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Maria Benardis is an accomplished chef, cookbook author and entrepreneur. She began Greekalicious in an effort to encourage others to fall in love with authentic Mediterranean cuisine.
April Smallwood

6 Dec 2010 - 11:15 AM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

Maria Benardis is an accomplished chef, cookbook author and entrepreneur. She began Greekalicious in an effort to encourage others to fall in love with authentic Mediterranean cuisine. If there's one thing Maria knows, it's that there's more to Greek cooking than moussaka.

SBS chats to Maria about her Greek-island upbringing, her food philosophy, and a certain dessert involving doughnuts and chocolate sauce.

You’ve said your mission is to bring ancient Greek culture, cooking and traditions to Australia. Why has this been so important to you?

It’s important to me because people can adopt some of these traditions and food culture, and, by doing so, connect back to nature, family and themselves. It’s also a great way to find love and joy through cooking with oneself.

Would you say there’s a lack of authentic Greek cuisine on offer in Australia?

Unfortunately, we have a lack of authentic Greek regional cuisine. For example, there are hundreds of pies and Greek salads, yet we see only one of the salads and three of the pies on restaurant menus. Modern Greek dishes are also a rarity. These dishes are an every day affair in Greece nowadays.

You’ve had a passion for food from a young age. Who was your first mentor?

My first mentor was my grandmother, Katina, whom I lived with on the island of Psara, Greece. She was obsessed with freshness and high-quality ingredients. Having our own garden packed with organically grown fruit and vegetables ensured we always had magical dishes on our table.

We also had no electricity when I was growing up, so we had to find ways to preserve our food and everything had to be made fresh. For example, we would bake bread on a daily basis and make our own yoghurt. Any extra food was shared with our neighbours and they would often give us something food-related in return, such as thyme-infused honey.

In Greek culture, cooking is a family affair (kitchens must get very crowded!). How does each person get involved?

I always smile with great joy when I think of a crowded busy kitchen – organised chaos, I call it. Greeks pretty much run their lives in this way and I love it.

There is always someone who is assigned with the leadership role, to ensure each of us has a particular task to complete [so] all dishes are finished on time. There is an unwritten general rule: The kitchen is the domain of the woman and the men are responsible for all the cooking to be performed outdoors on the barbecue and the souvla.

What have you learnt about food from your family?

I have learnt that food is not just about sustenance but something far more important and deep. Food is a ritual that nourishes the heart and soul, and connects us back to other people, nature and ourselves. It’s a way to bring joy and love into our lives and this is why, in any recipe, the most important ingredient is love.

In your opinion, what makes Greek cuisine so special?

Greek cuisine is not pretentious and doesn’t use complicated techniques. It has a focus on eco, not ego. It’s simple and focuses on a few ingredients. The philosophy is to keep it fresh, simple and to let the ingredients speak for themselves.

In Greek cookery, we do not measure, but, rather, as in Ancient times, we use our senses to guide us; smell, touch/feel, hearing and taste (which is the key measurement indicator).

Tell us your opinion on organic produce.

I’m passionate about organic produce because it’s grown using methods that are sustainable and respectful to the animals and the environment. This is the way the Ancient Greeks grew their ingredients to ensure no negative imprint was left on the ingredient. That way, when the ingredient was consumed, the negative imprint of energy was not consumed and would not cause people illnesses or an imbalance to their humour.

What’s your favourite Greek dessert?

I have many. My favourite is the recipe I will be publishing in my second book, which is cherry loukoumades (Greek doughnuts or honey token as they were called in Ancient Greece) with masticha chocolate sauce.

Masticha is a type of gum that grows in only one place in the world: the island of Chios. The word masticate (ie to chew) is derived from this word. Masticha has healing properties and cures stomach ailments and digestive problems, among other things.

Is there one ingredient you always have on hand?

It would have to be fresh filo pastry. When I have leftovers, I always turn them into a pie the next day.

What’s your food philosophy?

The secret to any successful meal or dish is simplicity. Fresh, organic ingredients wherever possible, love and intuition. Above all, do not be afraid to have a go and make it a fun and joyous experience.

One thing you’ve expressed in the past is that Greeks definitely don’t view cooking as a chore. How would you suggest others learn to appreciate home cooking?

Home cooking should always be done when one is in a positive frame of mind. Cooking should not be viewed as a chore, but, rather, an adventure of discovery and love. Cook only when you feel happy and make sure the environment reflects this. Play some Greek music in the background and start with a shot of ouzo, a glass of wine or other beverage of your choice. There’s no need to cook alone – invite friends and make it a regular get-together where the focus is on food and travel stories.

For those who’ve never visited Greece, briefly explain the food culture.

They’re obsessed with food in Greece and only the best will do. It is not unusual to see dishes returned to a kitchen in a restaurant if it hasn’t being prepared to a customer’s expectations and satisfaction. Everyone who cooks in Greece believes they are an expert, and I love and miss the debates and stories around food I regularly have when I’m there.

Often, when I greet a stranger in Greece on the street and start up a conversation, the discussion will inevitably conclude with some story around food. It’s in our blood and it’s a way of life. Food and life cannot be separated in Greek culture. As the Greek saying goes, 'We do not eat to live, we live to eat".

What’s your favourite dish to prepare...

... when you want to impress a friend?

My ouzo-spiked oysters, mastic-infused kataifi prawns and cherry loukoumades with masticha chocolate sauce. Whenever I cook for friends, they always request the oysters and the prawn dish.

... when you’re craving comfort food?

Pastitso (layers of pasta and a tomato beef mince sauce topped with Greek cheeses and béchamel sauce).

... when you want an easy weeknight dinner?

A Greek pie. For example, my Myconean caramalised onion and feta pie, or seafood dish such as fish plaki. Seafood dishes connect me back to my laidback, relaxed Greek-island roots.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with your fellow foodies?

I found love for myself, people and the environment through cooking. Cooking has also spiritually connected me back to myself and nature, and I hope others can find the same connection and love.