The language of Greek food

Nov 21, 2012 | Language

Having explored the mealtimes of Brits last week, I was interested in how they were known in other countries. I have also just enjoyed the novel The House on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff, spanning life in Athens from before WWII to current times. Food, and at times the lack of food, plays a huge part in the book and is intrinsically linked to the country’s political and social history, so I thought today I would take a look at what, and when, the Greeks eat.

Starting with breakfast – πρωινό (proinó), from the Ancient Greek πρωί (proí) meaning morning. Well, they kind of don’t. The nature of eating in Greece is late – late lunches and late dinners. So, an early morning meal is considered by many as kind of unnecessary. A lot of Greeks will just have a cup of coffee or tea and not much else. It is common, however, to have a mid morning snack – κολατσιό (kolatsio) which could be anything from omelettes or pies to cakes or sweets.

A particularly social way to eat in Greece is with the traditional μεζές (mezés), usually accompanied by alcohol. The word comes from the Turkish meze  meaning taste, flavour, snack, relish, and is in turn borrowed from Persian مزه (maze – taste, snack, or the verb mazīdan – to taste) and is found in all cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire. How wonderful to sit with a group of family and friends with a cold glass of wine or Ouzo and a selection of tiny dishes of spicy and savoury dishes such as olives, bread, beans, vegetables, meat and cheese.

There are, of course, a whole host of meals and dishes enjoyed and influenced by the Greeks, which reflect the chequered history of the country. One of the oldest cuisines, and indeed civilisations, of the world – Greece has a culinary tradition of around 4,000 years and has spread its influence far and wide – a historical forerunner of Western cooking. A couple of fun facts – the very first cookbook is thought to be written by Archestratos in 330BC and the traditional tall white hat modern chefs (sometimes!) wear comes from medieval Orthodox Greek monks who wore white hats to distinguish them from the regular monks, who wore black.

And lastly to finish off, a little mention of sweets. In The House on Paradise Street, one of the characters’ specialities was a spoon sweet (γλυκό του κουταλιού) made from the lemons gathered from the abundant tree in the back yard. It sounded utterly delicious, and I can just imagine licking the sticky lemon syrup from my fingers. To quote Ms Zinovieff:

 I returned to my empty apartment clutching a plastic container of the rice and spinach and a jar of Alexandra’s lemon “spoon sweet” – thick coils of yellow peel covered in syrup. I fished one out with a fork, letting the sticky liquid drip down, and ate it, my mouth filling with aching, acid sweetness.

Nom nom nom.

Thanks and inspiration to and Sofka Zinovieff.