclopaedia one opens, the term derives from a Greek philosopher who wasn’t scarfing down as much food as one might be led to believe. Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was born on the island of Samos, which, despite its name, isn’t the place where the Indian samosa originated, and his philosophy was about living life in the right manner, with simplicity and among friends. He advocated pleasure without self-indulgence combined with the avoidance of unnecessary physical and mental suffering. Unlike at other similar institutions, women were also welcomed into the inner circle.

Cooking at his school, which he established in a garden at the back of a house he bought in 306 BCE around these parts of Athens — then a rural ‘suburb’ outside the city walls — wasn’t fancy, but functional and wholesome. However, it was during Epicurus’s lifetime that gastronomy as a culinary art began to develop, a trend which, through later misinterpretations of his philosophy (as an excuse for gluttony), came to be inextricably linked with the philosopher’s name.

The word ‘gastronomy’ is also derived from a Greek source: gastronomia roughly means ‘the rules of the tummy’. As far as is known, that term was coined by Archestratus who in the 330 BCE — when Epicurus was a mere child on Samos — penned popular poetry in hexameter that displayed ridiculously strict views on cooking, making him the first known food critic in history. Archestratus dismissed the vegetarian dishes that Epicurus would have favoured as ‘a sign of wretched poverty’ and was a fish fetishist; 75 per cent of his preserved writings show an obsession with submarine edibles: where to purchase the best catch, how to prepare it.

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After having crossed through the hipsterly Psiri, I arrive in an area where streets, with curry houses, have a distinctly Asian feel to them, and when I turn a corner there’s even a store advertising Ayurvedic medicines, Darshanji incense and Chyawanprash. These blocks are sometimes labelled ‘Little India’ due to their Bangla-Indo-Pak establishments, but the area also has Arabic and Chinese shops.

And this is where I find the last vestiges of old-fashioned Greek cookery at the Central Market, a traditional agora built in revivalist style back in the 1800s, when Greece had gained independence and Athens was being rebuilt as its national capital. Experience has taught me that the most important Greek word to memorise is ‘agora’ — a generic name for markets — as taverns in the immediate vicinity of any Greek agora will dish out the nicest nourishment imaginable.

There’s a mind-boggling variety of marinated olives on display, sausages in many shapes, while butchers are chopping up anything into any palatable form, including scalped goat’s heads. Octopodes lie on their backs with eight legs in the air next to boxes of creepy-crawly snails. If one is phobic about the sights and smells of raw produce, one may catch, ahem, agoraphobia.

It is lunchtime and among the eateries inside the market, I settle on Papandreou, founded in 1898. The menu is hands-on: 10 casseroles with ready-cooked dishes are displayed at the counter and a friendly waiter explains what is what in rudimentary English. A house speciality is tripe soup, patsas, or what we in India call spare-parts. As a rule of thumb it is best to go for seafood: the Greeks have been sailing the seas since time immemorial, so self-respecting restaurants only cook fresh catch and frozen seafood is frowned upon.

I order a meal which costs me no more than €13.80 and is similar to what might have been eaten in the old world — a plate of cuttlefish, a 10-armed sea creature that was considered a delicacy in ancient Athens, boiled in mildly spiced spinach, accompanied by robust bread, mature feta cheese, and half a kilo of retsina. That is how wine is bought in Greek, ‘kilo’ being yet another one of their ancient words that has entered the international vocabulary. Half a kilo corresponds to half a litre, which, in places like this will cost €2-3, and the traditional resinated retsina is very refreshing once I get used to its somewhat sour flavour.

Although modern food writing and philosophising draws on plenty of classical sources, especially for its vocabulary, the Greeks were not the inventors of tasty food — they were influenced primarily by the Egyptians, with whom they had intensive contacts due to their countries being just across the ocean from each other.

Following the Egyptian lead, Greeks were producing wine already 3,000-3,500 years ago. A point to note is that while it was an exclusive beverage in more ancient civilisations, in classical Greece wine became a popular drink for people from all walks of life. The richer sipped richer wines, the poorer tanked up on cheaper slop — but wine was an essential commodity. Rather than in glass bottles, wine was stored in leaky clay amphorae that had to be waterproofed with pitch made of pinewood resin, and which, once dissolved into the alcohol, also worked as a preservative. It tasted yucky, so Greeks mixed their wine with honey (the wholesome natural sweetener available before sugar reached Europe from India) and with time, the hint of yuckiness became an acquired taste. Today’s retsina is still flavoured with a specific resin from tender Aleppo pine cones, to recreate that peculiar bouquet.

Wine was generally drunk where it was produced, but thanks to the resin effect amphorae could be transported far and wide, and this import-export boom laid the foundation for an extensive international trade network that, according to archaeological finds, eventually touched south India too.

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My sojourn in Athens is like reading and eating food history. Take that liquid gold of cookery — olive oil, which the ancient Greeks also exported in amphorae. Olive trees, which can live hundreds of years, became a cash crop because the shipping industry (which is another thing the country is famous for) had during its era of early expansion led to the large-scale cutting down of forests for boat-building. Olive trees were planted as a replacement and thus their oil was, naturally, a primary product to be shipped on those very boats.

Amphorae came in handy to store another, for us more curious, export product pioneered by Greeks, garum, ‘the most precious sauce’ as it was called: fermented viscera of anchovy used for cooking or as a condiment, like we use mustard today. This too, in the early centuries of the Christian era, was exported as far away as India.

The Pondicherry Museum on the Coromandel Coast houses almost 2,000-year-old shards of amphorae that held garum, wine and olive oil. In Pondicherry last year, having inspected the amphorae shards, I took a walk around the museum’s immediate neighbourhood and a few blocks away, adjacent to the city’s main cathedral, I came across a delicatessen called Churchgate where jars and tins of pickled anchovies were on sale. These anchovies are of course produced in France, which Pondicherry had more recent colonial ties to, but they do in some manner of speaking continue the old European tradition of anchovy preserve export to south India.

(To be continued)

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist. His latest books are the crime novel Tropical Detective and the travelogue A Walk Through Barygaza,Email him at zacnet@email.com)

Published on January 26, 2018

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