Written by Jim Bamboulis
It was 1983. I was seven. I had finished breakfast and started to make my way out the door with hockey stick in hand. It was Sunday morning, which meant that all the neighbourhood kids – about 30 of us – were gearing up for our unofficial weekly tradition of spending the next four hours playing street hockey. I tied my shoes, put on my jacket, toque and mittens and told Mom that I’d see her later. Normally, she would tell me to be careful and give me a kiss. But today, change of plans.
I dropped my hockey stick and held her hand. After a few minutes, I knew where we were headed. There was a neighbourhood hiking trail that paralleled the train tracks, connecting the main road to a residential area. Trees lined the trail and Mom would often bring me here for company as she picked the leaves from the trees. This activity bored me so much that I dreaded it. 10 leaves turned into 20, 20 to 50, 50-200. And 30 minutes turned into an hour.
Admittedly embarrassed, I watched curious and confused passing drivers and pedestrians slow down, stare awkwardly and even smirk at the woman who was stuffing her plastic bags with all these leaves. You see, in 1983, what my Mom was doing – and what she was planning on doing with all of these leaves – was understandably foreign to the overwhelming Anglo-Saxon population of Toronto. From the outside, she was picking leaves. To those in the know, she was maintaining a culinary tradition, creating a traditional dish that these days, is available for anyone to purchase by-the-pound at most supermarkets.
As I grew older, and learned more about food, types of food, evolution of food, embarrassment turned into amazement. I learned that there were many traditional dishes that I grew up with – and took for granted – that were largely mysterious to those with roots outside of the Mediterranean. Not only did I realize that I grew up on the Mediterranean Diet before the Mediterranean Diet became a thing but all that Greek ‘peasant food’ was evolving and becoming mainstream, gourmet and expensive. Over time, we didn’t have to go to Greektown to pick up Greek ingredients to make our Greek dishes. All of them became readily available. Here are just a few I grew up that have become all the rage in the West, bringing cultures even closer together. Thankfully!
Boiled Greens (Horta)
A lot of my buddies growing up wanted to eat at my Mom’s place. Clean house that always smelled like Greece. This one time, a friend and I watched as my Mom put homemade dish after homemade dish on the table. One of them stood out so much that my buddy asked: “What’s that green stuff”? Being the literal guy I was back then, I replied by saying, “it’s grass”. He was confused. I was confused too. At his confusion. You see, loosely translated, Horta means Grass. But, it’s not really grass.
Made up of edible boiled green, including and especially dandelion, this uber healthy has been a Greek healthy superfood for centuries. As far as I could tell, Mom would always pick vine leaves but she probably picked wild dandelion too, if she thought it came from a safe enough source. Sure, it’s bitter but when seasoned with salt, olive oil and lemon, it’s a delicacy .
Stuffed Peppers and Tomatoes (Gemista)
I wasn’t a fan of this in my younger years. I mean, what kid is actually a fan of stuffed roasted peppers and tomatoes? I remember my Mom forcing me to eat this dish. And of course, if you have ethnic parents, you can understand how the guilt-trip always plays a role when it comes to persuasion. Eat this, she would say, because one day you’re not going to have me around and you’ll be sad and you’ll regret it, she would add.
Of course, Mom was right. She would stuff these with rice, onion and ground beef and seasoned them with oregano, mint, basil, parsley and olive oil. No wonder friends always wanted to come over. Mom’s apartment always smelled like a spring fresh garden and besides, you couldn’t find this dish anywhere except in ethnic homes. These days, this homemade specialty is now available in many markets but to be honest, Mom still makes the best stuffed peppers and tomatoes – and these days, I lick the entire plate dry.
As a kid, yogurt wasn’t my thing, either. It was bland and boring. Unless of course you Greek’d it up and smothered it with honey, cinnamon and walnuts. Then it became my thing. A few years ago, those with the means saw an opportunity to mass market what has become one of the most sought-after treats in the West.
Probiotics, prebiotics, blah, blah blah. To Greeks, it’s just yogurt and it’s not new. It’s been around for centuries. These days, it’s enjoyed by millions not just around the Med, but thanks to the astronomical popularity of Greek yogurt over the past 20 years, millions more around the world. In fact, by 2015, Greek yogurt had a 50 percent share of the yogurt market in the USA! Now, it seems to be everyone’s thing!
