Complete List of Recipes & Reflections

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Macaroni, Makaronia, Makaronada, and Pasta… (Μακαρονάδα)

A classic Greek pasta dish - Click to Enlarge Image

For me, this is one of the classic Greek recipes of my childhood. I cut my first teeth on bowls of the stuff and it remains as one of my all time favourite meals. A simple but satisfying lunch or dinner, this Greek pasta dish is a bona fide gem.

Those of you that are familiar with the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding ought to get a chuckle out of this posting. As you will recall from the movie, the father of the bride, Mr. Gus Portokalos (as played by actor Michael Constantine), had a folksy habit of pointing out the Greek etymological origins of common English words. Well then, as Mr. Portokalos might say:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word macaroni is originally derived from the Greek word makaria ‘food made from barley’ (μακαρία in Gk., pronounced mah-kah-REE-yah). Barley was an all-purpose grain for the ancients and barley meal was used for a variety of purposes including bread baking and as part of sacrificial rites. The makaria was a traditional ancient Greek food eaten at an individual’s wake, which for the Greeks - as with the Irish - is a reception held after a funeral. Some two millennia have passed since this culinary term first appears in the available Greek literature. To this day, the customary dish served at a Greek wake is known as makaronia (pronounced mah-kah-RO-nee-yah).

In Greece, the term makaronia is a generic term that applies to all manner of pasta shapes and sizes. Furthermore, surprising as it may be for some, the actual origin of the Italian word “pasta” is Greek, as well as the word lasagna among other related culinary terms. So, to add my $0.02 to a recent blog discussion on the debate surrounding the origins of pasta… the answer is simple, blame it on the Greeks! After all, the names speak for themselves. Just be sure to take it easy when explaining this to any Italian friends.

Now, the makaronia served at a wake are known as spaghetti in English, and are simply served with a grated Greek cheese known as mizithra or myzithra (pronounced mee-TZEE-thrah) and browned butter. On the other hand, the common everyday ‘garden-variety’ makaronia are similar to what the Italians refer to as tubetti, short tubular pasta shapes. Now, if it happens to be makaronia served with meat sauce it becomes a makaronada (pronounced mah-kah-ro-NAH-tha) and it is always made with a spaghetti type noodle. All quite confusing, I know, but it makes sense to the Greeks, trust me. One more thing, the meat sauce variety is never served at a wake, though the meatless cheese and browned butter variant which is served can also be referred to as a makaronada… [Grin.]

Some mizithra we brought back from Greece - Click to Enlarge Image

It is impossible to write about makaronia and makaronada and not spend some time on mizithra cheese. Mizithra is a traditional Greek cheese and is the forebear of all whey cheeses. It has been made in much the same manner for thousands of years and has its own distinctive aroma and flavour. Mizithra is made from sheep and/or goat milk and can come in a fresh, soft and spreadable form; or aged and shaped almost like a fat-bottomed pear in a hard, salty ball. The soft mizithra has an almost sweet flavour and is used as a spreadable cheese or in baked goods and pastries. On the other hand, the aged salty mizithra variety is almost exclusively used for makaronia and makaronada dishes. Mizithra cheese is designated as PDO/PGI by the European Union.

In my grandmother’s time and for ages before her, the mizithra cheese that was to be dried and aged was hung outdoors in cloth squares called tsantilas (or τσαντίλα in Gk.). A tsantila was pinned up by its four corners and hung from a tree branch; the mass of drying cheese remained suspended in the resulting ball shape which its weight formed in the bottom of the hanging cloth. That is how the hard mizithra cheese gained its distinctive fat bottomed pear-like shape. Now, if you look but cannot find any mizithra at a cheese shop near you, try using parmesan as a substitute (but only as a last resort as the flavour is not the same). Note: Greeks do not use parmesan in traditional pasta dishes, we generally use mizithra. Once you have grated mizithra on your makaronia, you may just develop a taste for it.


1 lb (½ kg.) lean ground veal
1 white onion (diced)
1 clove of garlic (peeled but whole)
1 medium sized cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1 ½ cups (375 ml.) fresh strained tomato juice (or ¼ cup tomato paste diluted in 1½ cups of water.)
¼ cup (60 ml.) white wine
⅓ cup (80 ml.) Greek extra virgin olive oil
Spaghetti style pasta
Grated mizithra cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the diced onion until soft. Add the ground veal to the pan and stir it up well to break it up thoroughly. Keep stirring over a medium high heat for 5 minutes or so to brown all of the meat and mingle it completely with the onion.
  2. Once the meat is browned, add salt and pepper to taste, the wine, and then add the fresh tomato juice (or tomato paste diluted in water) to the pan and mix well. Bring to a boil, add the cinnamon stick, bay leaves and whole garlic clove to the pan, cover them in the sauce, then reduce the heat to a medium low; cover the pan leaving it only slightly uncovered to allow the water to evaporate as steam and then simmer for 30 minutes. We want the sauce to reduce such that the water is steamed away and the tomato and cinnamon hinted olive oil is left behind with the meat. Stir the sauce occasionally to allow the cinnamon essence to completely suffuse the sauce. Note: the cinnamon stick should be no longer than 2 inches (5cm.) as we want the cinnamon to flavour the sauce but not too intensely. When ready, the meat will have absorbed all of the liquid.
  3. Boil pasta in a pot until done to your preference, then strain and serve it with a generous sprinkling of grated mizithra cheese and then spoon the meat sauce overtop. Make sure to stir the meat sauce up before spooning it out to get some of the orange tinted olive oil in each helping. Mix the meat and pasta in your plate/bowl and then get down to business!

