Rembetika Food

Rembetika Food

By Angela Glaros

I have been reading cookbooks since childhood (along with Heloise’s Household Hints, another leisure reading genre).  Much later, when I began studying anthropology, cooking and keeping house seemed like essential areas of ethnographic focus, regardless of the purported topic of one’s study.

While I did my dissertation fieldwork on a small Greek island, it was my mother who had unwittingly first exposed me to ethnographic modes of inquiry back in 1981, on our first visit with our Greek relatives.  She followed our cousin Toula around the kitchen, taking copious notes and asking questions, even though she spoke no Greek and Toula spoke no English and sometimes there was no translator in the house.  Years later, she gave me a hardcover recipe book in which she had written out all of these decidedly minimalist recipes, with no precise amounts or cooking times and just the vaguest suggestion of appropriate seasonings.

Rather than choose such a “homey” book for this blog post, I selected a professional cookbook that I have owned for decades but never used: Rembetiki Mezedes kai Lihoudies (Rembetika Appetizers and Delicacies), by Haralambos Georgiou (n.d.).  In both cases, the recipes have much to say about how Greeks approach cooking; the book’s focus on rembetika, however, also resonates with my research on traditional vocal music.

Rembetika is an urban genre of Greek popular music that arose in the early twentieth century among the Greek-speaking population of the port cities of Asia Minor, and which spread to Greece with refugees following the 1922 Smyrna catastrophe and the subsequent forced population exchange between Greece and Turkey.  This music shares many parallels with early blues in the United States, with lyrics that sing of jails, drugs, and illicit affairs, as well as love, exile, and death.  The author intended the book to familiarize readers with recipes mentioned in classic rembetika songs, as well as foods served in the tavernas frequented by rembetika musicians.  Not surprisingly, then, the table of contents stresses hot and cold appetizers and meat and fish dishes (traditional taverna food), with a very small section at the end for desserts.  In this way, the cookbook emphasizes not only the cuisine of rembetes (rembetika musicians or enthusiasts), but also their spatial milieu.

In spite of the fact that Rembetiki Mezedes was commercially published by a Greek chef, the recipes share some of the informality of those my mother collected from Toula’s kitchen.  Some ingredients are precisely measured in grams and kilograms, but others are designated by a “pinch,” “a little,” or “enough,” and other than a brief guide to cooking techniques at the front of the book, instructions are minimal.  Below are the recipes I chose, along with my notes in brackets.  While I translated these from the Greek, I have not converted the metric measurements.  During the cooking, I did quite a few conversions on the fly, with the aid of iPhone apps.

 

Spetsofai

Loosely translated as “Spetses food,” referring to the island of the same name, spetsofai features loukaniko, a Greek sausage fragrant with orange peel.  I discovered the dish while at a conference on Mount Pelion, one of Greece’s magically cool and shady alpine retreats.  It was 1992 and I had embarked on the first of many low-carb diets, so I was delighted to find something that contained no breadcrumbs or flour and ordered it whenever I saw it on a restaurant menu.

I always thought that loukaniko was hard to find in the U.S., but there it was, available online from Parthenon Foods in New York.  While the sausage proved tasty, (I bought one package to sample and two more for the recipe), it didn’t measure up to the sausages our cousin Toula’s husband Yanni used to order from a special sausage guy in his hometown of Amaliada, on the west coast of mainland Greece.  Those sausages were more coarsely ground than the ones from Parthenon and contained additional secret spices besides orange peel.  They continued to beguile us long after our trip was over: back in Minnesota, my mother would dream of them and wake up smelling their aroma.

Besides the special sausages, the recipe also calls for retsina, the white wine preserved with pine resin that visitors to Greece either love or despise, depending on the flexibility of their palates and the quality of the retsina.  I found 2 bottles of Kourtakis retsina at Binny’s Beverage Depot in Champaign, Illinois, and thought it tasted exactly like retsina should: light and crisp, but also sharp and pungent, the perfect accompaniment to strong cheeses and olives, and made to be served in little juice glasses, not stemmed goblets.

 

INGREDIENTS:

  • 750 gr. small or large peppers cut into 4
  • 750 gr. eggplants in long thin slices
  • 750 gr. tomatoes cut in 4
  • 750 gr. sausage (Pelion-Tripolis) [note that Mt. Pelion is specified here]
  • Aromatics: 2 pinches black pepper, 2 pinches red pepper, 2 pinches oregano, 2 pinches coriander, ½ bunch finely chopped parsley, 4-8 cloves of minced garlic
  • 125 gr. retsina wine
  • Sufficient oil [“oil” always means olive oil unless otherwise specified] for frying.

