Greece is a meeting place between East and West, its cuisine mixing classical Mediterranean cooking with "oriental" influences from the Middle East. Greek food remains true to its roots, like ancient philosopher Epicurus' dictum to "live well and enjoy the simple things in life."
In summer, tiny tavernas throughout Greece are swamped with people—people sipping shot glasses of ouzo or long glasses of cold lager, and the same people nibbling on an array of small plates of mezethes. Mezethes is usually translated as "appetiser" or "starter"', but this translation does not do justice to the fundamental role mezethes play in Greek tradition.
History notes that Ancient Greeks made it impossible for their society to indulge in alcohol without some tasty morsel to nibble on. They knew that drinking on an empty stomach was not a sensible idea, so it became mandatory to serve mezethes wherever and whenever alcohol was offered. Since then mezethes have become an integral part of Greek social life.
Mezethes can take the form of something as humble as a few olives, a small piece of cheese and some fresh, crisp radishes all the way through to platters laden with different dips, tiny skewers of grilled lamb or pork, deep-fried squid or whitebait (smelt) and little savoury filo triangles or rolls.
Mezethes are served everywhere in Greece, throughout every season of the year, and are one of the most enjoyable features of Greek cuisine. With this in mind, these are some of the appetisers I have developed at my restaurant.
Serves 6 as part of a mezethes plate
Bourekia are filo pastry rolls which are generally made with a cheese or spicy meat filling. These are a variation on the ones I tried on the island of Samos, which were made without the usual cheese and egg as it was during Lent, but were still delicious.
250 g (8 oz) cooked chickpeas
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup (125 mL/4 fl oz) dry white wine
125 g (4 oz) goat's milk or other feta cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
1 egg, beaten
225 g (7 oz) filo pastry
Olive oil, as needed
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C (375 degrees F/gas mark 5). Mash the chickpeas in a large bowl and set aside. Cook the olive oil, onion and garlic in a saucepan, until the onion and garlic are translucent. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, and stir. Now add the wine and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. When the mixture has cooled, stir in the cheese, chickpeas, coriander and egg. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Set aside.
Now prepare the pastry. Cut the filo pastry into rectangles about 10 cm x 20 cm (4 in. x 8 in.). Brush each sheet with a little olive oil. Put a tablespoonful of filling at one end of a sheet. Fold over the sides and nearest end of the filo and roll the pastry lengthways into a sausage shape. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden in colour.
Greek Cuisine: The New Classics
by Peter Conistis
Illustrated by Skye Rogers
Ten Speed Press, 1994
Reprinted with permission