weird things in my kitchen

Unlike many expat types, I didn’t jump right into Greek cuisine with both feet. In fact, since my mother in law is such a good cook of Greek recipes, I felt more than a little intimidated. S loves trying new things, so he really encouraged me to make recipes from everywhere but Greece. But of course, there are some awesome Greek dishes and I eventually overcame the intimidation factor. Gradually I gained confidence in the Greek kitchen, and now I make plenty of Greek dishes.

A few things in my kitchen that might not be in the standard American kitchen:

1. Krana. I think these are called cornel berries in English. They are available for a few weeks in the fall. At first, I thought they were cranberries, but they aren’t. They have large pits, and they have a quite different taste – more tart, and less fruity. Here, they are combined with brandy, and left outside in the sun for several months. Then the liquid is strained to remove the pits. The liquer that remains is a fantastic therapeutic beverage for everything from menstrual cramps to headaches to colds.

2. Flamouri / Large-Leaf Lime Tea. This is an herbal tea made from the leaves of the large-leaf lime tree, or flamouria / φλαμουριά in Greek. This is prepared as a decoction; in other words, you boil some water, and only when it reaches a boil, you add the leaves, turn off the heat, cover the pot and let it sit for a while. This tea is great for settling stomaches, soothing headaches, and calming nerves. It’s kind of a panacea, actually. And it tastes good, too – quite mild. With a little honey, it makes a good everyday evening tea. Greece is well stocked with therapeutic herbal teas, but flamouri is my favorite and the only one I always have in the house.

3. Greek coffee. Also known as Turkish coffee, also known as Cypriot coffee, also known as Bulgarian coffee. Probably also known otherwise. But because this is Greece, we call it Greek coffee. This is a fun coffee because the preparation of it is so different from what we are used to with filter coffee and espresso. This town is actually famous for its coffee, and although it’s a little more expensive, I make a very rare exception to my “buy the cheapest of everything” rule to buy local Greek coffee from a coffee grinder that’s been in business here since 1935.

4. Myzithra cheese. I love parmesan cheese, but true Italian parmesan is expensive. The solution here in Greece is myzithra cheese, which tastes, looks, and acts the same but costs a fraction of the price. Myzithra is actually the name of several completely different cheeses, and in different parts of the country means different things entirely, but the standard “hard myzithra” is a perfect stand-in for parmesan, at a great price.

5. Thracian “Makri” olives. Of course olives would be on this list. I do buy Kalamata olives (which are olives from the southern Peloponnese region of Greece), because they are great for certain recipes. But for snacking, we prefer our local Thracian olives. These olives are cracked during preparation, making them wrinkly and more like a raisin than a traditional brined olive. They are big and meaty and grow right here in our neighborhood. We buy them exclusively at the farmers’ market from local producers. Makri is the name of the village that is the center of production for these olives. We also love olives from the Xanthi area, which is another part of Thrace with absolutely delicious olive oil.

6. Semolina. Do you use semolina? I never really used it until I moved to Greece. It’s available in the US of course, but we don’t use it that often. Here it’s part of many desserts, and it goes well in homemade pasta and many kinds of breads, especially lemon-poppy seed muffins. Polenta is pretty rare here, although they do sell it, and I haven’t bought it yet.  The package of semolina below has the tagline “Always close to us, Always with love.”  Okay, back off, semolina!!  I like you, but not in that way!

7. Orange Blossom Water – anthonero / ανθόνερο. This is probably an acquired taste for many people, but I love it. This is a water that has been flavored with the flowers of the neranja ornamental orange plant, which smell divine. When added to sweets, they take on a very delicate, sophisticated, almost aristocratic feel. It goes very well with almonds, and sweets made of almond flour. The counterpart to Orange Blossom Water, Rose Water (rodonero / ροδόνερο) is used in sweets as well, but I’m not a big fan, so I don’t have any on hand; it is used in a whole long list of traditional Greek, Cypriot, Arabic, and Turkish sweets.

8. Bulgur. Bulgur is one of those things that you’ve never heard of and then you try it and can’t believe you didn’t know about it. Kind of like quinoa, I guess. Anyway, bulgur, or pligouri / πληγούρι in Greek, is a wheat product that has been parboiled, so that it is not necessary to cook it in order to eat it. To my knowledge, bulgur is the only wheat that you can eat without cooking, although I could be wrong (anyone out there eat raw pasta?). To prepare it, you just soak it in potable water (you can add lemon juice to the water, and herbs if you want), and after a period of time (half an hour to four hours depending on what you are planning to do with it) you can either eat it as-is – great in salads – or cook with it in a recipe. It’s great as a stuffing for peppers and tomatoes, either by itself or with rice, and I use it all the time to make simple summer salads into a full meal. If you’re ever stuck without electricity, and you get tired of eating canned food, bulgur is the answer to your prayers. It’s a whole grain product, healthy, and tastes good. In Greece it is only cost-effective to buy it in bulk at the farmers’ market or small shops that sell bulk dry goods, because the supermarkets don’t sell it in an affordable form.

9.  Trahanas.  There may or may not be an English word for this… I’ve never heard of it outside Greece and Cyprus.  It’s a hard cake-like block made from goat’s milk and wheat, which is soaked and then boiled, sometimes with tomato.  It makes a soup which is usually served with halloumi cheese from Cyprus.  Our trahanas is from Cyprus, which is where the best, most authentic trahanas is made.  The Greek kind is not in this block format, it looks more like bulgur up above.

10.  Tsipouro.  It’s like grappa, and I use it in cooking (the taste is far too strong for me to drink it straight!).

11.  Local pasta.  Every place has its own pasta shape, right?  This is ours.

12.  Wheat.  Okay, I know, you have wheat in your cupboard too!  But here they use it differently.   Unmilled, it’s the main ingredient in a dish called koliva, which is served at funerals.  It’s known as the “food of the dead.”  It’s also used to make a special dish served in our part of Greece for the feast of St. Barbara.  Of course I mill it too, to make bread.

What ‘weird’ things do you have in your kitchen?

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