By Sophia Yakumithis
“What did you eat today?” A question anyone with Greek heritage is well-versed in.
Everytime I call my yia yia — Greek for “grandmother”— on the phone, that’s the first thing she asks. Not, “How was your day?” or “What did you do today?” She gets straight to the point: “What did you eat today?”
My happiest memories are spending time in my yia yia’s kitchen. Every time I walk in the door, I am greeted by some sort of garlicky, tomatoey smell dominating the entire house. “Hall-o So-foula,” she yells from the kitchen, an apron tied around her small frame.
My sense of smell can usually pick out what she’s making upon instant contact, but I go into the kitchen anyways to scope it out. From spanakopita (spinach pie) to dolmades (grape leaves), something beautiful and delicious is concocted in that kitchen, with love, every Sunday.
While I wish I could sit here and tell you that the stereotypes are false, there is an undeniable truth behind the notion that cooking and eating are paramount to the experience of being Greek. Our food is deeply rooted in the celebration of fresh ingredients and resourcefulness, and in an age of “clean-eating,” spending eight dollars on a salad is laughable to us. Just ask any Greek and they’ll argue that we invented the salad.
But, I’m not going to waste my time preaching the gospel of Greek salads or gyros (they’re pronounced “yee-ros,” Bostonians); you can get that from Buzzfeed or from the hosts of Food Network shows who think they know what they’re talking about. I want to focus on the foods I grew up eating at family dinners, a lot of which resonate with other Greek-Americans.
Pastitsio is a staple dish lesser known to the non-Greek. Sometimes called “Greek lasagna,” pastitsio is prepared in layers of tubular pasta and ground meat combined with onions and crushed tomato, bound together by a light mixture of kasseri cheese and egg. The hearty interior is then topped with bechamel sauce, giving it a delicate, crusty, souffle-like top. Another kick is that pastitsio is seasoned with cinnamon and clove, adding subtle notes of sweetness to every bite.
Also made with ground meat is yemista, or stuffed vegetables. My yia yia prepares this dish by hollowing out eggplants, peppers and tomatoes, stuffing them with the meat and rice. The seasoning in this dish has a more pungent flavor, as garlic and tomato paste are the main binding agents. It’s seasoned with mint, parsley and oregano for freshness and is stewed in the oven for a few hours. Yemista is definitely not something my yia yia makes on a whim, considering this bad boy has to let flavors diffuse to achieve maximum flavor. Ah, the labor of love.
My hands down favorite “yia yia food,” though, is her braised eggplant stew with okra, potatoes and onions, drenched in garlic, olive oil and tomato sauce. Everytime she makes this dish I find myself hovering over the baking dish with a ladle, scooping out chunks of tomato and crystallized eggplant skin until the tomato-veggie ratio is completely off. If I had to choose my last meal on Earth, I would shamelessly look past the acid reflux and eat an entire pan.
So, next time you’re craving some generic gyro with fries, I hope you reconsider your options. I also hope you can understand why I’m counting the days until Thanksgiving break, when the answer to “what I ate today” will be one of my yia yia’s creations as opposed to some weird college student meal.