Byron Dean has travelled widely in the Mediterranean, gaining cooking tips from local 'nonnas', shopkeepers and professional chefs alike.
When most people are asked whether they think they could adopt a vegetarian diet, they are naturally inclined to consider all the meat dishes that such a diet would prevent them from enjoying. Even when asked to consider the possibility of maintaining an omnivorous diet whilst significantly diminishing their consumption of meat, a lot of people are steadfastly convinced that such an undertaking would be impossible for them—or at least that it would be extremely disagreeable. Surely this assumption is so widespread predominately because when most people think of vegetarian food, they imagine boring dishes comprised of bland meat substitutes and steamed vegetables—dishes that are no match for the rich flavours and contrasts that meat dishes can offer. Vegetarianism is to most people a word that causes them to conjure up images of their favourite meat dishes, and to consider with some horror how bland and unfulfilling they would be without the meat. It should then come as no surprise that the vegetarian diet is not more popular than it is.
Until recently, I also was quite the carnivore. If asked to list my favourite dishes, I would have most probably come up with two or three traditional Italian pasta dishes (all consisting of meat), as well as a couple of American guilty-pleasures—probably cheap cheeseburgers and Philly cheesesteaks. For ethical reasons concerning the welfare of animals and the scandalous bully-tactics and con-artistry of the meat industry (and, in fairness, to some extent the food industry generally), I was greatly interested in the concept of making a dietary shift towards organic and vegetarian produce; but apart from a few short-lived attempts at vegetarianism, I had never seriously attempted to reconcile the gulf between what I believed about the meat industry and what I personally chose to consume.
The Orthodox Fast
This all changed a couple of months ago when I relocated to a small Greek island to spend the summer clearing my mind and working on my writing in a warm and peaceful place relatively void of distractions. It is here that I have been introduced to some of the healthiest and most delicious food that I have yet tasted – and it just so happens that most of what the locals eat is not just vegetarian, but vegan.
For a lot a people who have spent their summer holidays in Greece, Greek cuisine is all about gyros (pork and beef in a pita) and souvlaki (kebab-like skewers of various meats), as well as perhaps stifado (beef stew) and kleftiko (lamb casserole slowly cooked in a bag). Moussaka, the Greek national dish, is also, of course, a favourite amongst tourists: the staple of every taverna in Greece consists of layers of Mediterranean vegetables and minced meat arranged like a lasagne. What most tourists don’t know is that the Greek Orthodox Church traditionally forbade the consumption of all meat (with the exceptions of octopus and squid) and dairy for 200 of the 365 days of the year. So even though most modern Greeks keep less rigidly to this tradition than their forefathers, the food they eat in their homes is naturally prepared according to recipes which have been passed down to them by previous generations who were all but vegan for most of the year.
Eating Like a Greek
It should hardly be surprising that most of the restaurants and tavernas in tourist towns serve only a couple of vegetarian options considering that they make their money catering for predominately British and German visitors. But the passion and enthusiasm that so many ordinary Greeks have for their local and national dishes is contagious, and if you talk to them about their food you soon discover that much of what they eat still reflects the rules of their traditional fasts.
It was through such conversations that I learnt of kagianas—a traditional peasant’s dish from the Peloponnese consisting of olive oil, tomatoes and eggs – from the wife of a local shopkeeper (recipe below). And how another shopkeeper came to give me fresh vine-leaves from her family garden in order to make dolmades, a popular dish made by simmering vine-leaves stuffed with lemon pilaf. The first dish is vegetarian; the second is vegan, and it is joined by a host of other traditional Greek dishes that happen not to include meat or dairy – to name a few: fried zucchini, giant beans in tomato sauce (usually referred to as gigantes plaki), stuffed tomatoes and peppers (known as gemista), and spinach risotto (known as spanakorizo). These dishes, along with the famous vegetarian Horiatiki (Greek Salad), make up the vast bulk of the traditional Greek meze platter, and they remain popular with ordinary Greeks to this day.
The Mediterranean Diet: The Easy Way To Be Vegetarian
Many British and American health and lifestyle publications have recently come to officially recognise that which was already known to many across the world – that the Mediterranean diet offers a shining and time-proven blueprint for simple and affordable healthy eating. But it is no exaggeration to say that what these publications mean by the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ – abundant olive oil and tomatoes, plenty of fresh vegetables, minimal meat and dairy (and rather a lot of red wine!) — is, in fact, the Greek diet; and it does not owe its healthiness to scientific nutritional studies, but rather to the efforts of ordinary people experimenting with the ingredients at their disposal so as to create dishes that were acceptable under the Greek Orthodox fast, but which were delicious nonetheless. It is then perhaps unsurprising that it is here in Greece that I appear to have finally made vegetarianism a very practical reality.
- 4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 4 large free-range eggs
- Olive Oil
- Black Pepper
- Oregano (Optional)
- Heat some olive oil in a pan and add the peeled, chopped tomatoes.
- Cook tomatoes until most of the juice has evaporated, leaving a thick sauce.
- Season tomatoes with salt and pepper. Oregano is optional.
- Add eggs and mix well until they are starting to set.
- Just before the eggs have set, take pan off heat and crumble some feta into the mixture. Serve with a Greek Salad and some warm bread.
Questions & Answers
Question: Where were you staying in Greece?
Answer: A beautiful small village on the island of Kos in the Dodecanese
Question: Sorry, I asked about egg being classified as vegetarian. I didn't mean it as a question to be answered by you? Will you please redefine your position on eggs and classify food as vegetarian only if without eggs as well?
Answer: As I understand it, it is perfectly commonplace to refer to dishes which contain eggs as vegetarian -- although not vegan. I don't think this is misleading.
Question: Where are the rest of the recipes?
Answer: I have a couple of Italian recipes here on this site, and I'm planning to share more vegetarian Greek dishes in the future.
Question: Indian food has some great variety in vegetarian food too. Don't you think?
Answer: Yes, I agree -- I especialIy enjoy dishes involving paneer. I have a few excellent, authentic, vegetarian Indian recipes which I'm planning to share in the future.
Pamela. h on January 07, 2020:
interested in greek foods and all concern
Billy Beyer on December 28, 2019:
I love greek food, i bet its better to live there