Yogurt may not have been one of my favourites but figs were. Blessed, I can remember waking up each morning at my Grandma’s house in Greece, walking outside and seeing a plate full of freshly picked figs straight from the tree. To me, there was nothing better than satisfying my sweet tooth so early in the day. Perfectly ripe, I’d peel and eat maybe 10-15 figs a day. Concerned about my fig insatiability, she wouldn’t stop me because well, where would we get super fresh figs like this in 1980s Toronto? The answer is, nowhere! Unless of course you considered Fig Newtons super fresh.
By the late 19th century, California’s Mediterranean-like climate allowed for the growth of figs. Whether grown in North America or the across many oceans, figs in Toronto these days, come in the form of fig spread and dry packaged figs. Although I’m happy that figs have become a pretty standard and widespread item for purchase and popular DIY at home, they will never replace the practice of picking your own.
Sesame seeds + honey, combined (Pasteli)
According to Homer’s Iliad, warriors would often eat Pasteli in order to energize themselves before battle. Endorsed by the Greek historian Herodotus as “both a delicacy and a benefit to one’s health”, Pasteli originated in Greece and the Middle East over 6,000 years ago. Traditionally given out to guests at weddings and baptisms, the recipe is really simple: honey + sesame seeds.
I couldn’t, and still can’t get enough of Pasteli. I usually love it with the addition of almonds, cinnamon and nutmeg. These days, you don’t have to go to a Greek market to pick them up either. Sesame snaps are available everywhere and give you not only a nutritious boost but a delicious one too. To Greeks, Pasteli is not only the original energy bar and energy bar of the Gods.
Chickpea Soup and Stew (Revithia)
Chickpeas have been in the Greek diet forever. In my family, they were often made into a soup called Revithia. Boiled and mixed with everything from onion, parsley and dill to olive oil and lemon, this staple is not only a vegetarian-friendly dish but it’s loaded with all the healthy ingredients that nurture the mind and body throughout the day.
Naturally, the west has caught on and chickpeas have become a celebrated food option. The magical superfood is available in dry form, salad form and even soup form at many supermarket salad bars. If you’re up for tackling this rewarding dish, here’s a pretty good recipe to follow. Keep it vegan or add your choice of meat, it’s delish no matter what.
Honey Balls (Loukoumades)
Fried honey balls, dipped in simple syrup, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. Loukoumades have a deep, centuries-long history and are easily one of the most popular desserts because of their freshness, deliciousness and simplicity. Of course, you can choose to top them with anything from chocolate and strawberries to walnuts and pistachio.
In the West, doughnuts go back a couple hundred years but if you’re familiar with the Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons, then odds are, you’ve bought a box of Timbits. Introduced in the 70s, these circular, bite-sized dough balls come in all sorts of flavours. In fact, in China, there’s even salted egg yolk Timbits. Are Loukoumades the original Timbits? To Greeks, they most certainly are.
Yogurt, cucumber, garlic, salt, olive oil, dill, mint, parsley and thyme. Healthy on their own but combined, make for a lethal combination of creamy goodness with a splash of questionable breath. Unless of course you’re Greek, then the smell of Tzatziki is glorious. Trying to find this stuff back in the day in big box supermarkets was next to impossible. High in protein, low in calories, Tzatziki is the kind of dip you put on just about everything from meats and salads to breads and seafood.
These days, it’s pretty easy to find everywhere but beware that mass-produced Tzatziki sold at supermarkets that can sometimes be compromised with ingredients that don’t make it quite as authentic. If you find yourself in a Greek neighbourhood, or know of a Greek shopkeeper who makes it in-house, that still might be the way to go. When in doubt, make it yourself; there are plenty of great recipes that get it just right. Otherwise, dine at a real Greek restaurant and enjoy!
I remember the day clearly. After a day playing street hockey and baseball, I popped into the neighbourhood corner pizza joint to grab a slice. It was 1986, I was 10 years old. Took a few seconds to look over the pizza options before having this conversation with the manager:
Me: “Hey do you have any slices with olives on them”?
Manager: “Olives? Who puts olives on a pizza”?
Me: “Who doesn’t olives on a pizza”?!
