The late American food writer, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher once said that “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged lightly”. And chances are, if we think back on our own experiences, many of us, if not most, will find that to be true, given that some of the most memorable moments of life have been spent with people eating.
Growing up in a Greek household, it likely doesn’t come as much surprise, given that Greeks are synonymous with hospitality and philotimo. And what better way to make someone feel welcome than with food.
But more often than not, it is not the food itself that is the most important, but the sensory experience surrounding it; the process of cooking for loved ones, the aromas that fill the house, and the conversations, or moments of silence, shared around the table.
Across many cultures, not just that of the Greeks, it is more often than not the women of the family – the yiayiades, the mothers, the daughters – that are at the forefront of these memories, food the vehicle through which they show they care.
This has certainly been the experience for Melbourne-based author Spiri Tsintziras.
While only having spent a few months with her paternal grandmother and namesake, Spiridoula on a trip to Greece at the age of seven, and a week here and there in her 20s and 30s, it is her yiayia that is at the centre of her first memorable moments with food.
“One of my most powerful memories is actually watching her kill a chicken – you know, actually wringing its neck,” Spiri tells Neos Kosmos, with a laugh.
“And then sitting down and pulling all its feathers off and washing the chicken, cutting it up and making what I think of as horiatiko koutopoulo (village-style chicken).”
A one-pot dish, Spiridoula would take the home grown chicken and cook it in spices and tomato, serving it up with al dente pasta and mizithra cheese, made with milk from her own goats.
“I remember the chicken and the pasta and the mizithra smelling really strong; it smelt really earthy and the chicken was kind of a bit yellow – it wasn’t like any chicken I’d ever eaten here in Australia. It was a real chook!”
A humble, simple dish, while delicious, it is truly the sentiment around it that keeps Spiri coming back to it as a staple time again.
“For me that dish is very closely associated with celebration and us coming to Greece for the first time, and the whole chook being killed at that point in honour of us,” she explains.
“It was a big deal to kill a chicken because a chook gave you eggs and so on.”
As a child in Vanada in the Peloponese, a mountainous village where her yiayia had her own veggie garden, goats and chickens, Spiri recalls being shown the ins and outs of rural life, introduced to the hens, and how they would lay their eggs, and even had the chance to witness the little chicks hatching.
“It just feels like everything was so much closer to her; the food was grown and you understood it, and you kind of connected with it in a way that I feel we’ve now lost a little bit living in big cities,” says Spiri.
While living in Melbourne is a far cry from Vanada, the author and mother of two tries to incorporate aspects of her upbringing in her own life.
Along with the sentiment behind it, Spiri says that she is also drawn to the seasonality of Greek cuisine. While we are now accustomed to going to the supermarket and finding an abundance of everything year round, she says it brings her back in contact with the environment around her.
But it is also the simplicity of Greek food that she says makes it an ideal, healthy option, for modern families who are time poor.
“It’s not a fussy cuisine where you use fancy ingredients,” she says.
“The horiatiko koutopoulo is a one pot dish; you put the chicken in the katsarola and cook it and then you boil the pasta and then you can feed 10 people type of thing.”
The philosophy that food is something to be shared around a table with loved ones, whether it be family, friends, or perfect strangers, is something she is conscious of instilling in her children.
“It’s always a challenge to get into their heads that good and real food is important for our bodies; one can only try.
“But one thing that my children know is that when we have company there’s always food,” she laughs.
“Often I’ll cook a big dish and my daughter’s like ‘Is someone coming over? Why are we doing something so special?’ I think they know food is a very big part of our culture.
“It’s always about sharing food even if you’ve just got a bit of cheese or some bread, and I love that ethos; I love that feeling.”
Yiayia Spiridoula’s horiatiko kotopoulo me makaronatha
(Greek village chicken stew with spaghetti)
While yiayia Spiridoula’s recipe for horiatiko kotopoulo me makaronatha was not handed down per se – anyone that has tried asking for a handwritten recipe from a Greek relative will understand the struggle – it is one that Spiri’s mum went on to cook, and adapt, as has Spiri who now cooks it for her own family. She has generously offered to share the recipe, so you can try it at home.
A whole chicken (preferably free range and organic in the absence of one from a Greek village), cut in portions
1 large onion, diced
4 tbs olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 tbs tomato paste
3 ripe tomatoes, quartered and grated, skins discarded
1 tsp dried oregano
A pinch each of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg
Grated mitzithra if desired (a hard cheese available at Greek delicatessens)
1. Wash chicken portions.
2. Heat oil in a heavy-based pot and brown chicken pieces until golden.
3. Add onion, garlic and tomato paste and stir until onions are soft and chicken is coated with the mixture.
4. Add cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and the grated tomato. Pour boiling water over the top until just covered, and simmer on low heat until chicken is tender and the sauce is thick, around 45 minutes.
5. Season according to taste. Stir occasionally and add water if it looks to be drying out.
6. Boil spaghetti in salted water until al dente and drain. Place in large serving dish and top with portions of chicken and sauce, and sprinkle with mitzithra if desired.
* Spiri Tsintziras is the author of memoirs ‘My Ikaria’ and ‘Afternoons in Ithaka’. Find out more at tribaltomato.com
** If you would like to share a cherished recipe that has been passed down to you from your grandmother, or another special person in your life, email firstname.lastname@example.org