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Friday, April 18, 2008

Queen Elizabeth II and Moussaka


The moussaka I would be proud to serve up to the Queen of England...

Having reserved for myself the prerogative of reflecting upon Greek Food as a Subject on this blog, I wish to briefly examine the matter of Presentation. This discussion is exploratory and not meant to offend nor excite, so please take it for what it is: a prolegomenon about matters which I deem interesting and that pertain to Greek Food & Gastronomy.

Why is it that some people believe that Indian food can (and must) look like Indian food, but Greek food has to look like some kind of variation on a California nouveau cuisine theme? As I am an essentialist by nature, and as objective as I would like to be about this topic, I cannot help but suppress a wry smile at the very thought…

So, it is with some amusement that I shake my head whenever I read or hear about the “new Greek cuisine”; as if we were already so overly familiar with the “old Greek cuisine” that we needed to re-interpret and re-present an entire culture of food as something which it is not. I wonder if this sort of thinking is not some kind of a spin-off symptom from the perverted realm of Political Correctness, as odd as that may sound… The fact is, I don’t rightly know where it originates, and I have a difficult time understanding the motivation behind such an attitude, unless it is simply rooted in some deep-seated sense of inadequacy or need for attention.

During a recent discussion of this very topic, somebody actually asked me if I thought a traditional Greek dish like Moussaka was something one could present to the Queen of England! As amusing as I thought the question to be at the time, I had to provide an answer, so I responded in the affirmative and went on to display the photo of the slice of moussaka which I used to head up this posting.

“Friend,” I said to them, “if the Q of E had that slice of my moussaka parked in front of her, she would make quick work of passing it down her gullet, rest assured!” (And I do stand by that statement, so if any of you have any pull at Court please do let Her Majesty know that I would be happy to back up my words with actions…)

As can be plainly seen in the picture above, there is nothing, not even a sprinkle of shredded parsley on that plate, except for the solitary piece of moussaka. Is it not aesthetically pleasing enough as it is? Do I really need to do it differently? What would have been gained if I were to have dressed the dish up beyond all recognition? Perhaps there is someone out there in the wide world who could answer these questions and settle my curiosity; though I do not think that they will ever be able to completely convince me that Greek food needs to be something other than it is: rustic, unpretentious, and wholesomely flavourful.

Amiably,


Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
http://www.greekgourmand.com

P.S. For those of you who are wondering what the heck Moussaka is... I will get to that eventually... siga, siga ("slowly, slowly") as the Greeks say.

Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

20 comments:

Lulu said...

I've heard the Queen likes a good fry-up. I'm sure she'd love a slice of your moussaka. Actually, your moussaka slice is quite nicely presented, all wedge-shaped and not falling apart.

MrOrph said...

I don't know about Liz, but we in this house love us some moussaka.

I just made this Sam! A week ago, I put together what I remember from when I was a kid and my SF made it; potato bottom, eggplant layers, meat layers, bechemel!!!!!

My pix are not as presenting as yours. I didn't let mine rest long enough...hey we were hungry. :-)

Peter M said...

A nice rant Sam but I disagree on some key issues. Change is good, progress is necessary, experimentation paramount.

One look at the the same, tired menus of the Greek restaurants we've all been to are filled with the souvlaki, roast potatoes, rice and quasi-Greek salad with iceberg lettuce.

I'm all for using Greek ingredients in new combinations or foreign ingredients coupled with Greek cooking methods.

As for a simple presentation, I prefer plain white plates...so as to not distract from the dish.

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

Lulu - I have been making moussaka for many years so I have it down to a science. One thing that helps to ensure it doesn't fall apart is to allow it sufficient time to cool in the pan before cutting it into pieces.

Mr. Orph - I can completely relate to the torment of waiting for a perfectly good moussaka to cool enough for cutting...

Peter - Why am I not surprised that you disagree? After all, you were the one who thought the traditional moussaka would not be presentable to the Queen! So, partly, I wrote this piece for your benefit. :-) As for change being good, sure it is, but if you're going to change the moussaka, then don't call it moussaka, call it Peter's Pan Pie or something like that... As for the same tired menus of the Greek restaurants you mention, it's not the food per se that is to blame Peter, as I'm sure you will agree. After all, how often does your family have souvlaki, roast potatoes, rice, and quasi-Greek salad with iceberg lettuce all on the same plate? I'm betting never... Speaking of plates, I am confident that my moussaka would still look good even if it was served on a roof shingle!

Ivy said...

I have to agree with you that when a recipe changes from what it should be then it should change its name as well. If we change all our traditional recipes, then there will nothing but one international tourlou, tourlou.

Lulu said...

Thanks for the tip about the moussaka, Sam. At my house we have a tendency to dive headfirst into the pan as soon as it comes out of the oven. Perhaps if someone stands guard....

By the way, I used the title of your blog in my blogroll: "Greek Food - Recipes and Reflections". Is that what you prefer, or would you prefer "Greek Gourmand"?

Lulu said...

Ivy, LOL!

Laurie Constantino said...

Ok, I can't restrain myself.

First, from everything I have read, moussaka in its current form is not the traditional way the dish was served in Greece since the dish did not originally include bechamel. Most agree that frill was something Tselementes added to Frenchify the dish to make it more appealing to the international elite. Should we not be allowed to call moussaka with the, relatively speaking, new-fangled name moussaka?

Food evolves, just like language evolves, just like culture evolves. As new foods and new ideas come into play, recipes evolve in different ways and directions. 500 years ago, the tomato was unheard of in Europe. Today, the tomato is an essential part of Greek cuisine. 200 years ago, no potatoes. Today, they're everywhere.

