“For me, food is an expression of love,” says Kathy Tsaples. Given the popularity of her Melbourne business Sweet Greek, it’s fair to say she’s been doing a very good job of spreading the love.
Regulars at Melbourne’s Prahran Market know to make a beeline to Sweet Greek to snap up vibrant seasonal salads, pastries and pita, dips and biscuits and of course, her famous gluten-free cakes.
What they might not know is that when Tsaples started the business eight years ago, it was a leap into the unknown, a decision prompted by a life-threatening cancer diagnosis.
“While I've always been passionate about cooking, I never really worked in the food industry until I started Sweet Greek. And that was born out of the fact that I was diagnosed with cancer and had quite a big battle on my hands. I was advanced stage three, so it was not looking good. And it was that fear that I had that, well, what legacy was I going to leave behind to my boys if something does happen? So that was where I started documenting things, recipes, stories, journeys, particularly of my parents and relatives.”
The notes she made during her chemotherapy sessions would eventually become her first cookbook, about a year after she started Sweet Greek.
“My cancer journey became instrumental in me deciding to change my life, deciding that now's the time to pursue my dream. I'd always wanted it, but I never had the courage and the determination to do it. And even though at that point I was 52 years of age, I decided to set up a new business. It was gutsy stuff to do, and scary. But it was something that I felt so strongly about,” she says.
"It was that fear that I had that, well, what legacy was I going to leave behind to my boys if something does happen? So that was where I started documenting things, recipes, stories, journeys, particularly of my parents and relatives.”
Tsaples had loved cooking all her life, learning to cook with her Greek-born mother. And when Sweet Greek came to life, her version of a recipe she’d learned from her mother was at the heart of the new business: a gluten-free orange cake.
“One of the things that I truly loved was really nice orange cake that I used to bake with Mum,” she says. “I always loved it and looked forward baking it, and it was just wonderful. So, what better cake would I start with than the one that I was very passionate about that I absolutely loved eating myself? So that was the way it started.
“And then, gradually, I thought to myself, ‘Well, hang on, if I'm making this with oranges, why can't I make it with lemons and blueberries and raspberries?’”
Sweet Greek is a happy hunting ground for those looking for gluten-free food. Many of the salads and bakes and other food the shop sells are naturally gluten-free too.
“I'd never really thought about gluten free in my life, because I never had that problem … but my customers were coming in and asking me, ‘What can I have?’ And I used to automatically turn around and say, ‘Oh, you can have gigantes, and you can have yemista [get Tsaples’ recipe here], and you can have the green bean casserole, and you can have the polenta tarts … It dawned on me that, hey, hang on a minute, so much of what we cook is gluten-free. We [Greeks] eat with fresh produce, salads, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, lots of legumes, fish ... That's what Greek cuisine is. That's what our food is.”
The polenta tart – one of the best-sellers in the shop, and which Tsaples shares in SBS Food’s new show, Loving Gluten Free – is another recipe with family heritage.
Her mother called the dish patsara, she explains, while others in Greece call it paspalo.
“Mum had forgotten about it when she came to Australia, totally forgotten about it. And when I was getting married, Mum wanted her elder sister, who she hadn't seen in 30-plus years, to come to Australia to the wedding, which she did. And so, they sat there and talked and cooked together and talked and cooked. And one day my auntie says to her - my Mum's name was Aristea - ‘Aristea,’ she said, ‘one thing I don't understand, I've seen you make lots of spanakopitas, lots of tiropitas, lots of dishes that we're familiar with. But one thing you haven't made is the patsara.’
“And then my mother looked at her, shocked, and she said, ‘Oh, all these years I have forgotten this.’ So, she said, ‘You'll have to show me again’. So her sister, she was in her 70s at that point, showed her how to make it. She made it in a very traditional way, what she was used to in the village. And then Mum modified it a little bit, and I modified it a little bit more to have what we have here today. And it's just such a big seller and a real winner. It's a wonderful dish.”
It’s also a great dish for those new to cooking, she tells us.
“It is so easy to make it, and it's foolproof. Even if you get the mixture of the polenta not quite right, even if you make it more wet than what the recipe says, it doesn't matter. Just use your hands, fold it into the tin, and then put your filling in.” [Get Kethy's polenta tart recipe here]
In Loving Gluten Free, Tsaples tells host Helen Tzouganatos, when she visits Sweet Greek, “I love sharing all these things with everybody”. And it’s clear, when SBS Food chats with Tsaples, that sharing food is a huge part of her life, and her Greek-Australian identity.
“For me, food is an expression of love, and it's a journey. And it starts with thinking about, ‘Okay, what am I going to cook for my family? Or what am I going to cook for my friends?’ And it's all born from love. So, there's the journey of planning the meal, shopping for ingredients, cooking the actual dish and serving it. And that's my expression of love, because that's one way that I can show my love for my family and friends.”
People think gluten-free pastry is going to be hard work but Kathy Tsaples' recipe is ready in a flash and requires just a handful of ingredients to be mixed together in a bowl.