It was after returning to Australia from living in Greece that Dora Kitinas-Gogos realised that there was a strongly held misconception about Greek cuisine: that it is synonymous with meat.
“I remember it coming out of the mouth of a young woman who said to me, ‘Oh, I love Greek food! I love meat,’ and to be quite honest with you, I was in shock. It came to my attention that there’s a concept here, that Greek food is meat; that we are this race of people that are the most carnivorous people on earth. I thought that was a little bit funny and it sort of planted a seed inside me.” A seed that inspired the recent release of her debut Greek and Vegetarian Cookbook.
Dora’s interest and appreciation for gastronomy started at a young age. Born on the island of Limnos, both sides of the family have their roots in Asia Minor, which has a rich food history and an ongoing influence on Greek cuisine. Growing up, her family’s diet was predominantly vegetarian, with meat on the odd occasion, and seafood a more common source of protein as was typical of island life.
While she admits that “everybody was a good cook” in her family, including her late father, of whom she has dear memories in the kitchen and cherishes photographs of him donning an apron, it was her paternal grandmother who as a pescatarian had a big influence on her balanced approach to food, and later her mother-in-law who would become her food mentor.
“I didn’t grow up in a carnivorous family. My grandmother was a semi-vegetarian nearly all her life who ate seafood but she never ate meat of any kind. She made meat dishes for her six children, but it wasn’t the primary thing in the family to just eat meat. Plus my grandfather and my father were seafaring people,” Dora explains.
Her interest went one step further when she moved back to Greece in the 1980s, and istarted to explore the country’s regional food cultures.
“Something like moussaka is generic, you can get it anywhere. But there’s so many things in northern Greece, southern Greece, different islands, that are kind of indigenous to these places. So I developed this interest and I collected recipes out of mere interest. So that’s how I started to have more of an ‘intellectual’ attitude towards Greek food,” Dora explains, unbeknown to her at the time that her newfound knowledge would soon come in handy.
Upon returning to Australia in the mid-1990s, Dora was approached to write a food column in the English edition of Neos Kosmos.
But what started as a few columns and recipes resulted in an insightful weekly two-page lesson for readers into the historical origins of various aspects and dishes of the Greek cuisine.
“The thing is I’m not just interested in the fact that we eat it and it tastes good; I’m interested to know the whole history – where it came from, why it happened. The pita for instance, which is predominantly a northern Greek thing, came about because the majority of the people were semi-nomadic who would make pita and take it with them on their way, which is kind of like the Greek sandwich if you think about it.”
It was ideas like this that saw her accumulate a large and varied collection of material, and after encouragement from friends and family decided it was only fitting to collate her ideas into a cookbook, which she saw as an opportunity to address her biggest peeve with the way people perceive Greek food culture.
“I wanted to show people that we’re not just meat eaters. So I narrowed it down to vegetables, which for us is normal, it’s not because we’re vegetarian. We do all the ladera (vegetables baked in olive oil), and they can be served with a piece of chicken or a piece of fish, whatever,” Dora says.
The collection is a real treat, featuring not only recipes she was given by locals on her travels throughout Greece, but also those she holds dear passed down to her by family.
Dora provides readers with a cooking guide to the core ingredients in vegetarian Greek cuisine, followed by chapters covering everything from dips, salads and soups to katsarola (pot cooking) favourites, hylopites (pasta) and dishes sto fourno (in the oven).
A couple of her favourites are yemista (stuffed vegetables) cooked the way her Asia Minor ancestors made them: without meat and stuffed with pine kernels, blackcurrents and herbs, along the favourite dish of her granddaughter, actress Olympia Valance: artichokes with broad beans and avgolemono (egg-lemon sauce).
A creative who is all about the senses – Dora is a fine artist and writer of romantic fiction (using the pseudonym Diana Karezi) – she keeps herself inspired by annual trips to Greece, and recalls fondly that some of the best meals she has ever eaten have been in Thessaloniki, the “food bowl of Greece”.
“There is not one place you walk in and the food is not good. It can be a hole in the wall, the food is always good and fresh, and they are real meraklides (an approach combining love, passion and respect) when it comes to their food. They have a whole culture that’s theirs and the rest of Greece has tried to copy it and they just can’t. The food is spectacular, I can’t even describe it,” she says.
“I think it’s because of the historical crossing of cultures. Thessaloniki was a Roman city to begin with, it was one of the Byzantine Empire’s jewels and of course the Byzantine Empire was very multicultural, then it became an Ottoman city and of course the Jews came from Spain and Italy. All these cultures have crossed roads and I strongly believe in the migration of humanity because that’s how we learn, that’s how we develop – by exchanging ideas whether it’s food, science, or whatever.”
While it’s only been two months since her debut cookbook was released, Dora says the seed has well and truly been planted and she is already onto her next project, Greek Gluten-Free Sweetness.
“I’ve been a gluten-free person for many years before it became fashionable to be gluten-free because it actually upsets me. When I was putting Greek and Vegetarian Cookbook together it came to my attention that it was also all gluten-free,” she says.
“I’ve made a lot of gluten-free sweets, they’re in my head. But what I’m testing now, and what is a real challenge, is the syrupy ones because you need that fine filo and how do you find that fine filo? Well I have found the fine filo, but I’m not going to give it away until the book’s out!”
Try your hand at these delicious, easy-to-follow Greek vegetarian recipes supplied by Dora.
Red Pepper & Walnut Dip
2 red peppers (capsicums)
4 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, grated with all its liquid strained
1-2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp salt
1. Cut peppers into quarters, sprinkle with a little olive oil.
2. Place in a 210°C preheated oven with the skin facing up. Bake until the skin breaks (about 10 minutes), cool and peel.
3. Place peppers in a bowl with onion and garlic, then mix.
4. Add olive oil to all other ingredients and mix well with a fork until a thick paste. If a fine consistency is preferred, blend for a minute.
5. Chill and serve.
500g chickpeas, soaked overnight
2 onions, cut finely
3-4 garlic cloves
1/4 bunch parsley
2 bay leaves
100ml olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp cumin
juice of 1 lemon
depending on your taste, use sweet or hot paprika
1. Drain soaked chickpeas and discard water; place in saucepan and cover the chickpeas with double the quantity of fresh water.
2. Add onions, garlic, parsley, bay leaves and cumin, and cook for an hour.
3. Add salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and continue cooking for another hour or until chickpeas are soft.
4. Take out parsley and bay leaves, blend with half the oil or leave whole if you wish.
5. Serve with a sprinkle of oil and paprika.
Note: If blending the soup, add more water depending on how thick you want the consistency.
1 ½ cups long grain rice
1 bunch spinach
1 bunch spring onions
4-5 ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 bunch dill
1 bunch parsley
¾ cup olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
2 ½ cups boiling water
1. Clean spinach and cut the bunch into large chunks.
2. Cut spring onions finely.
3. Heat oil and saute onions.
4. Add rice and stir, mix with onions.
5. Add tomatoes, dill, parsley, salt and pepper.
6. Add spinach and mix.
7. Add water, cover and turn heat down very low and allow it cook until water is absorbed.
8. When rice is cooked, take the pan off the heat, cover with a clean tea towel, cover with lid and leave for about 15 minutes.
9. Serve with cheese on the table, olives and crusty bread.