--- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.00pm or stream it free on SBS On Demand. ---
Tomatoes, cucumbers, olive, feta: In Greece, these four ingredients — at least when combined as a salad — become horiatiki salata, Greek for "the village salad". In Australia, this four-piece might answer to the name "Greek salad", which is loved for its easy-going blend of sweet, acid, crunch and salt.
Greek salads can be found at delis, pubs, cafes, airline lounges and restaurants everywhere. Sometimes, they're unembellished and dressed simply with olive oil. Sometimes cooks put their spin on it. Pete Manifis, a veteran Perth chef and son of a Greek fisherman, believes the grassy flavour of parsley makes it more than just a garnish. He also thinks kalamata olives are non-negotiable. Meanwhile, Adam Liaw of the eponymous The Cook Up With Adam Liaw program on SBS Food, turns horiatiki's key ingredients into a bright salsa that plays nicely with roast lamb shoulder and tortillas. Regardless of the shape the dish takes, the Greek salad is an ideal gateway dish to the wide world of Greco vegetables.
While land meat and seafood are synonymous with Greek food in Australia, vegetables have long been the cuisine's cornerstone. Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Socrates were early adopters of veganism, believing vegetables, fruits and grains fortified both mind and body. The Greek Orthodox Church also calls on followers to regularly abstain from meat and dairy: another factor behind the country's vast canon of vegetarian dishes. But virtue aside, eating your greens was also practical.
Kathy Tsaples, cookbook author and the owner of Sweet Greek, a stall that sells Greek sweets and take-home meals at Melbourne's Prahran Markets, says, "Once upon a time, survival meant land-to-mouth.
"If you lived in the village, you basically cooked what you could grow, and pulses and vegetables were it. The animal was something that you sacrificed on special occasions."
While horiatiki is part of Tsaples' repertoire, it's just one of many seasonal and regional vegetable dishes served at Sweet Greek. Reflecting her family's northern Greek roots, Tsaples makes tart bases out of polenta (kalamboki in Greek, and a popular ingredient in the north where corn is grown extensively) and serves lesser-known salads, including braised artichokes with peas and broad beans, plus her mother's mavromatika salata with black-eyed beans and sauteed spinach.
"If you lived in the village, you basically cooked what you could grow, and pulses and vegetables were it."
Family recipes are equally important to Simon Gloftis, owner of Hellenika, a Greek restaurant and bar in Brisbane. While the restaurant has plenty to entice seafood and meat eaters, its vegetable offering is no afterthought: in addition to a dozen core menu items, at least four veg specials are offered each day. While this approach chimes with the current interest in plant-based dining, Gloftis says he's simply doing what he knows.
"It's just the food that I grew up with," he says. "We're not setting out to be a vegetarian restaurant, it just happens that our menu has dishes that don't contain meat. For some reason, everyone seems to think that Greek people eat lamb three times a day."
As for his favourite? Gloftis singles out arakas, slow-cooked peas and potatoes, and a classic example of ladera cooking in which vegetables are slowly simmered in olive oil and tomato that reduces to a rich sauce. Here are 10 more veg-centric dishes from the Greek cooking history. Some will be familiar. Some might be new. All are worth exploring.
From Japanese miso-grilled eggplant to Afghani banjaan borani, cooked eggplant is ubiquitous around the world. This Greek preparation sees the versatile vegetable transformed into a smoky, baba ganoush-style dip that makes a great appetiser.
Maroulosalata, a lettuce salad, is usually made with Cos or Romaine lettuce. According to Tsaples, the texture of Iceberg lettuce doesn't lend itself to this dish. Maroulosalata, despite being a classic Greek salad, isn't something she sells at Sweet Greek, since it's a salad that needs to be assembled, dressed and eaten immediately.
Although horta vrasta has come to mean boiled leafy greens, the dish was traditionally made using dandelion greens, wild chicory and other edible weeds gathered in the wild. After boiling, the greens are dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, then seasoned with salt and pepper.
Horta literally means greens and, in Greece, everyone eats wild greens which appear in the fields after the first autumn rains. They also eat farmed summer horta called vlita in Greek, which is sold here in Asian supermarkets under the name amaranth or Chinese greens – they’re easy to spot as they have a deep red flush on the leaf.
This is a side dish.
Greek coleslaw is an apt descriptor for this colourful tangle of shredded cabbage — aesthetically-minded chefs may combine red and white cabbages — spice and acid. Although coleslaw is synonymous with summer, cabbage, like many brassicas, tastes best in winter.
Meaning "stuffed" in Greek, this popular summer dish features vegetables such as tomatoes and green peppers filled with a mixture of rice and vegetables, before they're baked in the oven. Also known as gemista.
A classic village dish from Northern Greece, this hearty vegan stew of spinach, tomatoes and potatoes makes a compelling argument that plant-based eating doesn’t want for flavour.
A Greek country dish consisting of rice and spinach cooked together.
This pilaf-style dish can be served hot or cold and is often enriched with dill and feta.
Perhaps the best-known example of ladera-style cooking, fasolakia features green beans braised with olive oil and tomato until the beans surrender and are covered with a deeply flavoured sauce.
A dish synonymous with Santorini and the Aegean Islands. This meze and main course features fritters of tomato, feta cheese and grated zucchini: an ideal vehicle to show off the flavour of the local Santorini tomato.
A specialty of Santorini, domatokeftedes are traditionally made with the island’s native tomato, which requires no watering and is small, sweet and incredibly flavourful from the volcanic soil. We’ve substituted roma tomatoes. These fritters can be served as part of a mezze platter – they are delicious dipped into tzatziki.
Also known as tsigarelli. An Italian-inspired dish from the Ionian Islands (formerly part of the Venetian empire) consisting of greens stewed with tomatoes, herbs and spices. The greens are a mix of wild plants as well as onion, celery, leek and spinach.
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Lead image of zucchinis stuffed with kopanisti cheese by Chris Chen for Feast Magazine.
This Australian spin on the classic Greek filo pie swaps spinach for native warrigal greens and is seasoned with saltbush and spearmint.
To keep the chips extra crisp, remember to pat the potato dry with paper towel prior to baking. Simple and quick to prepare, you’ll never revert to fried again!