May 18, 2012 in Interview
One of my favorite things in life is exploring the traditional foods of other cultures. While I haven’t had much exposure to certain cuisines from places I’ve never visited like West Africa and Eastern Europe, for instance, I have had a decent amount of exposure to Greek food, probably because it very closely resembles Egyptian food, which I grew up eating. If you’ve never had Greek food, you’re seriously missing out. Characterized by its hearty stews, delicious roasts, aromatic bakes, and fluffy delicate pastries, Greek food can really never disappoint (unless you seriously screw up a recipe … but let’s be optimistic here, haha). I am a huge proponent of traditional foods, so I get seriously excited whenever I meet someone either in real life or online who has the same appreciation for real food made with traditional cooking methods as I do. Let me tell you the serendipitous story that led me to Irini Savva, the lovely cook of Greek-Cypriot origin, whom I have interviewed for this post …
On my about page, I mention that I co-author another blog focused on traditional Middle Eastern cuisine — yes, MidEATS is the one! My friend and co-author of MidEATS, Brenda, moved to the United Arab Emirates a little over a year ago. Her move there introduced us to a lovely and supportive group of food bloggers in the UAE, who collectively go by the name ‘Fooderati Arabia’. Through Fooderati’s Facebook Page (and accompanying group), I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of exceptionally talented cosmopolitan food bloggers, each with her/his own culinary focus and creative palate. If you’ve been following my posts for quite some time, you must have noticed that I have a strong appreciation for anyone who is seeking health through nutrition, or is particularly fond of the locavore movement.
When Irini started sharing posts about Superfoods and Cancer and Summer Vegetable Salad with Chia Seeds (yep, the awesome nutrient-packed seeds have found their way to the UAE!), as well as delicious traditional recipes such as Comforting Mediterranean Fish Pie, she caught my attention and I just had to learn more! And even though I have reduced my intake of most glutenous grains for some time now, I still grow weak in the knees when I smell homemade flaky phyllo bites filled with a savory concoction of caramelized red onions and cooked spinach and parsley, kept together by delicious halloumi or feta cheese and eggs, and wrapped in a buttery flaky roll … yes, otherwise known as spanakopita; Irini’s version looks especially tantalizing! One more recipe from her blog I’d like to share before jumping right into the interview: of course, it has to be dessert: French Chocolate Beet Cake. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “why didn’t I think of that combination before!?”
An Interview with Food Blogger and Greek-Cypriot Tradtional Cook Irini Savva
1. I love Greek food! What’s a typical meal like in your house?
We eat mainly a whole food diet due to my husband’s food allergies, so I prepare a lot of foods from scratch. Recently we found out that he has a soy allergy as well. As you already know, soy is in everything these days, so we’ve been adapting our meals again. Generally, I’d say a typical everyday meal in my home would be some kind of grilled or baked meat or fish with some kind of potato side dish and a fresh salad. Greeks love their salads and a meal is never complete without one! They also love potatoes and my husband is especially fond of them, so we often serve potatoes. I also believe in eating meat-free meals at least once a week. When I was growing up, my mother would cook vegetarian food every Monday and I still do that today. These days we also have the Meat-Free Monday movement which I think is great way to encourage people to eat a bigger variety of vegetarian food.
2. Cooking is not hard, but it’s more time-consuming than a microwavable dinner – that’s for sure. When and why did you decide to cook more meals at home?
My parents are Greek Cypriots who moved to South Africa when they were young. The only way they could eat the foods they loved was to cook it themselves so home cooked meals were very important in our home. We ate home cooked food every day and eating out was considered a treat. I don’t ever recall specifically deciding to cook more meals at home, it’s just how it always was. As I grew older, I realized that I craved home cooked food naturally and if I did eat out a lot, I got bored of it quickly.
3. Traditional food preparation is often the most healthy because it has been passed down for many generations (and perfected over the years). What are some examples of traditional food preparation in Greek culture?
The most popular traditional food preparations are grills (souvla - barbeque, souvlakia - kebabs with raw vegetables in a pita bread), bakes (pastitsio – a kind of Greek lasagna, moussaka – layered vegetable and meat bake with béchamel topping), roasts (particularly lamb) and stews (we call them yachni – a tomato based stew with meat and seasonal vegetables or just vegetarian). We also prepare a lot of legumes and seasonal vegetable dishes which are an important part of Greek and Mediterranean cuisine.
4. These days, it’s difficult to know where your food comes from, unless you value shopping at a local farmers’ market and meeting your farmers in person. Why (or why not) do you care to know where your food comes from?
This is particularly of interest to me because I used to work in the chemical and food additives industry for 10 years before moving to Cyprus. It was an interesting experience as I had never considered what goes into processed food, and other manufactured products before. Over the years, I learned to identify ingredients on labels and choose my food more carefully and so I became more interested in fresh, organic and sustainably sourced foods.
