If you've seen Nia Varadalos’ hit movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you will know that to Greek people weddings are the biggest event in one’s life. From an outsider’s point of view our weddings might seem like a circus, with all their spectacle and pomp. I suppose they are quite theatrical now that I look back to that summer of 2005. In the days before the main event, there is much preparation. The bride’s house becomes a hub for all the pre-production goings-on. Luckily, I was present then, to my great delight. I was in my element completely. Event planning comes easily to me because I enjoy every aspect of the process. Thankfully, my Theia (Aunt) Fotoula and Theio (Uncle) Theodori rejoiced in my resourcefulness and allowed me a free rein over the household. Since they were busy working and planning the wedding, my help in cooking and hosting impromptu visits was much appreciated.
Lulls in the pre-wedding activities are much needed because much energy is expended on assembling bombonieres (small gifts for guests), accepting wedding gifts and cleaning the house – just to name a few of the activities I performed. One day, my cousin Natasa, the bride’s sister, introduced me to a movie that had just been released, Politiki Kouzina. She was certain that I would enjoy the film because it revolved around cooking and our history. The film tells the story of how a boy connects with his grandfather through food. The movie is set in Greece and Constantinople. The term politiki is given to anything that comes from the region, including the cuisine. At the beginning, the main character Fanis is a young boy living with his family in Constantinople in 1955. Fanis’ Pappou (grandfather, in Greek) runs a spice market where both Greeks and Turks shop for their cooking needs. Like many boys, Fanis is impressionable and the person who impacts him the most is his Pappou. Fanis spends most of his free time in the attic of the spice market. There is one scene that has stayed with me, and every time I prepare a particular dish it plays vividly in my mind. Fanis’ Pappou is showing him postcards that he has received from all over the world. Each postcard has a scent attached to it because his Pappou rubbed herbs or spices into it. Fanis’ Pappou tells him that spices and herbs are magical. Not only do they add flavour to dishes but they affect the people eating the food as well.
“Most people only put cumin in their ground meat dishes. This is good because cumin is very flavorful but it is a strong spice and it closes up the heart. To open the hearts of your dinner guests you must add a pinch of cinnamon.”
After viewing this inspiring movie, I created the menu for the next day.
At 2 p.m. the moment of truth arrived. The dishes were waiting patiently in the oven to be consumed by the hungry flock. The entire house was overcome by the exotic aromas of Politiki Kouzina: cumin, mint, oregano and cinnamon. Slowly, everyone began to trickle into the great room, which is the hub of every Greek house. Immediately, my relatives commented on the intoxicating scents seeping into every crevice of the fabric, wood and stone, like the pungent yet sweet fragrance of frankincense and myrrh pluming from the priest’s incense burner. On the menu, on this particular afternoon, was a crisp salad of tomatoes, cucumber, onions, green peppers and feta cheese (the classic Greek salad), a steaming pan of Tourlou (roasted vegetables) and a mountain of Keftedes. Natasa’s fiancee, Dimitri proclaimed that he never ate Tourlou because he detested the mushy texture of the vegetables. However, after inspecting the caramelized assortment of summer vegetables he caved in and sampled my dish. Little to my surprise, I had won over the Tourlou hater. After only a small forkful, Dimitri reloaded his plate with this flavorful and colorful medley two or three times. The Politikes Keftedes were a hit as well. Once again, Dimitri was the food critic for the afternoon. Before taking a bite of the meatball he held it up and smelt it. “Mmmmm?! Something smells different in these Keftedes,” he said, eyeing me suspiciously. I looked at him sheepishly and responded with a shrug of my shoulders, followed by a simple “Do you like it?” Without another word, Dimitri popped the meatball into his mouth and savored the flavors. “Mmmm!” was the last word I heard from the critic.
Ever since that fateful meal, I believed the words of Fanis’ Pappou: Cinnamon opens up the heart. And, indeed, as the lunch progressed my father and his brother began sharing childhood stories. Natasa even went on to confess that she believed that I had invoked our Giagia’s (grandmother) spirit because I resembled her so much with my jovial personality, voluptuous curves and killer cooking skills. I could not have received a more heart-warming compliment.
After watching Politiki Kouzina, I began more interested in my Asia Minor roots. Although some of the events in my family's history were heartbreaking to learn, I embraced the wonderful world of cooking from my father’s ancestral land. I could not get enough of the poetry and visuals created by the filmmaker.
Before leaving the town of Kozani, I bought a copy of the movie, only to be disappointed upon returning to Toronto that I could not screen it on my DVD player. Fortunately, Theia Fotoula had presented me with a copy of the bestselling cookbook Politiki Kouzina as a thank-you gift for all my hard work during Efi’s Big Fat Greek Wedding. Now, I possess a treasure that will be passed down to my children from the homeland. Ever since that invigorating summer of celebrating my cousin’s wedding and connecting with my roots, Tourlou and Keftedes will always have a special place in my heart.
2 lbs ground meat
2 cups bread crumbs
1 cup tomato sauce
1 large onion, diced
4 to 5 garlic cloves, diced
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp mint
1 tbsp oregano
1 tsp cinnamon
1. Combine all the ingredients until mixed well.
2. Grill or fry until the meatballs are cooked through.
1 large eggplant
3 red peppers
4 yellow potatoes
1 large red onion
1 tbsp minced garlic
2 large ripe tomatoes
1 cup tomato sauce
1 tbsp oregano
1 tbsp mint
1. Cut all the vegetables into slices of about 1/2 inch. You'll want to cut the eggplant and potatoes in half before slicing.
2. In a large roasting pan arrange all the vegetables. Coat with the tomato sauce and a generous amount of olive oil. Sprinkle with the seasonings and the minced garlic.
3. Mix all the ingredients together and place the pan, covered with tinfoil in a 450°F, preheated oven. Roast, covered for 30 minutes.
4. After 30 minutes, remove foil and continue roasting for another 30 minutes.
5. After 30 minutes, put the oven on broil for 15 minutes in order to caramelize the vegetables.
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