Understanding the History of Indo-Greek Cuisine – The New Indian Express
Alexander the Great would be delighted with London-based Indian food mogul Arjun Waney, whose portfolio of brands reads as the Debrett of fine dining – Zuma, Roka, La Petite Maison, The Arts Club, Il Baretto, Oblix at The Shard and Coya. One of its vast global operations is Meraki, a tribute to Greek cuisine in Fitzrovia, in the heart of London, which opened in 2017 and is still going strong.
Unlike Indian cuisine in England, Greek gastronomy only took off in the late 90s and early 2000s. Until then, it was confused with Greek Cypriot food, much like Bangladeshi restaurants posing as Indian restaurants. The fusion between Indian and Greek cultures began in the 4th century BC after Alexander invaded and conquered large parts of India. After the return of his army in 325 BC, many Greeks settled in India, intermarried with locals and thus set in motion a cultural synthesis in Western and Indian cuisine. There is no better way to understand the story through the food and its accessories.
Is there an Indo-Greek cuisine like the Mughal milieu? No. But many of the ingredients used by Alexander’s multicultural army that enlisted soldiers from lands he conquered like Persia, Egypt, and Bactra went into Indian jars. Most sophisticated Indian recipes contain saffron. Alexander traveled with a huge stash of saffron, which found its way to the West, a reigning spice now used in Indian, South Asian and Western cuisine. Greek saffron comes exclusively from Kozani in northern Greece. Alexander used it for hair care and to give his curls their golden shine.
Saffron has become a central part of the Indian gastronomic tradition in the Indo-Greek kingdom. Greco-Italian chef Giorgio Pintzas Monzani says India owes a lot to Alexander; to the point of being the world’s fourth largest producer of saffron. A perfect Greek rice pilaf cannot be made without yellow gold – as it was a barter currency used by Alexander’s soldiers – you add saffron threads to some of the chicken broth and leave the saffron behind. “bloom” for a few minutes. Next, it is adding saffron liquid to the remaining hot broth and then mixing pepper, olive oil and peppers with the rice. The western and Mediterranean regions knew the rice traders, and the grain, now used in all world cuisine, was used by the Greeks, not for eating, but as a powder for cosmetic purposes and to cure a bad stomach.
Monzani points out several similarities between popular Indian and Greek dishes. A common vegetable in Indian and Greek cuisine is brinjal. Take an eggplant, toast its pulp and add garlic, spices and cilantro to obtain bharta. In Greece, it becomes melitzanosalata and baba ghanoush in Middle Eastern cuisine, once areas of Alexander’s influence. Then there is India’s love affair with the curd, from which raita is made. A similar thick sauce is the Greek tzatziki sauce, which was concocted in India during the Greek occupation. Both contain garlic, cucumber, mint, and other herbs; only that tzatziki is made with yogurt, which is made with fermented milk and contains olive oil.
In fact, there is even a restaurant of this name in London, located on New Cavendish Street. Souvlaki is popular – like kebab, souvlaki means meat on skewers. The Greeks roll them in a hot pita, topped with tzatziki sauce. The pita is cooked, the naan too. Pita turned into local versions in all the countries that Alexander conquered. Keftedes Ami or Greek lamb meatballs might be called koftas by another name.
But Greek cuisine has not received the appreciation it deserves in India; an authentic Greek restaurant run by two well-meaning Greek women in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat closed before you could say moussaka.
Before disappearing as Alexander, Greek To Me in Safdarjung Enclave reigned supreme in the early 2000s, with grilled meat and kolokithokeftedes (zucchini dumplings) eaten with a tzatziki sauce and ending the feast with a sublime baklava filled with nuts. and honey, similar to halvah. As Theodore Kyriakou, who owned The Real Greek in Hoxton in the East End of London, reportedly said, “We were 400 years under the Ottoman Empire. It would be impossible to think that Turkish men and Greek women do not mix on occasion.
New Greek food adventurer in London, Christina Mouratoglou, born in Thessaloniki, said every Michelin-starred restaurant in London has a Greek cook. India does not have a Michelin starred restaurant. But, is it too much to ask for a Greek restaurant in at least one big hotel? When asked by a reporter if he would invest in India, Waney firmly replied no. But he is happy to earn money elsewhere and give it to Indians who need it. Just like good old Alex did.
Chef Amit Singh, Ophélie, Delhi
● 2 cups of grated cucumber
● 1 ½ cup of plain Greek yogurt
● 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
● 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh mint
● 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
● 1 medium garlic clove, pressed or minced
● ½ tablespoon of fine sea salt
● Take a bowl and mix all the ingredients. Keep aside for a few minutes.
● Enjoy it with salad, lavash, falafel, etc.