Saturday, October 05, 2013
There are first dates which are memorable and by way of corollary, first dates which are eminently forgettable. There are also first dates that are memorable in that one wishes that they were eminently forgettable and the one of mine belonging to this particular category took place at the iconic Stalactites restaurant. Having taken great pains to pull the chair and allow the object of my ardent fascination to be seated before resting my own posterior, I promptly forgot all about her, as I pored over the menu exclaiming with delight when I unexpectedly discovered the presence of patsas therein. So enmeshed in the throes of culinary ecstasy was I when said dish was brought before me, that I did not realise that the aforementioned object of my ardent fascination had discreetly interposed her not inconsiderable handbag between myself and her good self, thus creating a visual, though not an olfactory barrier between us, which would, as she explained later, permit her in a large part, to retain her dignity while also inhibiting her inherent gag reflex.
Roaming the streets of any given Greek city late at night in the furtive search for a good “patsatzidiko” is a rite of passage for many a visiting Greek-Australian. It is also an activity fraught with danger for if one is not possessed of the requisite terminology, the act of ordering patsa becomes inordinately complex. In southern Greece, patsas generally refers to the tripe soup which is used a remedy for hangover. When, at the tender age of fifteen one of my aunts discovered that I was walking the streets of Athens in search of this delectable dish, she said to me sternly: “If you must indulge in such filthy habits, I prefer you did so in the privacy of our home and under supervision.” Since that date, subsequent to my every arrival in the mother country and my safe delivery via taxi to her doorstep, a bowl of this delicacy, steaming and delicious has been waiting for me.
In northern Greece, this form of patsa is known as Iskembe Tsorbas, which also happens to be its Turkish name. It is best served with skordostoumbi and hot pepper flakes, or alternatively with avgolemono, which is just as satisfying. Back home in Melbourne, owing to the fact that my loved ones have solemnly threatened to cast me out from their loving embrace for all eternity should I even think of consuming such foodstuffs before them, when the longing becomes too much, I betake myself to Sydney Road in Coburg where I am known to the Turkish purveyors of Iskembe Corbasi, there to indulge my perversion en solitaire. Patsa on the islands and northern Greece, on the other hand, denotes something entirely different – a soup consisting of the shank or trotters and the head of a given animal and this seems to be the original form of the dish. This also serves to explain why my islander uncles had difficulty understanding why a particular northern Greek acquaintance laboured under the soubriquet of «Ο Πατσάς.» When it was explained to them that the gentleman in question exhibited a marked propensity to burp frequently, they still could not understand the connotation, as for them, the dish has nothing to do with the stomach.
For reasons unexplained, every time Greeks borrow terminology from Turkish or Persian, they tend to stress the ultimate syllable of each word, rather than the penultimate. Thus, where the Turks would say Pásha, we says Pasás, where they say hámam, we say khamám, and where they say Pácha, we say Patsás. This is important to know as the iconic patsas is actually a Persian dish. In its full form it is known as Kale Pache, which literally means ‘head-shank.’ As such, it usually contains a sheep's entire head, including the brain, eyes and tongue, as well as its hooves. The dish, traditional to both Azerbaijan and Iran, is usually consumed as a breakfast soup, and is seasoned with lemon and cinnamon. In Iran, Kale Pache is almost always only served from three in the morning until sometime after dawn, and specialty restaurants that serve only Kale Pache are only open during those hours. It is my enduring dream to travel to Iran and frequent such a place, only because I harbour very dim but extremely happy memories of my grandmother cooking such a dish in her kitchen in Essendon and desperately seek to re-live this glorious moment of my childhood. Further, I recall a time when my Samian uncle, sick of the usual watered down fare our family was serving at Easter, decided to cook and bring his own pig trotter soup to the dinner table. Steaming hot and resplendent with a multitude of garlic cloves, he and I both beheld the pot with wonder, seconds before instantaneously being banished to the end of the table, there to consume the offending article away from the indignant gaze of the rest of the family, swiftly, but with eminence and style. I seek refuge in a country that will not only view the proclivities that have caused me much shame with compassion, but will instead, actively embrace and encourage them.
Such compassion and understanding is sadly not to be found within the Assyrian branch of my family, for while they acknowledge that Pacha forms an intrinsic component of their traditional cuisine, it provokes feeling of disgust and contempt in them and is thus banished from the dinner table. This is a tragedy of cataclysmic proportions, for Assyrian Pacha truly is a masterpiece. A happy melange of all forms of Patsa known to man, it is constructed of the sheep's head, trotters and stomach, all boiled slowly and served with bread sunken in the broth. It goes without saying that the cheeks and tongues are considered the best parts and I am reliably advised that it is not considered impolite to discard and not consume the eyeballs, despite the protestations to the contrary by purists. The stomach lining, however, and this is pure genius, is stuffed with rice and lamb and stitched with a sewing thread, forming neat parcels of exquisite flavour and providing hours of convivial entertainment as one unpicks the thread and, quite possibly, free dental floss in the process. I have been known to drive all the way to Craigieburn in search of such morsels of rapture, yet the opportunities for transportation into the sphere of the sublime are few and far between.
I belch in the face of the smug Greek chef who recently opined that patsas is “a traditional soup that does not smell good but tastes great.” Instead, patsas is a way of life, an embodiment of our history, evocative of a time when the chances to eat meat were few and every part of the animal was utilised to full effect and with respect. It is a hearty dish of uncompromising goodness, a sure-fire pick me up yet it is the Armenians who have contrived to enshrine it in ritual. If you can, try to get yourself invited to a khash party, khash being the Armenian word for patsas. There is much ritual involved here. Many participants abstain from eating the previous evening, and insist upon using only their hands to consume the dish. Because of its potency and robust smell, and because it is eaten early in the mornings and so often enjoyed in conjunction with alcohol, khash parties usually take place on the weekend or on holidays. The guests almost always bring a bottle of vodka or arak which is one of the necessary parts of the feast. Among the Armenians, even the toasts are part of the ritual. They start with a "Good Morning" quick toast, which is later followed by another quick toast for the hosts. The last one of the three mandatory toasts is for the khash-loving guests and the humble diatribist takes your leave, proposing a fourth, to patsas itself, the dish that truly speaks, the international language of love.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 October 2013