During last years the Greek traditional cuisine and local culinary practices are in the focus of interest not only for tourism but also for food editors and writers. An intense interest for traditional food emerges also from the blogs of second-generation Greek immigrants. Since local and traditional food is linked to the heritage, culture and identity of a country, food helps to express who we are and which our roots are. However the question is, what does ‘traditional’ really mean?
Traditional food according to the European Parliament means that a food’s ingredients or composition or production or processing method show its transmission between generations. A food is called traditional if has been used “since before the Second World War”. (16-03-2006)
Despite this, traditional food can mean many different things for different people: it is a link to the local history and culture; it can be associated with respect for the environment, health benefits, better taste; it implies authenticity, purity or the desire for authenticity and purity, etc.
But, anyway, what does authentic cuisine mean? The local, seasonal food most people eat most days at home? Is seasonal food traditional and vice versa? Yes, it almost was, before the popularization of refrigerator. Is traditional food local and vice versa? Yes, it is when the cultural contacts, the trade and wealth do not exist. In past the cooking of remote villages was almost totally local and in some cases ultimate poor. But, at the present time how many of us eat only seasonal local foods? Actually we are addicted to non-seasonal because we are addicted to convenience. It is very convenient to eat anything at anytime of the year.
Is traditional local food authentic and pure? During Greek history there were plenty of people demanding authenticity and purity in cuisine, focusing their interest on the “ethical disruption of traditional food” that was caused by cultural contacts. In fact, authenticity and purity is an illusion. Even worse, the demand for authentic or inauthentic food can become a fence to keep people in their places.
The truth is that adaptation and change affect even the local cuisine. Local cuisine may be not as dynamic as its urban sister is, may be even conservative and without distant horizons but is not unaffected by changes. Tomato is a New World crop. It is one of the hallmarks of summer Cretan cuisine, though has been viewed as poisonous by previous generations. Well, the Cretan cuisine before the tomato was much different in taste and color than today’s Cretan summer cooking.
Does Greek traditional food is healthy? Yes if the consumption of greens, vegetables and fruits, the extensive use of olive oil and the moderate use of meat characterize it. But… now we are talking about the cuisine of Crete and islands, aren’t we? I mean that Greek cuisine is divided into geographic regions with people having different kinds of sources, different cultural and dietary traditions and even distinctive food tastes. If a man will follow the diet of a small Greek pastoral community from 50ies, he will eat lots of dairy products, butter, fat and meat. If he will not walk a lot and does not follow the dietary restrictions of Lenten as his 50ties fellow did, he will probably trigger off a heart attack.
Does tradition mean that a woman born in 1970 cooks just like her mother and grandmother and grand -grandmother? What do they represent, an unbroken line of foods and methods? Obviously, she has the availability to choose, to adapt, to interpret and combine, in ways that her mother could not even dream of them.
Is Greek urban cuisine traditional? Let’s see the case of moussaka, one of the best known specimens of Greek urban cooking. Moussaka is an eggplant and ground meat dish covered with a thick layer of bechamel sauce. It can be made with other vegetables besides eggplant, such as zucchini or potatoes or artichokes or a combination of them. A Lenten version is dated already in 1920; a dish also called moussaka, is made with snails instead of ground meat and originated in Eastern Crete. A version which is not made with bechamel sauce and its last layer is of hardtack or beaten eggs was named in the Greek cooking books of 1929-1960 as “moussaka imitation”. Food scholars believe that the word moussaka is of Arabic origin; the root saqq in Arabic means chop. Some scholars also believe that Arabs introduced moussaka in Greece, when they brought the eggplant. They propose that Maghmumaor al Muqatta’a, a dish from the Baghdad cookery book, that is a 13th century Arabic cookbook, could be the ancestor of moussaka.
Eggplant was introduced into Greece in 12th century but there is no mention of moussaka until the late 19th century. Moussaka is also found in Turkey. In 1862, Turabi Efendi published the first recipe of mussaka (Turkish Cookery Book). The Turkish dish is made with eggplants, or other vegetables, cut into small cubes and ground meat either lamb or beef. It seems likely that turkish musakka is quite related to the Arabic recipe.
But what about Greek moussaka? In 1920, when the Ottoman occupation was still fresh, Nikos Tselementes, a Greek chef of Siphnian origin who grew up in Constantinople and trained in France, had already devoted himself to “clear” Greek cuisine of Turkish flavors. Thus, he added a French sauce, bechamel, to moussaka, in order to “free” the dish from its Turkish “past”. Moussaka, a Europeanised dish of Arabic origin which introduced in Greece via Turkey, became one of the characteristic dishes of Greek urban cuisine; it was needed many ingredients and plenty of time that a woman from an agro-pastoral community could not waste on a food.
The history of mussaka implies that urban cuisine is more responding to new ingredients, cultural and religious influences, trade and fashion. It is flexible. Urban cuisine can create tradition however this tradition is receptive to changes, influences and interpretations.
Ultimately I believe that “traditional” Greek cuisine is an evolving hybrid. It has the hallmarks of travels, trade, agricultural development, immigrations, inventions, cultural contacts, religion, politics, memories, history; past and present have always coexisted, the future is out there. What a solemn feeling if we would see the few stones where our daily cooking could stood without them! After all, culinary heritage combines conservation and innovation. And even if lifestyle changes, it can be an important source for re-creation of gastronomic knowledge and practices.