I’m just going to come out and say it. Coriander and I are not great mates. Hate it, always have. It’s a brutal almost vulgar flavour that seems to get thrown into dishes, including ones where it doesn’t really belong, managing to leave entire meals ruined in its wake. Or so I once thought.
Travel has since taught me that my relationship with coriander can transform into something unrecognisable once I am outside of Australia. In India, I love the stuff. It’s mild, subtle, expertly blended with other spices and is a flavour that I’ve really learned to enjoy.
In many ways, my dealings with coriander – where I’m able to lurch from loathing it to loving it after some air travel – is a good reminder for me about what I do and do not like about food. I like it when food is cooked in a traditional fashion, and prefer the way that ingredients are used in classic recipes, rather than trying to turn them into something they’re not. Coriander used subtly as a background flavour and to complement other herbs and spices in a traditional Indian curry? Good. Coriander used as the basis of a salad that features coriander and a bit more coriander? Terrible. Coriander used to make some sort of clever and fashionable ice-cream? Ridiculous.
For my money, you can forget about recipes that try to trick up a classic, or combine flavours that should never come within kitchen-bench space of each other. Whoever came up with chilli chocolate? Stop it. Stop it now. I don’t want to know about it, and don’t need to be confused when I’m eating. And as for foam on a meal... are you kidding me? The person who invented that had too much time on their hands. Seriously.
What I do love is a classic flavour combination – apple pie with cream; tomato and basil, that kind of thing. And the simpler, the better. The way it would be traditionally cooked in someone’s home or village back in the day is my idea of perfect. There are some tastes and traditional cuisines that shouldn’t be messed around with, because they’re flawless as they are. It’s something I get really defensive about, especially when it’s Greek food that’s on the table.
Both of my parents are Greek. My dad was born in Greece, and Mum was born here in Australia after my grandparents migrated, so she’s what I would call an Australian Greek – very traditional in one sense, but very Australian in another. She’s a great cook and because of that, Greek food had a massive influence on my childhood, and is still my favourite cuisine in the world.
When I was at school, Mum would sometimes pack me off with leftover keftedes (Greek meatballs) in my lunchbox. She’d mash them up, and then use it as a sandwich filling. It was delicious and I loved it, but it didn’t go down very well with the other kids in the playground. One day, a bunch of them told me it looked like I was eating a s**t sandwich, which I remember feeling really embarrassed about.
That afternoon, I went home and told Mum that from then on, I wanted nothing but peanut butter sandwiches to take to school for lunch, and that’s pretty much what I ate for the rest of my school life. Sad but true. You have to remember it was back in the day when Greek food – or Italian, or anything European for that matter – wasn’t as well known or as fashionable as it has since become in Australia.
So yes, we ate a lot of Greek food at home, sometimes with a few modifications, after Mum figured out one day that our favourite Greek recipes weren’t as healthy as they could be. She started tweaking a few things, learning how to make a dish less fatty but still full of flavour, which was clever considering we were eating this stuff every day.
When I was growing up, Mum and Dad owned and worked in takeaway shops. At different times, they owned a different store, in a different part of Sydney, everywhere from Manly to Circular Quay to Coogee. And they always made the same thing – hamburgers. Not the crappy things you get today, but real burgers with handmade meat patties, proper bread buns and only the best fresh produce – and no scrimping. We were a Greek family, making classic Aussie hamburgers, which was pretty funny at the time.
Together with my aunty and uncle, Mum and Dad worked incredibly hard running that business, getting up at 4am to peel and chop potatoes by hand to make a day’s supply of chips, and sometimes not getting home until after 9pm, depending on what time the shop shut. It was a very labour-intensive operation. My brothers and I never worked behind the counter, but we did spend a lot of time in those shops and I still have a soft spot for a great hamburger, although a childhood spent watching them being made has turned me into the world’s biggest burger critic.
I try not to eat them much these days though. I make no secret of the fact that I was a fat kid, and I’m still prone to putting on weight easily because I love food, so I have to work hard to keep myself in check. During the week, that means I stick mainly to clean, simple, freshly prepared food, with Sunday set aside as the one day when I let myself eat whatever I feel like.
Mary, my wife, is such an incredible cook, so we don’t eat out much either. She’s a complete perfectionist in the kitchen and nails a recipe after one or two goes. I love Greek food, and I can honestly say that I don’t love eating it anywhere more than at home when it is cooked by Mary. It’s that good. Because we don’t eat out much, when people ask me for restaurant recommendations in Sydney, I can never tell them, especially about new places. I don’t really ‘do’ restaurants. My friends hate it because when we do decide to venture out for a meal, I always want to go back to the same old places I’ve been going to for years, even if that’s just the little pasta joint down the road from my house, because I know it’s good and I won’t be disappointed. But I do change tack when I’m overseas. I am quite selective about the street food I’ll stick in my mouth, but I try to eat as much authentic food as I can when I’m in a different country by visiting the restaurants that the locals love.
It means that some of my best food memories were created overseas. Standouts include a beautifully simple chicken soup that I ate in Hong Kong; a fantastic okra and masala vegetable curry in India – and trust me, I’m nowhere near vegetarian, but that thing was incredible – and of course spanakopita, a Greek cheese and spinach pie that I’m more than slightly obsessed with. When I’m visiting Greece, I eat it every single day. I’ll buy a slice whenever I see one, and walk down the street eating it, even if I’m not hungry and I’ve already had two slices that day.
As much as I’m conscious of eating healthy food, I don’t mind having something with a fair bit of fat in it if I think it’s worth it. But it has to taste good, and has to be made with love for me to spend the calories. That was my philosophy when I visited France recently, too.
I ate for Australia on that trip, but it was impossible not to. It’s not just that the food is wonderful, it’s also the French way of life I find beautiful – popping to the bakery to buy a fresh baguette for breakfast every morning, and buying fresh produce before each evening meal.
It’s an approach to food and eating that’s very respectful. I wish we could all be a bit more like that here in Australia. I know a lot of Australians probably do already eat that way, but I mean as a whole, as a culture. Ditch the love of processed food in place of fresh. Perhaps in time it’ll happen, which would be wonderful. Well, just as long as it doesn’t involve too much coriander.