Is this Greece's national Dish?
When we think of Scotland’s national dish we think of haggis. When we think of the national dish of the United States we think of Thanksgiving turkey, and when we think of Italy’s national dish we think of spaghetti. What is Greece’s national dish? Is it souvlaki, or gyros, or salad? Or is it none of these? According to Wikipedia, Greece has three National Dishes: moussaka (layered casserole of potato, eggplant and ground beef topped with a béchamel sauce), fasolada (a white bean soup), and/or Greek salad…
As March 25th happens to be the anniversary of Greek Independence from the Ottoman Turk Occupation which lasted nearly four hundred years, I thought I might place a pebble on the monument to Greek freedom, and offer my own thoughts on the Greek national dish since there seems to be some ambiguity. In my mind, none of the three dishes mentioned on Wikipedia are candidates for Greece’s national dish.
Many of you will already be familiar with my choice, and many of you will have at least heard of it. The true National Dish of Greece is called kleftiko (in other words, ‘of or belonging to, the Klephts’). Who are Klephts and what is their dish?
Kleftiko is basically lamb meat seasoned with lots of oregano, lemon juice and wild greens, then wrapped in fig leaves and cooked at a low heat for many hours, sometimes even entire days, in a sealed clay oven that was usually buried or otherwise hidden from sight. The Klephts, from whom it derives its name, were bands of Greek brigands who were never subjugated by the Turks. They roamed the high-country and mountainsides of Greece and Cyprus while the Turkish occupiers settled in the plains, towns, and cities. Entire swathes of the mountainous Greek countryside, particularly in the southern Peloponnesus were largely autonomous zones controlled by the various local Klepht bands.
The name Klepht is derived from the Greek root word klepto which means ‘to steal’. Stealing is how the Klephts managed to maintain themselves and usually at the expense of Turkish settlers in the towns and plains. But, lowland Greeks were also fair game for these raiders who descended rapidly from the mountains and stole what they needed or desired, then just as quickly disappeared back into the rocky defiles and up into the craggy mountainsides. Livestock was an especially important booty for the Klephts, particularly sheep and goats, as meat made up the bulk of their diet. So, the kleftiko that the Klephts enjoyed was usually stolen, which gives the term kleftiko a double meaning i.e. as the ‘meat of the Klephts’ and simply ‘stolen meat’).
The Ottoman Occupation authorities waged an incessant war against these marauding mountain clans. The Turkish militias and gendarmeries that were charged with eliminating these irregular forces were at a disadvantage when tracking them down in the mountains as they were not accustomed to the terrain and the guerrilla tactics of the Klephts. Much like how the Americans and their NATO allies, despite their materiel superiority are not able to suppress the fierce opposition of the Afghan tribesmen today...
As time went on and the power and influence of the various Klepht bands and their leaders grew, they raided with greater impunity, and were a constant thorn in the side of the Turkish Occupation authorities. Not surprisingly, it was among the Klephts that the first stirrings of the patriotism and national consciousness, which eventually led to the Greek war of Independence, were nurtured and passed on for generations. Most of Greece’s modern heroes from the War for Independence which began on March 25, 1821 are Klepht captains.
Unfortunately, I do not have a clay oven (or an entire day) in which to cook a traditional kleftiko, perhaps next year… So, instead of the true Greek National Dish, I will offer up a recipe for a dish that is a very close cousin to the kleftiko:
Arni Exohiko... Countryside Lamb
This dish is one of the true lamb classics of Greek cookery. The lamb turned out so tender we could literally cut it with a spoon. If you like lamb, you'll love this dish. Wrapped in parchment paper with vegetables, herbs, spices, and Graviera cheese and slow cooked in the oven for two hours, the lamb is then served exactly as shown in the photo at the top - parchment paper and all! This dish is the ultimate in Greek comfort food... a truly rustic meal.
The Arni Exohiko bundles before going into the oven to be slow cooked.
1½ - 2 lbs. boneless leg of lamb, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 18 roughly equal cubes
2 large carrots, peeled and thick-sliced
3 red-skin potatoes, unpeeled, well-washed and quartered
1 large onion, peeled and cut into 6 equal wedges
1 large tomato, cut into 6 equal wedges
1 large red pepper, cut in half, seeded and sliced into six equal pieces
1 cup of grated Graviera cheese
6 large garlic cloves, peeled
¼ lbs. of spinach
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 Bay leaves
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
salt & pepper
parchment paper *
1. Place cubed lamb in a large bowl and sprinkle generously with salt and fresh ground pepper, make sure to mix the meat to ensure an even spread of the salt and pepper.
2. Cut six parchment paper squares (fold the parchment paper into triangles before cutting to ensure that each piece is perfectly square) and in the center of each square make a small bed of spinach.
3. Place a sixth of the lamb cubes (3 cubes) on top of the spinach on each of the parchment squares.
4. Put one whole garlic clove and one bay leaf in the centre of the lamb cubes on each square and then sprinkle the meat liberally with oregano and rosemary.
5. Sprinkle one sixth of the grated Graviera cheese overtop of the meat on each square.
6. Place two potato wedges, one onion wedge, one tomato slice, one sixth of the carrot slices and one piece of red pepper on top of the meat on each square, then sprinkle the vegetables lightly with salt and pepper and drizzle one tablespoon of olive oil overtop of each pile of ingredients.
7. Pull the corners and edges of each parchment square together to fashion a pouch, then twist them together and tie them closed tightly with string.
8. Arrange the pouches on a rimmed baking sheet/pan and place in preheated oven at 325 degrees. Cook for 2 hours.
9. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow the pouches to stand for 5 minutes. Serve each pouch on a dinner plate or shallow bowl. Untie the string and carefully open the parchment paper to eat.
*Note: Parchment paper must be at least 38 cm. (or 15 in.) wide. A square piece at this width will allow you to draw in all the ends and tie the package tightly and completely shut.
Zito I Ellada! (pronounced ZEE-tow EE Ellatha, or “Long Live Greece”)
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.