A TASTE OF GREECE IN JAPAN

Bonding over Slow Food

by Nobuko Hara

Greek cuisine could set a trend in Slow Food and healthy eating in the same way that Japanese cuisine has in low-fat food if the Mediterranean nation succeeds in a worldwide push to promote the hearty fare.

To that end, the government flew Konstantinos Vasalos, executive chef of the prestigious Greek Yacht Club, into Tokyo last month to showcase Greek food, both traditional and modern, in tandem with Kiyomi Mikuni, a celebrated French cuisine chef and Greek culinary expert.

Although Greek cooking — known for extensive use of olive oil, seasonal vegetables and fresh herbs — shares similarities with Italian and Spanish cuisines, its distinguishing characteristic is its rustic heartiness — “a taste of home,” as described by Mikuni, head of Shinjuku’s Hotel de Mikuni.

“Cooking today has become too complicated, and confusing,” Mikuni lamented. “In Greek cuisine lies the essence of Slow Food. Eating what’s in season is good for your health. You’ll find what’s important in life when you go to Greece.”

Surprisingly, Greek and Japanese cuisines share a number of similarities: Octopus is widely eaten, with fish traditionally being the main protein source. The Greeks, like Japanese, also savor raw sea urchin and botargo (karasumi in Japanese), which is cured gray mullet roe and a highly prized delicacy.

But above all, the two cuisines share the underpinning philosophy of using the freshest ingredients and minimizing interference with their natural flavors, Vasalos said, adding: “Japanese food reflects a love of nature (that Greeks share).”

“A Taste of Greece,” organized by the Hellenic Foreign Trade Board (HEPO) and the Greek National Tourism Organization, arrived in Tokyo last month following its launch in New York last autumn. The campaign is intended to promote Greek olive oil, cheeses, herbs, wines and other agricultural products.

“It’s simple but never plain,” agrees Aglaia Kremezi, author of the award-winning “The Foods of Greece.”

The Tokyo promotion began with a dinner hosted by The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where Vasalos cooked some of his original recipes for more than 120 guests, including Greek Transport and Communication Minister Michael Lapis, on an official visit to Japan.

Vasalos’ five-course feast began with a mousse featuring botargo. This was served in a “purse” of smoked salmon tied with a leek. (At the Yacht Club, he routinely uses sliced raw serranid instead.) Kozani saffron soup followed, then came calamari “spaghetti” with feta cheese and a modern moussaka (free of the high-calorie bechamel sauce traditionally used) served with fresh tomato coulis. The dessert was an ice-cream filled Greek beignet (deep-fried pastry) served with Greek thyme honey sauce.

“The food was excellent,” the Greek minister commented as he left. “It was the best dinner I’ve ever had at this club,” said Chuck Lingam, an FCCJ Life Member.

For Vasalos’ cooking demonstration held last month in front of more than 30 chefs from hotels and restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka, Mikuni joined in with his own Greek-inspired recipes. Mikuni prepared two dishes — one featuring octopus and ratatouille, and the other sea bass, ouzo (an aniseed-based alcoholic drink) and Greek beer — followed by Vasalos who cooked five traditional dishes including spanakopita (Greek spinach pie with feta cheese) and deep fried cod fillets with garlic sauce.

“This is how my mother made it,” said Vasalos, as he poured olive oil over the spanakopita, which is on the menu at the well-heeled yacht owner’s club, where the late Aristotle Onassis was a member and the President of Greece, Karolos Papoulias, is currently the patron.

The method

1) After soaking the gelatin in cold water, soften it by transferring it into a small amount of boiling water. Make an incision in each salmon slice to form a “purse.”

2) Place the toast, egg yolk and botargo in a food processor and mix.

3) Transfer the above into a bowl and mix in lemon juice and olive oil bit by bit the way you would when making mayonnaise.

4) Mix the gelatin and fresh cream into the above and refrigerate for 2 hours.

5) Tie the opening of the above with the leek and place it on a plate. Pour lemon juice on top before serving.

Chefs from the Grand Prince Hotel, Tokyo Disney Sea and more than two dozen other restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka are expected to introduce “a taste of Greece” in their eateries over the next 14 months.

“The demonstration was very easy to follow,” said Yoshitaka Fukushima, assistant manager of Hotel Kintetsu Universal City in Osaka, as he walked away with a Vasalos-Mikuni recipe book distributed by the organizers.

Kazuo Kogoshi, a chef from Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa, commented: “Cooking methods aren’t too complicated. It should be easy enough to adapt some of them for our restaurant.”

“I’d like to present my recipes to those who love food, said Vasalos, who was brought up on Sifnos island, about 100 km southeast of Athens, where he relished home-baked bread and slow-roasted chick peas in a wooden fired oven for Sunday lunch. “Modern cooking, in many cases, has lost a sense of purpose. It doesn’t feed the soul.”

HEPO named its gastronomic promotion Kerasma, meaning “a treat” in Greek, as the sharing of food with families or friends — at home or tavernas — is a way of life in Greece.

“As long as families remain at the core of the society, and grandmothers remain active in the kitchen, good food will survive,” said Vasalos, who learned cooking from his mother. “In Greece, too, there is a battle between yesterday’s values and today’s, and if yesterday’s win it will be good for everyone,” he continued.

In the meantime, over the last few years Vasalos’ cooking has seen some Japanese influence, particularly in presentation techniques, he said, concluding: “I’d like to come back here to explore Japanese food. I’d like to refine Greek cuisine the way Mikuni did French cuisine.”