There’s no one who speaks Greek food better than Diane Kochilas. Having spent over 20 years as the food columnist and restaurant critic for Athens’ major daily newspaper Ta Nea, Diane has written 18 books on Greek cuisine, including the recently published Country Cooking of Greece. She acts as consulting chef at four popular Greek restaurants in the U.S. — including the acclaimed Pylos and Boukiés in New York — and is hosting a “Midnight Meal” at the latter to mark the arrival of Orthodox Easter on Sunday, May 5 (yes, we Greeks are so special that we get our own separate weekend to celebrate Easter, though this year, we share it with Cinco De Mayo). We caught up with Kochilas to talk about the regional differences in Greek cooking, Easter traditions and more.
What are some common misconceptions about Greek food?
I think the common misconceptions have to do with variety of the food and Greece’s different regions. Most Americans and many Greek-Americans don’t realize that Greece is a small country with varying geography, consisting of mountains and islands. As a result, Greece has highly developed regional cuisine.
For too long a time, the repertoire in Greek restaurants was pretty standard — grilled lamb, grilled fish, the trio of dips, pastitsio, moussaka, grilled octopus, the famous Greek salad and two (just two!) of the hundreds of savory pies. The cuisine is much richer than that, with dishes deriving from places with specific flora and fauna and history and geography, as well as deriving from what is available in each of the four seasons.
These two elements — regionality and seasonality — have not truly been explored in restaurants. There is a third element, very important and timely given the diet-related issues plaguing the United States today: Greek cuisine, more than any other cuisine on the Mediterranean, has a tremendous wealth and variety of main course plant-based dishes.
Is Greek “country cooking” vastly different from other types of cooking?
Greek country cooking is rooted in the country’s agricultural traditions, in the lay of the land from region to region and in the local history that is unique to every corner of Greece. Greece has always been a tapestry of old vs. new, East vs. West, islands vs. mountains (fishermen’s traditions vs., say, shepherds’ traditions).
It’s a small nation with a huge country cooking tradition because even today, it is still largely an agricultural society. Indeed, the crisis is drawing more and more people back to the land, so country cooking traditions are seeing a revival.
Can you explain the culinary traditions of Greek Easter?
At Easter, Greeks traditionally enjoy a feast after a 46-day fast. The feast has regional brushstrokes, but in general everyone enjoys red dyed eggs and mageiritsa, a soup of organ meats, lettuce, dill, scallions and egg-lemon liaison, right after midnight on Saturday. This is the meal that breaks the fast.
On Easter Sunday, lamb or goat is the meat of choice. (Even meat is seasonal in the Greek kitchen. Lamb more on the mainland; goats more prevalent on the islands.) The meat may be roasted whole on a spit or stuffed and roasted in the oven, which is how it is typically savored on Aegean islands. Stuffings are usually bulgur or rice, and any combination of wild spring herbs, especially fennel and mint. There are some delicious sweets on the islands, usually made with fresh seasonal goat’s cheese, flavored with rose or orange blossom water, cinnamon and honey. Tsoureki (the plaited bread) is a classic everywhere, as are special Easter cookies called koulourakia.
What about drinking traditions?
Greek wines have come a very long way in the last 20 years and are very unique. There are more than 300 indigenous grape varieties, many vinified on their own, but many are also vinified as blends with more international varieties. The best Greek restaurants, including Boukiés, have a huge selection of Greek wines.
Why are red eggs everywhere? And why do people hit them against each other?
The egg is very symbolic: rebirth, spring and life eternal. The red color symbolizes the blood of Christ. We tap them for luck — the person whose egg doesn’t break is lucky.
Do you find Greek food in America vastly different from that in Greece?
Yes and no. What’s vastly different is the flavor of raw ingredients in the U.S. vs. Greece. When you talk about Americanized dishes, things often do morph into slightly different variations of the original dish, but that is more a function of pragmatism than design. When you look in church cookbooks, for example, one thing you see a lot of is the use of cream cheese in cheese pies and spinach pies. In an era when it was impossible to find feta, people had to come up with the next best thing.
Read these stories about Greek cuisine on Food Republic: