Saturday, June 29, 2013
“I’m as Greek as a souvlaki, I’m as Irish as a stew.” Johnny Young.
The mouth-watering smell of cubed lamb smoking and sizzling over splintered pieces of left-over skirting boards allowed to age in a woodpile of other off-cuts, the acrid smell of the peeling paint permeating their fibres and blistering the skin of the adjacent red, green and yellow capsicums while caramelising the adjoining onions, the burning of my tender fingers as I attempted to purloin the metal skewers resting on the blackened grate for my own personal consumption – these are enduring memories of being treated to a souvlaki in my grandmother’s back yard. On occasion, the capsicum and onions would be complemented by the addition of eggplant, largely unnegotiable for a youthful palate, as well as rather more pungent home grown peppers.
The preparation of the souvlaki required pre-mediation and could never be the consequence of a spur of the moment impulse. The night before, my grandmother would meticulously cube the meat into chunks and marinate it overnight in lemon juice and olive oil along with such herbs as herbs and spices such as oregano and thyme. Prior to doing so, she would open a small container she kept high above in the cupboard and extract pinches of a deep red and thoroughly intoxicating, grainy substance, which she would then proceed to rub all over the meat. «Σουμάκι,» my grandmother would reveal triumphantly. “This is the secret to the best-tasting souvlaki. Mainland Greeks have no idea how to season meat. But then again, there are a lot of things for which they have no idea. Take gyros for example. The Greeks just shove meat around the souvla and expect it to season itself. Without a few tomatoes and some sheep’s fat on top of the stake, «δεν γίνεται η δουλειά.» When my grandmother wanted to be particularly subversive, she would concoct a marinade comprised of mint and tahini so sublime as to render itself unable to be reproduced in print.
My job was to assist in the composition of the souvlaki. There was, according to my grandmother, a natural preordained order in the skewering of ingredients; a consubstantiation of flavours that brought forth optimum taste, if only one was able to master their inherent proclivities. She would watch me with a wry smile, trying to turn the skewers over and remark drily: “You know, that’s what they did to Athanasios Diakos. They skewered him.” My eyes would invariably go wide. “Did they really yiayia?” I would wonder. Turning the skewers over for a while in silence, I would ponder the ramifications of such an extreme act. “Did they skewer him with capsicums and onions?” was the inevitable riposte that caused my grandmother to collapse it fits of uncontrollable laughter.
Regardless of the spurious assertions of our sundry Middle Eastern cousins, the souvlaki’s ancient Greek provenance is attested archaeologically at least as far back as 1700BC, which is the estimated age of the souvlaki holders illustrated herein, found at Akrotiri in Thyra. These κρατευταί as they were known, boasted a pair of the supports in which the receptions for the spits lined up absolutely, while the line of small openings in the base formed a mechanism to supply the coals with oxygen so that they remained alight during its use. Ingenious. Furthermore, the existence of souvlaki in Greece is attested in writing since antiquity, it being known with the name obeliskos, a diminutive of obelos, meaning ‘spit.’ As such, it is mentioned amongst others in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon and Aristotle. The great bard Homer himself too describes a meal of skewered meat and a meat and bread recipe which resembles the way pita souvlaki is served today, is eerily attested by Athenaeus in Deipnosophistae, who referred to the dish by the name of ‘kandaulos.’
Despite having so many lovely Greek names for our national dish, the word souvlaki, it would surprise many to learn, is not Greek. Being a diminutive of souvla, it is derived from the Latin subula. The kebab on the other hand, a paltry imitation of the real thing, has its origin in the Aramaic word ‘kabbaba’ or ‘kababu’ meaning to burn or char, proving that even back then, they couldn’t even come within proximity of the real thing.
I first learned that my grandmother’s souvlaki was culturally distinct from the Greek souvlaki upon my first visit to that country, whereupon I soon learned that an entire etiquette existed as to its ordering. In Athens, my request for a souvlaki was met with a raised eyebrow. Did I want a kalamaki? A souvlaki merida? A Souvlaki-pita? A Souvlaki Diplopito? (not for the faint hearted), A Souvlaki Dikalamo? Or a Souvlaki ap’ ola? It was when ordering the Souvlaki ‘with the lot’ for safety, that I discovered that Greek souvlakia were generally made of pork, and, as I related to my grandmother in horror upon my return, often enclosed fired potatoes, which caused her to cluck her tongue and classify such a terrible occurrence as the supreme culinary abomination of desolation. In Thessaloniki, being clever, I hung back and waited for someone else to order, to give me a chance to learn the patois. In that city, if one asks for a kalamaki, they are provided with a straw, for the word souvlaki is more consistently in use and one is more likely to find there, rather than in the capital, if one is patient, a lamb souvlaki which invariably trumps pork every time.
Back home, when seized with the irrepressible desire to eat such foods as patsa, kokoretsi, gardoumbes and souvlaki, having being advised by my loved ones that they will neither make or permit me to sully their kitchens with my own preparations of such gastronomic delights, I generally sally forth not to the few Greek purveyors of souvlaki in my area, but rather to Sydney Road in Brunswick, whereupon, in the relative anonymity of Turkish restaurants I am able to indulge in my guilty kebab consuming pleasures in the way that decadent desires should be indulged – alone. As is requisite of all great pleasures, such indulgence comes not without a little guilt. After all, my palette is too jaded, my tastebuds too corrupted by my grandmother's exotic culinary mysteries, in order to fully enjoy the readily available, much simpler, less spiced and often as far as the quality of the meat goes, not so superior Hellenic counterpart as much as I should, let alone extol its virtues. I feel torn, as Cafavy would have put it, as a Greek who enjoys the allurements and pleasures of the East, as a Macedonian soldier who is seduced by the luxury of the Persian hinterland and turns his back on his frugal yet virile homeland, as a Spartan… well you get the idea.
I owe the reversal of my status as a culinary recusant primarily to the memory of unforgettable times in Greece, obtaining souvlakia at ridiculously implausible moments the small hours. It is that experience, the smell of the Athenian street, the discordant symphony of passersby, the choking warmth of the Salonican souvlaki shop in the midst of a biting winter’s night that season my Hellenic souvlaki. And the only place in Melbourne where I can recreate that is perched precariously upon Lonsdale Street, at the recently opened Kalamaki, where the purveying of Greek Street Food is the primary concern. Here, all the old Greek street smells return surreptitiously to fumigate my oriental perversions – the multiple combinations and permutations of souvlaki and pita, the alluring use of what the proprietors term “virgin tzatziki,” Smyrnan sausages, sheftalies, chickpea keftedes and, the clincher for me, the Smyrnan salad of pearl barley, lentils, seeds in pomegranate dressing, evoking, as in a the omniprescent memories of my grandmother, who was wont to construct similar concoctions, and a long lost ancestral homeland, which survives only in the stories of my grandmother and the food she once cooked.
Kalamaki then, is the straw through which we imbibe the savour of emotions and tastes of memory. Upon each skewer are transfixed the parts constituent of our experiences which meld with each other in order to produce a shared common identity. Such is its power that it, coupled with profuse quantities of Kalamaki’s cinnamon and mastiha liquer, is more than sufficient to bring this lost sheep back into the pork souvlaki fold, in uneasy yet manifest equilibrium with Çökertme kebabı, Hünkâri kebabı and Patlıcan kebabı, subverting the inner dichotomy, in the interests of gastronomic catholicism.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 29 June 2013.