When I was a kid, my family celebrated Easter the way that many Australian families do: a chocolate egg hunt through the backyard, a big lunch with extended family, an argument over which sibling collected the most eggs. But every so often, my parents would gather up my siblings and I and take us from Perth to Melbourne, to celebrate Easter with Dad’s side of the family.
Dad’s family are Greek Cypriot - the older generation was part of the big wave of European migrants in the 1950s. They taught us how to say Christos Anesti, showed us that there was an alternative to the chocolate bunnies we’d become accustomed to, and fed us until we were close to bursting.
I live in Victoria now, so I get to celebrate Greek Easter every year (Orthodox Easter often falls on different days, and this year it is the weekend following). There’s food, and family, and - some would argue, most importantly - there is a competition like no other. It requires skill, tact and patience; and in my family, it is taken very, very seriously.
The tournament doesn’t feature chocolate eggs, but rather, bright red hard-boiled eggs and a house full of rather competitive family members. Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but less… nope, actually, that’s about the gist of it.
Hatching a plan
The only way to really explain the egg competition is to tell you how it happens in my family.
A few dozen regular supermarket-bought chicken eggs - one for each person attending Easter dinner - are boiled and dyed well in advance by a Yia Yia or a Thia. Each egg must be hard-boiled for the exact same amount of time and then dipped into a deep red dye - which symbolises resurrection, for strict Orthodox families.
On the night of Easter, a bowl containing the eggs is passed around, and each competitor selects an egg (you may or may not choose to name it, bonus points if it is named something like ‘Barry’). Then, the game begins.
Someone draws up a schedule of rounds, and each person faces off against a competitor. The aim of the game is to crack your eggs against each other - and if the shell of your egg breaks, you’re out. Each person will develop their own technique: big side or small side? A light tap or go in for the kill?
A cracking prize
It gets dramatic, and someone usually swears loudly or throws their egg on the ground in defiance. Younger cousins compete against the older members of the family, partners and friends stare on in awe as an entire family yells about hard-boiled eggs.
To win, your egg must stay completely intact; and several family members are likely to examine it for tiny cracks or rivets if you claim success. Competitors are whittled down, eggshell gathers on the floor, and then: a winner is crowned.
In my family, the reigning champion doesn’t just receive the feel-good title of winner for that calendar year. They are also awarded the egg competition trophy, with each winner’s name engraved on the side, inscribed with the title: Egg Breaking Champion of the Universe. No biggie.
What do you mean, you don’t eat lamb?
The egg competition is a vital part of Easter for most Greeks, second only to the feast that is put together for lunch or dinner. The menu is different at our celebrations each year depending on who is in town, and who has time to cook.
A plate of koulourakia are always floating around; Easter biscuits that are so delicious and buttery that you can’t eat more than one or two at a time.
For dinner, there is always ravioles - a Cypriot version of ravioli prepared exclusively by my Thia using a pasta roller that she’s had for more than five decades.
Keftedes is usually on the agenda, and either a roast lamb or chicken will be on the menu. Yia Yia makes pastitsio, a type of Greek lasagne with a few twists and a whole lotta bechamel. Some veges and salad slathered with olive oil will round out plates. Sometimes there might even be some dolmades or spanakopita.
No matter what is on the menu, one thing is guaranteed at Easter dinner: at some point, we will all be hustled to the table by the matriarchs of the family - ela, ela (come, come) - and have a feast.
Cracked egg image by Jessica Rabbit via Flickr.
I used to make these often, especially when George (Calombaris) was little. They’re really nice served simply with a rice pilaf, chips and salad, or bottom of the salad oils and vinegar, and George used to love the leftovers the next day wrapped in crusty bread. Take care that you don’t fry the keftedes too hard – gentle is the way to go.
The Greek answer to lasagne, variations of this dish are made throughout the Mediterranean. It has three key layers: the meat filling, the pasta and the béchamel sauce on top.
This traditional Cypriot recipe for Easter bread involves two hours of preparation, but you can lighten the workload by asking friends or family to help. There’s enough for 50 pieces – more than enough to go around!
These will keep for up to 10 days, so they're great to make ahead.
This braided, brioche-like bread can be served with butter, or melted chocolate as a dipping sauce. It is common for this to be given as a gift from children to their godparents.