Eating in Greece — or “when in Rome”

I wrote recently about ‘flexitarianism’ suggesting that this could be viewed as an approach to eating and nourishment that adhered the concept of ahimsa (non-violence) by being mindful of what was appropriate in any particular situation, although not applying consistent food rules like vegetarianism and veganism.

Being away from home and in a different country naturally disrupts one’s diet (i.e. way of eating) in positive ways and in challenging ways. Plus there’s a certain obligation to fit in with local customs.  Fortunately I’ve always loved Greek food and like to cook that way at home, so I was expecting to delight in eating while I’m away. Never let anyone tell you Greek food is boring or oily. I’d say this is true only of the tourist tavernas that are aimed solely at foreign visitors. You can spot these by their multi-lingual menus that have illustrations of the food on them. The pictures usually look as unappetising as the food tastes. Let that be a warning!

Instead ‘real’ Greek food seems to me to be unpretentious, using local, fresh ingredients, simply cooked or prepared. In my reckoning that’s good food for a (non-strictly eating) yogini!

greek sprats

Our current landlady’s husband brought us fish the other night. He’d caught it that day, cooked it for us, and made up a salad also using produce from his garden. I even got a Greek lesson thrown in as he taught me the name of the fish (γούπες = sprats) and the wild asparagus (σπαράγγι) he’d picked in the hills. Plus a quick cooking lesson! Such hospitality I find in Greece always overwhelms me. Especially in these times of economic uncertainty. What I loved even more was that he popped back later on since he’d forgotten to tell us to put the bones out for the cats when we were finished. So we all ate well that night!

In tavernas it’s been a little more difficult to apply my flexitarian principle of avoiding meat where I reasonably can, since menus are very limited out of season in the countryside (though in tourist centres in summer veggie dishes abound). Truth be told, since I’m not actually vegetarian, there’s only so much Greek salad I can reasonably tackle — and I do really love it! So it being spring time and since I’ve been a while in the mountains, I admit I have consumed an amount of baby animal. But I reckon this meat is more organic and locally sourced than anything on the menu at my local eateries at home, so I choose to view this as good nourishment to myself and to the local economy.

horta I also love ‘greens’ (horta) which always gets me brownie points since many foreigners don’t like this (basically weeds that have been boiled for an hour and are then served lukewarm with lemon juice) — a slightly acquired taste perhaps, but really yummy once you’re accustomed to it. Much less weird than green smoothies IMHO! And I think I’m right in saying that since there isn’t really a word for ‘vegetarian’ in Greek, the most widely used term is ‘hortophagos’, i.e. eater of greens. But the concept only really pertains to tourists. [Greek readers, please tell me if I’ve got this wrong].  So given that we’re pretty much the only foreigners in the vicinity at the moment, I would have been very much against the norm if I’d vocalised vegetarian tendencies too emphatically. In fact I did send a dish back the other day, but only because it was a slightly more expensive touristy place for out-of-towners, and I was as polite as a I knew how to be in Greek (I ordered dolmades which I’d only ever experienced as stuffed with rice — but these were filled with lamb which I was told is normal for a main course dish, what I was thinking of was just a meze. In any case the waiter seemed happy to bring me a substitute, but was clearly baffled about why I didn’t want to eat what was surely a lovely dish).

tsai vounouAnd although I’ve drunk a lot of coffee here (I love Greek coffee served in tiny cups with muddy grounds in the bottom of the cup as well as the ubiquitous warm weather iced frappe) I’ve also consumed prodigious quantities of ‘mountain tea’, not tea at all but a mountain growing plant with yellow blossoms. When I’ve been with Greek friends we’ve picked it ourselves and dried it, but on my own I can’t confidently identify it and to me it looks a bit like phlomis which is I think poisonous! So I always take a supermarket packet home with me!

So all in I reckon I’m not doing too badly with my mindful flexitarian approach to eating. I’m keeping in line with local habits, I’m eating locally produced food, and I’m choosing less meaty options where they are reasonably available without causing too much cultural disconnect or awkwardness. As a foreigner, I think there’s a certain courtesy in fitting in; more specifically as a foreign archaeologist I always feel open to the smear of cultural imperialism (don’t get me started on the ‘Elgin’ marbles) and there is often a local sensitivity to ‘the old stuff’ that means I’d do well to fit in however I can.

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