Needless to say, I walked out of there with only a pepperoni slice. Look, that’s not to say that olives weren’t around before I was around in Canada. I’m sure they were, but this experience obviously made a memory mark. It led me to believe that olives weren’t as widespread popular and desired as I thought they were. Made me realize that olives were region-specific and in my world, that meant Greek specific. After all the olive and the olive tree are entrenched in Greek history. In fact, one of the oldest standing olive tress dates back 3000 years. And, according to Sophocles, “the olive tree is the tree that feeds all children”. Of course, these days, well, you know where I’m going with this.
Sick? The solution was always chamomile tea. Every few years, Mom and I would travel to Greece to see family and friends. Somewhere in the middle of every trip, we would hike the nearest mountain, with plastic bags in hand, and pick wild chamomile mountain tea. And because we didn’t know when we’d be back to Greece, we’d pick at least four years worth, just in case. So traditional and common that if you ordered a ‘Greek Tea’ in Greece, they would probably bring you chamomile.
These days, supermarkets, health food stores, and even pharmacies sell mountain tea, including chamomile. It’s great because the days of having to spend hours picking, bagging, drying, packing and eventually smuggling chamomile leaves back into Canada, are long gone.
If tea didn’t make me feel better, Mom made Avgolemono soup. Case closed. That would do the trick and I’d feel better in a day or two. When you break down the word, avgo means egg, lemoni means lemon. Soup means, well, soup. The combination always freaked me out as a kid but I knew that this centuries-old thick, creamy and at times, frothy combination of warm nutritiousness would make me feel better in a hurry.
Mom would always add chicken to it, making it her version of a chicken noodle soup. In many supermarkets in the US, Avgolemono soup is now served in cans. They dub it the “Greek Penicillin”. Clever and I would say pretty accurate.
Greek Village Salad (Horiatiki)
In Greece – and at Mom’s place here in Canada – this salad was a staple. Didn’t need much to make it, either. Tomato, onion, cucumber, green peppers and Kalamata olives drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with Feta, salt, oregano and mint. That’s it. Growing up in Toronto, the only places I saw Greek Village Salads were in Greek homes, Greek restaurants and other Mediterranean spots that knew that this salad existed. That’s not to say that Greek salads don’t have lettuce in them, they do. But a Greek Village is a variation that, growing up, I thought everyone knew about. I was wrong.
Of course, these days, this peasant dish has become another gourmet item available at select, ethnic restaurants that understand how to make it correctly (drizzled with olive oil instead of drenched with olive oil). The beauty part is that you can make your own at your local supermarket salad bar or pick up the ingredients and make it at home. You can never go wrong with this crunchy, nutritious power salad that packs health in every bite!
Stuffed vine leaves (Dolmadakia)
So what would Mom do with all those picked leaves I mentioned at the top of this article? Stuff them, of course! Dolmadakia is an iconic dish that has been prepared and devoured throughout the Mediterranean for millennia. Making this takes time and it’s a meticulous process but in the end, stuffed vine leaves makes for an incredibly healthy dish that’s filling and delish. My Mom would always make these so perfectly and always served them with other food items I mentioned above, such as fresh bread, olives, feta and even Greek yogurt.
For those who don’t have the time or the patience to make this at home, you’re in luck. Thanks to the evolution of the western palette, you can now find these in your local supermarket salad bar or even canned goods aisle. Looking back, I don’t blame anyone for smirking or staring. But I bet that those same people must be glad they now have the recipe. As for Mom, I think despite the fact you can now get stuffed vine leaves in cans, she would still much rather prefer to pick her own.
Back in the day, Greek and Mediterranean food in general was labeled as peasant food. Amazing how things have changed. These days, that very same peasant food has become expensive and even gourmet. In 2019, the Mediterreanean Diet was named the best diet in the world according to US News and World Report. To Greeks and the millions of others with Mediterreanean roots, as well as those who’ve adopted the Mediterreanean diet lifestyle, this isn’t new. On a personal level, when I found out, I was confused. To us, this has always been the best diet. I was left asking, what took these guys so long to realize it?
Did I forget an ingredient or a dish that should be on this list? Did you grow up eating ethnic food that has since become mainstream, expensive and gourmet? Shoot me a message below!
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. That kid went on to spend 16 years in the broadcast media world before starting up Travel Mammal, a site dedicated to working with brands to promote travel, food, and cultural experiences.
Travel Mammal isn’t about the selfie or checking things off a list. It’s about both the journey and the destination. So enjoy it and happy travels, y’all!