Greek cuisine is one of the oldest, most classic cuisines known to Western society. Greek cooking is very diverse, and although there are many common characteristics, there are also differences among the culinary traditions within different regions of the country. Some dishes can be traced back to ancient Greece (trahanas, skordalia, lentil soup), while others hearken from the Hellenistic and Roman periods (loukaniko). Therefore, a full list of representative dishes is difficult to present. Greek influences on modern cooking are myriad and probably incalculable. Prepared Foods sat down with chef John Matchuk, R&D manager at Grecian Delight in Elk Grove Village, Ill. With 15 years in foodservice and the past 17 years in R&D, chef Matchuk’s unique perspective on Greek cuisine, both past and present, encompasses classic Greek cooking; plus, his observations on the future of “Greek fusion” shed some light on the direction in which this timeless cuisine is currently headed.
PF: What influences shaped your love of Greek cooking, and where did you first learn to cook Greek cuisine?
JM: “Chefs already have a broad perspective on all foods--I had a good grip on Greek classics already. Joining Grecian Delight gave me the opportunity to actually make things, or ‘put stuff into a box,’ and manage an R&D division. My work here has been a matter of refining, management and authenticity.”
PF: How would you differentiate Greek cuisine from other Mediterranean cuisine?
JM: “It is both difficult and easy to differentiate, as the cuisines of the Mediterranean overlap at the countries’ borders. The result of this overlap is that some cooking techniques and/or ingredients from both countries seep into the border cuisines. It is currently more difficult to differentiate, as Greek cuisine is in a ‘new version,’ which uses fusion. The simple response would be to cite the universal use of olive oil, oregano, Feta cheese, olives, phyllo dough, cucumbers and eggplant, and garlic and lemon juice in so many Greek preparations. The recipes utilize simplicity (as in so many Mediterranean cuisines), and thus, the quality of the ingredients is key for them to work well. Of course, do not forget lamb, especially at Easter and springtime!”
(See charts, “Greek Seasonings and Common Ingredients--Botanicals” and “Greek Seasonings and Common Ingredients--Non-botanicals,” for a complete list of commonly used Greek spices and ingredients.)
PF: How would you define Greek fusion cooking?
JM: “Fusion is basically taking a classic dish, such as melitzanes mousakka (layers of seasoned ground [or minced] lamb or beef, sliced eggplant and tomato, topped with white bechémal sauce), and using an Asian eggplant rather than Greek eggplant. Or, it could be a new spice profile. It is the fusing of a new technique with old, classic ingredients. Avgolemono (‘egg-lemon soup’ traditionally consisting of chicken, red meat, vegetable or fish broth thickened with eggs, lemon juice and rice) might be given a ‘fusion update’ by using lemongrass instead of lemon. This would add more intense lemon flavor with other spice notes to create a trendier, Greek fusion dish.”
PF: How are traditional Greek seasonings such as oregano, paprika and lemon used in modern Greek cuisine?
JM: “Basically, they are used very much as they have always been used. The modern, or new, Greek food is basically a function of technique and price points. The more you pay, the more likely it will be an interpretation of the classic version. Smoked paprika and, perhaps, preserved lemons could make an appearance, for example.”
PF: What cooking techniques are commonly associated with Greek cooking?
JM: “Grilling, braising, stewing and roasting are the most common techniques used.”
Legend has it that the classic, Greek slow-cooking technique originated from the Klephts, who, lacking their own flocks, would steal lambs or goats and cook them in a sealed pit to avoid the smoke being seen. The Greek word Kleftiko translates roughly into “stolen meat.”
PF: Are there any chefs or restaurants currently building reputations for creativity in the area of Greek cuisine? What sort of things are they doing?
JM: “The menu at Molyvos, in New York, is built upon the home-style cooking of Greece, with dishes elevated through the talents of executive chef James Botsacos. He prepares each of the authentic recipes using classical cooking techniques and superior ingredients available to him in New York, such as prime meats, greenmarket vegetables and day-boat fish. He then seasons the food with flavorful stocks and fresh herbs. Classics such as grilled, baby octopus, Cretan bread salad, stifado (game [rabbit, venison] stew with pearl onions, red wine and cinnamon), lamb yuvetsi (lamb casserole with orzo--tiny, rice-shaped pasta), and their special baklava all exhibit the quality difference in taste and presentation.”
PF: Are there areas (geographic) of Greek cooking that are becoming more popular (such as the vegetarian dish, Haniotiko Mpoureki, from western Crete)? In other words, are more restaurants focusing on different types of Greek cuisine, based on the area from which they originate?
JM: “If not today, then tomorrow. Focusing on a geographical area is usually a result of the passage of time and people’s continual quest for ‘something new’ when they dine out. Twenty years ago, for example, Italian cuisine went to new regions--Tuscan, Northern Italian, etc. Chef Rick Bayless has done it with Mexican cuisine. An emerging ‘hot’ South American cuisine is Peruvian. It will happen eventually with Greek cuisine, and it will mainly be a consequence of marketing, plus boredom.”
PF: What are some of the health aspects of Greek cuisine?
JM: “Greek food has excellent health benefits. It fits in squarely with the Mediterranean diet, of course. It is, however, always up to the end-user to limit the restricted or special foods at the top of the pyramid.”
Studies in the 1950s found that residents of the Greek island of Crete had one of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. This, of course, led to Mediterranean cuisine being almost synonymous with “heart-healthy.”
In the landmark Seven Countries study, it was found that the men of Crete got only 8% of their calories from saturated fat--most of their diet consisted of vegetables, grains and olive oil, with a small amount of seafood, milk and cheese. Clearly, these men were not eating moussaka or gyros, both of which have as much artery-clogging fat as some fast foods. Conversely, some Greek classics, such as chicken, lamb or pork souvlaki, are among some of the heart-healthiest meals. It would seem that Greek cuisine is a mixed bag of healthy and not-so-healthy foods. However, the same study also found that the men of Crete had a much more active lifestyle than most Americans. With Americans’ sedentary lifestyle and constant, dining-out mentality, it is wise to note that following the simple dietary rules of the Greeks can reap results, if as chef Matchuk stated, the “end-user” takes responsibility for limiting the foods that are high in fat. pf
Website Resourceswww.greciandelight.com -- Home of Grecian Delight Inc., a leading manufacturer and marketer of ethnic foods and services; website includes information on menus and recipes, merchandising, equipment and products
www.greekcuisine.com -- A complete guide to finding Greek food and Greek cuisine; includes a Greek dining and restaurant guide, as well as cookbooks, recipes, spices and more
www.thatsgreece.com -- Click on “food, drink” for a comprehensive history of Greek cuisine, a glossary of Greek food terms, vegetarian traditions, the Cretan diet and more
www.epi.umn.edu/research/7countries/overview.shtm -- An overview of the Seven Countries study, of which Ancel Keys at the University of Minnesota was the principal investigator; links to the individual countries are provided
www.PreparedFoods.com -- Scroll down the left side of the home page to the “Menu Development” section for information on restaurant trends