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit),

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

Note: Mizithra can also be spelled as Myzithra cheese in English.


Ivy said...

Sam the other day when I wrote about lagana - lasagna and the Greek origin of both I was wondering why I never wrote about makaronia as I knew about the origin of the word and the story behind it. However, as always I could not find a single article to back my knowledge of this and everywhere of course,they supported that the Romans invented then.
I did read a very interesting article which was in Greek but I am sure your readers will find it interesting to know that one fourth (1/4) of the English words are Greek.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

LOVE myzithra! I make Greek spaghetti with it, and I add cinnamon and Mavrodaphne to the tomato sauce...

Amy said...

I LOVE mizithra cheese. But I have never seen the soft one. Do you know where I might be able to find that in the US?

justfoodnow said...

Thanks for reading my article! Coming from you I will, indeed, take it as a huge compliment.

I agree that the Romans can thank the Greeks for their famous Roman legal system. The Romans put into law what the Greeks spent a very long time figuring out. On the food, I will reply to you where it would be ethical.

I am having a Greek evening for my son Richardt tomorrow as it's his birthday and we will make your dish in honour. Hope I can get the right pasta for it. We only get the Italian one in Cape Town, but we do get a lot of hand crafted pasta and usually every kind of flour pasta is available somewhere. If I got a pasta made from barley, would that be okay? We do get Mizithra. Will give you feedback if you like.

Thanks again for a super site.

Peter G said...

As always I walk away from here with more Greek culinary knowledge...again I had no idea that "makaronia" was derived form the Greek language. But this dish will always feature in my diet...I love it too much...with that distinct taste of cinnamon...mmm (now I'm hungry again)

justfoodnow said...

I answered you, as promised.

Sue said...

Sam, My big fat Greek wedding is an all time favorite of mine and in my DVD collection.
Your macaroni recipe looks so good and I've added it to my 'must try' files.
Keep em coming Sam.

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

I am not in the least bit offended - but I don't think I will show this article to my husband, the Roman! LOL! Actually I doubt he would care is kind of like the whiskey debate - the Irish claim they were the first to make it (which highly upsets the Scots because they are famous for it) but I say, even if the Irish did "found" whiskey, the Scots perfected it! ;)

Have a great weekend, Sam and thanks as always for the great food and info! I would eat your makaronia any day! :)

farida said...

Very informative post! I didn't know the origins of the word macaroni, now I know:) It's interesting because we say makaron to anything noodle like, not spaghetti.

aurora said...

I am going to make it this week! Thanks for the delightful post.

Dale Calder said...

Aha! One of my absolute favorites ! How do you keep this up Sam?. Quality post .. after quality post!

justfoodnow said...

It's magnificent dish - wonderful recipe! Thanks so much.

I said I would let you know, remember?

Lore said...

We also have a generic term for "makaronia" in my native language. Mizithra looks really delicious and it must taste like heaven when included in this dish! Thanks again for this informative post :)

deb said...

You know Sam my daughter & I love Makaronada. The long large tubular pasta, but have a hard time finding it. Traditionally in brown butter with the Mizethra. Love it. I love the reference to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. An all time favorite of Meg & Mine.

Ellie Barczak said...

Sam, I can't wait to try that cheese! I 'm from minneapolis MN and we've got a great, but small Greek Food store called Bills. I think i'll make a trip over there. Any thoughts on what a first time user should make that would really show off the cheese?

Thanks checking out the baguette post. I just made the starter for my second recipe. Should be ready early tomorrow...i'm anxious, but i guess a watched bread never rises!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Now I'm motivated to search out a good Greek market in Providence! And thanks for the etymology, too. I could hear Michael Constantine's voice as I read this post.

Mamaliga said...


What a pleasure! I ooze by reading your post. One thing I really enjoy in your posts is your character! Beside the fact that you are an absolute Greek cuisine connoisseur, you have a gift in reading! Way to go!

Now, how can we import Myzithra in the USA? The real one :-)

David Hall said...

Sam, like all of your great food, this one is up there with the best. Great stuff.


Christophile said...

wow! total comfort food! Loved when my Mom would make this!

Peter M said...

A Greek classic, favourite to many. The dried, salty Myzithra is an excellent accompaniment for Makaronades but I'm curious Sam, why the Myzithra until the kima?

Neona said...

Good that you posted an article about macaronia. Great presented, well done!
Easy to make indeed.
Here in Greece we have macaronia every monday, because it is a day when we go to the market to buy veges, meat and fish for the next week and that's why, spending morning in the market, we dont have that much time to cook something special for a lunch. So macaronia is the dish of monday :)
Kali oreksi, Sam!

Dazy said...

I have come across a very creative dish. This can be given to my kids for tiffin purpose at their school.

Anonymous said...

Ever since we visited my Theia Vaggelia in Crete I've been trying to find a recipe for makaronada that tastes like hers - this is it! I made it last night and my husband and I were in food heaven - we want to have it again tonight.

Thank you so much for your wonderful site. I'm looking forward to making the pastitsio.