• Traditionally cooked in an earthenware pot, gigantes (bean soup) was a favourite dish in the Mittas family. (Alan Benson)Source: Alan Benson
Greek-Australian Ella Mittas chose cheffing to stay close to her family and heritage.
By
Ella Mittas

1 Sep 2021 - 10:25 AM  UPDATED 1 Sep 2021 - 12:09 PM

My dad's side of the family is Greek. They all live next door to each other on one street: Grantham Street in West Brunswick in Melbourne, Victoria. Papou cut holes through the backyard fences so everyone can get together easily.

But growing up as a third-generation Australian, I did not feel completely Greek. At family dinners, I could never understand enough of the language. I was allocated to a Greek class at primary school because of my last name, but had the same problem.

I thought if I tried hard enough, I could become more Greek and feel more full. So I dedicated my high-school art folios to Greek culture; I photographed banquets laid over plastic sheets to protect lace tablecloths; I made etchings of my great-grandmother with her lined face and a black headscarf. I documented endlessly. I also had pictures of my family standing in the town square of their home village, just before they migrated. At our family home, we had an Australian flag in the shed, pinned in place by the prongs of a spit skewer. 

"Food has been an even more powerful connection to my Greek heritage. Our family has always organised itself around eating. Even the memories I have of my great-grandmother are through the lens of food."

However, food has been an even more powerful connection to my Greek heritage. Our family has always organised itself around eating. Even the memories I have of my great-grandmother are through the lens of food. As kids, we thought she was a witch because she ate stinging nettles that would leave us covered in a rash. Then, when she got older, her memory started to lapse. She would repeatedly ask my yiayia when the queen was coming and what yiayia was planning on cooking her for dinner. Yiayia answered: "fakes": lentil soup. My great-grandmother agreed that would be fine. It was a family joke because it's the plainest soup in the world — we ate it with a plate of Kalamata olives to give it some flavour.

I loved the weekly dinners we all had at my grandparents' place. They inspired me to cook myself. My career in food started when I began taking notes next to yiayia as she cooked — she never measured anything. She cooked by sight and feel.

Giant baked beans

My favourite Greek dishes from childhood all had the same texture: veggies cooked for hours, laden with olive oil, scooped up with bread and eaten with feta. I know it's passé to cook vegetables until they've got no resistance left, but I think that's where that comforting feeling comes from. 

The better I got at cooking Greek food, the more interested my father became in learning too — he saw it as competition. He began asking yiayia for her recipes, but didn't believe she was honest when she gave them to him.

He thought we had a conspiracy against him because his results were never as good as mine; his lemony potatoes were always too dry.

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Nick Makrides grew up in a food-driven Greek household. Inspired by his family's love for cooking, he became a baking enthusiast.

At the dinner table, yiayia whispered to me that dad never liked Greek food when he was a kid. She told me he used to put tomato sauce on everything to drown out the flavour. In contrast, she said that I used to eat everything and that I used to eat olives even as a toddler. 

I've ultimately used my career in food as a homage to my family. My cooking helps me to share my culture.

Gigantes with tomato and dill is the first dish my yiayia taught me. She cooks these beans in a big metal tepsi, a rounded oven pan. I swear this gives her food some sort of magic. You don't have to cook them until they become total mush. Instead, undercook the beans slightly when you're boiling them to ensure they don't overcook in the oven.

Love the story? Follow the author at ellamittas.com and on Instagram: @elamelbournePhotographs by Ella Mittas.


Gigantes with tomato and dill 

The most crucial element in this recipe is patience. The longer you cook the onions and capsicums before adding the tomato, the sweeter the dish. 

Serves 4 

Ingredients

  • 500 g dried lima beans or butter beans, soaked overnight
  • ½ bunch of fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • 2 red onions, sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 2 capsicums, sliced
  • 8 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste 
  • 800 g cans diced tomato
  • ½ bunch dill, chopped
  • 2 lemons, juiced 
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Method

  1. Make sure the beans are soaked in water overnight; this will help them to cook evenly. 
  2. In a 24cm/8-litre saucepan, cover the soaked beans with plenty of water. Salt the water as if cooking pasta and add 2 tbsp of olive oil and a few sprigs of thyme. The oil enhances the texture.
  3. Bring the beans to a boil then turn down to a simmer; they should take around 25 minutes to cook all the way through. I cool my beans in the cooking liquid. This prevents them from drying out.
  4. Preheat the oven to 180˚C.
  5. While the beans are cooking, start the base for the sauce. Sauté the onions in 3 tbsps of olive oil in a 24cm/4-litre saucepan until over medium heat until golden (around 15-20 mins) then add the garlic. 
  6. Sauté the garlic for 30 seconds or until aromatic then add the capsicums. 
  7. Cook the capsicum on a low-medium heat until they've lost most of their liquid and are caramelised (around 20 minutes). 
  8. Add the tomato paste, fry off for around a minute, then add the tomatoes. 
  9. Simmer for 20 minutes or until it has come together. 
  10. Drain the beans, leaving a little of their cooking liquid to one side in case you need it during the baking process.
  11. Mix the sauce through the beans, add a few sprigs of thyme and pour into a 24cmx18cmx10cm baking dish.
  12. Bake at 180˚C until the beans have coloured slightly on top. This should take around 20-30 minutes. 
  13. Once lightly cooled, stir through fresh dill, lemon, salt, pepper and remaining olive oil and serve. 

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