PREPARATION: Fry the eggplant and peppers in enough oil and strain.  Peel the tomatoes [I didn’t do this].  Mix all the aromatics together in a bowl with the garlic and salt.  Pour the wine in a pan and spread the sausage out, then cover with the eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes.  Sprinkle with the aromatics from the bowl.  Bake on a medium-hot oven [most Greek ovens are electric; I baked this at 375F] for 15-20 minutes [it needed much longer].  Serve cold or warm [except for grilled meat, Greeks rarely eat food piping hot; they usually cool baked dishes down to a gently warm temperature].

RESULTS: This was not quite as I remembered it, since the versions of spetsofai I’ve eaten before never included eggplant.  I’m not even sure they necessarily included tomatoes (this is the hard part about making something you haven’t eaten since 1992).  In the end, it was delicious, but it reminded me of tourlou, a baked vegetable dish featuring eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes in olive oil, with the addition of the lovely orange flavor of the sausage and the bite of the retsina.

 

Biftekia Scharas (Grilled Patties)

The word bifteki in Greek comes from the French word bifteck, which in turn derives from the English “beefsteak.”  In Greece, biftekia are essentially little burgers or somewhat large, slightly flattened meatballs.  I have made many versions of these over the years, as they are a favorite of my son’s.  This recipe stood out from Greek meatball recipes, which invariably call for breadcrumbs.

 

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 kg ground beef
  • 2-3 eggs
  • 125 gr. tepid water
  • ½ bunch finely chopped parsley
  • 2-4 pinches oregano
  • 75 gr. butter
  • Salt, black pepper
  • 1-2 lemons cut in 4

PREPARATION: Mix the ground beef with the eggs, the oregano, the salt, the pepper, and half the parsley.  Soften the meat with as much water as it will take, shape into desired form and grill.  Moisten them with butter and lemon juice, sprinkle with the remaining parsley, and serve.

RESULTS: Mild disaster.  The informality of the recipe worked against me.  I was unsure what kind of grill the recipe meant—an American-style grill?  The kind of vertical rotating grill where souvlaki is made?  The very large outdoor grill another cousin of ours uses, after making her own charcoal with wood?  The apparent power of the author, pictured on the back of the book in imposing chef’s whites, intimidated me.  Rather than frying the biftekia in my cast iron pan as I normally do, I attempted to flame-grill these in the broiler, elevated on a rack.  Unfortunately, all that water made the mixture so soft that about half of its bulk fell through the rack, and the end product tasted dry.  Greeks are not known for dry meat: they eat their meat well done, but never dry.  This is because they are unafraid of fat.  One night during our 1981 trip to Greece, my cousin Christo, then a medical student, berated me for cutting the fat off my pork chop: “You’re cutting off the best part!” he said, gesturing with his lit cigarette.  These biftekia had let my ancestors down, and violated the rembetika spirit of good, late-night taverna food, especially sizzling fatty meats that can stand up to wine and song.

These recipes proved to be an experiment in trying to follow a cookbook’s written rules.  Precisely following written rules is not really the Greek way with food, or with much else, including music.  Rembetika, which was founded upon older forms of popular music played in the cafés of Smyrna, uses the makam system of musical modes, the mastery of which a musician or singer demonstrates by performing a taksim or improvisation upon the musical rules.  This is why our cousin Toula’s recipes were so informal: when you have mastered the art of the kitchen, when you have an intimate knowledge of all your tools, techniques, and ingredients—and, crucially, when you call to mind your memories of family and flavors gone by or captured only in dreams, then your senses will guide you to delicious improvisation.

Finally, here are some links to a few of my favorite rebetika songs. Let them be a soundtrack to your next culinary adventure:

Roza Eskenazy singing Amanes Tsifteteli Ousak.  This represents Smyrna-style cafe aman songs.

Markos Vamvakaris singing Mavra Matia Mavra Fridia (Black Eyes, Black Eyebrows). This represents the period of rembetika when it reached Greece.

Contemporary singer Haris Alexiou singing Aman Katerina Mou (Aman My Katherine). This song is all about food; a man passes by Katherine’s place and smells what she’s cooking and falls in love.

Angela Glaros is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Eastern Illinois University.  Her research centers on the power of women’s voices in traditional music and liturgical chanting in Greece and the Greek-American diaspora.

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