There isn't a single culture where the food is frozen in time, and Greece is no different, nor should it be.

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

Laurie,

Ok, fair enough, but you obviously misunderstood my point. I was not talking about ingredients and the addition or subtraction of them over time in a given recipe. My point had to do with the Presentation, pure and simple. As I stated in the original post, Greek food is "rustic, unpretentious, and wholesomely flavourful". Part of what makes a particular recipe "Greek" is the manner in which it is presented. The increasing trend to "dress up" Greek food in emulation of French haute or California new cuisine styles is changing something even more important than its ingredients, it's changing its soul, it's character... So, my point, to put it simply is: Style is an important part of culture and the style of Greek food is what makes it Greek, not just the ingredients and/or manner of preparation.

So, as I am sure you will agree, we are not disagreeing. :-)

Laurie Constantino said...

You're right Sam, I didn't understand you. I thought you were objecting to modern changes being made to traditional dishes. Sorry!

So what you're objecting to is fancifying the plates? I don't think this issue applies only to Greek food. There is rustic French, Italian, American, Spanish, you name it food that traditionally has been served rustically. And there are restaurants that serve it this way. There are also restaurants that fancify the plates as you have described for Greek food. I guess I think there's a place for both.

Here's an example. Two of the Athenian restaurants specializing in seafood are very near each other - one is called Varoulko and one is called Logia tis Ploris (LTP). LTP is an unpretentious psarotaverna with impeccably good food and lower than average prices. The food is presented rustically as you prefer. It is on a pezodromio with paper tablecloths and the waiter is one of the owners. I love this restaurant and could happily eat here regularly.

Varoulko couldn't be more different. It is Michelin starred, on a rooftop with a commanding view of the Acropolis. There are multiple waiters for each table - the Greek wine selection is incredible, and the prices are astronomical. For my palate, the food was amazing. The chef used typically Greek ingredients and dishes and turned them into remarkable taste sensations. Every dish was wonderful and made me view certain ingredients much differently than I had before. For example, the chef took fava and carefully strained it, turning it into a silky smooth sauce for fish and drizzling petimezi here and there to great benefit of the fish. I saw so many possibilities for both fava and petimezi that I had never thought of before. The food was very refined, but also very Greek.

So you say style of presentation is what makes food Greek. And on that, I'm so very sorry, but I still have to disagree. To me, what makes food Greek are the unique ingredients and flavor combinations.

But since we both agree Greek food tastes great - ultimately, the only thing that matters when you're talking about food - our points of disagreement are minor!

I can't wait to read your next column - you always make me think, which is a very good thing.

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

Laurie,

And there I was, thinking you were here just for the cooking! lol

I see you really did do some thinking on the matter though, and that's definitely a good thing. But whatever you do, don't be sorry because I still disagree with you as well, and I am not sorry! :-)

The so-called "refinement" which you mention is the sticking point, I guess. The very notion that people worry about things like Michelin stars and French Service dining rooms when it comes to eating in Greece is what blows me away, I guess it just sounds like a tourist talking to me... Since I have lived the food service end of things in Athens, and on the Greek islands during the summer, I have been face to face with the culture-levelling effects of mass tourism, and I believe that what is needed is authenticity in more than just the ingredients.

After all, McDonalds in Athens is likely supplied by Greek producers too, and the ingredients may be Greek in origin, and the recipe may be original, but would you argue that this makes a Big Mac purchased in Syntagma Square a Greek sandwhich?

If Greek food is going to retain its unique character and not be swept up in the smudge of "fusion-style cuisine" that is sweeping the "culinary world" it is necessary for us to have discussions like this, which is why I wrote the piece to begin with.

But, as I do not think I will be able to convince you of anything at this point, I do want to stress that our disagreement on this matter should not get in the way of the things we do agree upon. So let us agree to uphold each other's right to disagree on this subject and still get along, ok?

Laurie Constantino said...

Hey Sam, I think you missed my point a little. And that is, this is not a Greek phenomenon - it's a world phenomenon. Classic American dishes are taken up and turned into more rarified versions of themselves. Same with classic French dishes. Same with every country. My point is there's room for both. And while I prefer my daily eating to be traditional, there's nothing wrong with seeing the possiblities for new ways of looking at traditional ingredients. But I'll definitely agree to disagree, since I love your blog and think you are providing interesting content that no one else does! OK???

debbyd said...

would you be willing to share your recipe for this. one of my very favorites. I worked in An authentic family run greek restaurant for years and I fell in love with the cuisine. Adore Moussaka. thanks

Lore said...

Moussaka is one of my favourite dishes. Thats the benefit of living quite close to the Greeks, traditions infuse.
Great photo :)

Lore said...

I almost forgot: Happy Easter Sam!

Lulu said...

What a great discussion, Laurie and Sam and Peter!

culinarytravelsofakitchengoddess said...

Wow!!!

I don't know about Queen Lizzie and to be honest I don't really care, but to me that looks like one amazing moussaka. It's a few months since I made one, maybe I need to revisit it soon.

Oh and I totally agree about the changing of recipes/changing of names thing too :)

Yannis said...

couldn't agree with you more, Sam. Sostos.

I believe in 'less is more' as far as presentation.

Yannis
http://mylittlebaklava.blogspot.com

Fecho said...

Don't worry, Sam, about Queen Elizabeth not knowing the pleasures of moussaka... As a matter of fact I do have inside information that, Prince Phillip being the son of Prince Andrew and thus grandson of King George I of Greece, moussaka does appear on the royal menu every once in a while. :)

shadownlight said...

i love it! greek food in general, since i have lived in greece for a while i cant be without greek food and frappe :;)