5. Speaking of fresh food, where do you find fresh food in the UAE, where you currently reside? How easy or difficult is it to find the kind of food you’re looking for, as compared to other places you’ve lived like South Africa and Cyprus?
I currently reside in Dubai. Initially I found it difficult to find the kind of local fresh foods that I was used to enjoying, as most foods in this region of the world are imported. With time, I found out about the weekly farmers markets held during the cooler months of the year, so I support them as much as I can. During the hot summer period, local produce is very limited and I have to get my produce from supermarkets. I look for meat that is either organic, free-range or grass-fed – whatever I can get as there isn’t always a consistent supply. Unfortunately, it’s all imported as the United Arab Emirates does not have local organic meat and poultry. There has been some media attention on local organic produce in the UAE lately so I’m hoping this will change in the future. There are a lot of sustainable fish options here and I use the EWS-WWF recommendations on buying local sustainable fish.
6. I noticed that you celebrate Orthodox Easter, which means that your family tradition is probably Orthodox, like me! (I’m not quite sure what your fasting schedule is like throughout the year), but what are your favorite meals to make during fasts?
Yes, I am Greek Orthodox. I’m not particularly strict when it comes to fasting during religious holidays and prefer to eat meat-free meals on a regular basis instead. At the moment, I’m 7 months pregnant so I did not fast this year for Lent. Greek cuisine has a lot of vegan and vegetarian foods since the older generations did not eat meat as often as they do these days. My favorite meat-free meals are fages – lentil and rice pilaf, louvi – black-eyed beans cooked with greens, roasted or baked vegetables, and colorful fresh salads. I also love to eat ‘mezze’ (small plates / tapas) type of foods; it’s such a great way to get a variety of vegetables and legumes into my diet that way. Usually during fasting, there are several vegetable dishes served at one meal, so you never go hungry!
7. Comfort food – do you see it as a body’s need, or an unhealthy habit? What are the most irresistible comfort foods in your opinion?
It depends on the comfort food and how it has been prepared. The kind of comfort food I grew up on and still enjoy today are homemade curries (South Africa has a large Indian community, hence curries are very popular – even in a Greek home!), baked pasta dishes like the pastitsio I mentioned above, and roasts. Even our burgers were homemade! I believe it’s healthier to prepare your favorite comfort foods at home rather than buy them ready-made. I’ve always had a weakness for dairy products but since I’ve discovered that dairy doesn’t agree with me anymore, I eat very little these days (thank goodness for Pacari dairy-free chocolate!). I don’t believe in depriving myself of any foods, and prefer to eat everything in moderation.
8. What is your favorite food group, and what are some of your favorite (easy) recipes using these ingredients?
I love all food so it’s difficult for me to choose! I basically eat a variety of foods from various food groups. I choose my recipes based on what fruit and vegetables are in season or what I’m in the mood for that day. My favorite easy recipe is a roast chicken with vegetables. You can’t go wrong with a roast and I love that you can cook everything in one dish (which is also more environmentally-friendly!).
9. Seafood is delicious and packed with healthy fats too. I love your recipe for whole roasted sea bass in sweet tomato & onion sauce. What tips do you have for picking good quality, healthy seafood, and what are some easy ways to cook it? Would you know about sustainably fished seafood and where to get it from?
I love seafood too and this recipe for sea bass is truly a typical Mediterranean dish. I also like to bake whole fish with lemon, garlic and fresh herbs – similar to the one I prepared for the EWS-WWF Sustainable Fish Recipes cookbook. Some of the best seafood I’ve tasted has been prepared with the fewest, simplest and freshest ingredients, so I generally stick to this method. Luckily, in Dubai, fresh fish is fairly easy to find in most supermarkets. I tend to choose my fish based on the clarity of its eyes; but more importantly, if it smells fishy, it’s not fresh! Like I mentioned earlier, I use the EWS-WWF sustainable fish guide for buying sustainable fish in the UAE since I’m not familiar with all the local fish here.
Who is Irini Savva?
Irini Savva is a South African Cypriot currently living in Dubai – yep, talk about cosmopolitan! She writes and blogs about yummy traditional recipes, sometimes with her own tweaks, and always with a healthy twist. Irini prepares her recipes using seasonal, organic and sustainable produce that she purchases from her local farmer’s market in the cooler months or her local supermarket when it’s too hot for a vegetable to survive outdoors without getting cooked.
Many of her recipes are inspired by Mediterranean cuisine and simple traditional cooking methods that she has learned by observing her family cook. She believes anyone can transform an everyday meal into a healthy one with a few fresh ingredients and a positive attitude. Check out her blog and make sure to follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for everyday cooking inspiration.
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