Creation Trends: Digging Mediterranean Cuisine

Nov. 18, 2004
Why we’re getting all agog over Greek fare.
By Marc Halperin, Contributing EditorWhen you get right down to it, all we Americans really want is simple, great-tasting food made with fresh, high-quality ingredients that packs plenty of flavor and leaves us feeling satisfied without clogging our arteries or padding our waistlines.

That’s a tall order. We are, after all, well accustomed to thinking of healthful cuisine as one thing, and delicious cuisine as another. The idea of “having it all” at mealtime is inconceivable to most of us.

It’s easy to see why word of the potential health benefits of adopting a Mediterranean-style diet — most recently advanced in a September edition of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. — has been received with excitement by those who have already developed a taste for the region’s signature staples and spices, including garlic, olive oil, cheeses, yogurt, nuts, tomatoes, citrus, fish, lamb and select grains.

And as the Mediterranean gospel spreads, it makes perfect sense that one of the cuisines Americans are warming to in even greater numbers is that of Greece. It’s robust, intensely flavorful fare as well as filling, yet not leaden. Greek cuisine is often savory but also sweet, with additions such as cinnamon and honey rounding out the flavor palette. And, at its core, Greek food favors fresh ingredients and simple preparations: Most restaurants in Greece find diners making their way to the back of the house to select the exact piece of meat or fish they want for dinner before they take their seat at a table.

Time was, if you wanted authentic Greek fare here in the U.S., your best bet was either a no-frills urban gyro stand or an upscale standard-bearer such as San Francisco’s Kokkari or New York’s Molyvos. But today the choices are as wide as the Mediterranean itself. In California, former soccer star-turned-restaurateur George Katakalidis has grown his fast-casual Daphne’s Greek Café into a 50-unit chain, while such concepts as OPA! Souvlaki and Florida-based Louis Pappas Market Café are on the upswing. At Daphne’s, gyro sandwiches and classic Greek salads sit alongside mainstays such as spanakopita (spinach and feta wrapped in filo dough) and avgolemono, the traditional lemon and chicken soup.

For her part, chef Marti Sousanis, author of the landmark cookbook “The Art of Filo,” says she hasn’t been caught off guard by the relatively sudden surge in the popularity of Greek cuisine.

“The fact is that people are much more health-conscious today, and the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest,” she notes. “I’ve been pushing the health aspects of Greek food for 30 years. I used to have physicals, and my doctor would say, ‘Your cholesterol is amazing!’ And then he’d realize, ‘Oh, you eat a lot of olive oil. That explains it.’ ”

For Sousanis, there’s no improving on the signature dishes: Greek salads composed of greens, fresh feta, olive oil, olives, oregano, vinegar and tomatoes; lentil soups; spanakopita and “anything with filo.” She reserves highest praise, though, for her father’s Greek potatoes recipe, which involves thick-sliced spuds covered in tomatoes with generous helpings of olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. “I could live on those,” she confesses.

Greek turns out to be one of the first true fusion cuisines, spawned as it was by a convergence of Turkish, Italian and Persian cultures at the crossroads that was ancient Greece. Today, of course, Greek fare itself often mingles with other Mediterranean dishes on menus throughout the U.S. It’s not unusual, for instance, to see hummus or falafel or baba ganouj on the menu at a restaurant billing itself as Greek, despite the fact that each of those dishes is Middle Eastern in origin. Purists will quibble, of course, but it takes an awfully dedicated operator to put his or her foot down and say, “I won’t have falafel; I will serve only skewered lamb and pilaf and grape leaves and other authentic items.”

As Americans continue awakening to the charms of Greek fare in its purest form, however, they may be quite content to stay true to the basics. As Sousanis says: “My thing is old-fashioned Greek, really authentically Greek. That’s what I know; it’s what I grew up on. The combination of fast-easy-tasty-healthful makes this food extremely appealing, so it doesn’t surprise me that it’s becoming trendy.” She points out, “It’s not really anything new and different…it’s more about the old coming back!”

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