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Changing the form, but retaining the spirit

“When I opened up my first restaurant it was never to cook Greek food the way most people had seen it.” Peter Conistis


The dish at left is Sydney chef Peter Conistis' signature dish - Eggplant moussaka/MindFood. Moussaka? Those white things you see between the eggplant slices are scallops. Scallops in moussaka?


Greek but not Greek - the spirit of Greek is there - fresh, high quality ingredients, cooked simply - and yet it's not at all what we think of as moussaka, although as is pointed out by Conistis the béchamel sauce in traditional moussaka is French, not Greek.


He recently (2022) opened his fourth (I think) restaurant just across a small patch of water from the Opera House. It's posh and the food looks amazing, as does the restaurant. And it has a Greek name Ploós. Yet it is not your average Greek restaurant, because not only does it twist traditional dishes, but it also concentrates on the food of Cyprus, Crete and the Mediterranean Middle-East.


A couple of examples:



"The first plate embodies the colours of the Aegean sea with shimmery reflections from glossy sardine skins finely filleted and dotted with cubes of beetroot, labneh, oregano, topped with strips of chilli and oooh those pops of fishiness from salmon roe ($28). It is the dish which has the most profound impact; produce, history and creativity." Karen Lawson/Daily Addict


"Spanakopita filled manti (a dumpling popularised in Turkey) is a mind bender. It’s confusing to eat flavours so well known, but in a different vessel. What if you ate a cheeseburger but in a samosa? Our brains are fried. The manti is dotted with dill yoghurt and languishes in rich burnt butter with one or two waspy wafers of filo."


But why am I going on about a posh restaurant in Sydney? And slight apologies for doing so, but the pictures and the words kind of made me want to go there. Well it's because this is actually a first recipe post - the book being Wog Food by John Newton, subtitled An oral history with recipes.



The book consists of profiles/interviews wth several, then, influential, foodies - mostly

restaurateurs. Then is 1996 and I recognised just a few of the names - Greg Malouf, Mietta O'Donnell, Bill Marchetti and Tiberio Donnini. For mostly they are 'old' names, some of them no longer with us, others still cooking an innovating. Peter Conistis is the first of them, hence the focus on him. He is a first generation Greek/Australian born of Greek parents who came over in that huge post World War Two wave of Mediterranean immigrants. As are virtually all of the subjects of the book.


In his lengthy and interesting introduction, Newton reflects on the term 'Wog':


"From being predominantly a term of offensive racist abuse, it has become, even among themselves (probably especially among themselves), a term of affection, a tribal word to reaffirm common backgrounds and experiences." John Newton


He applies it to immigrants from all around the Mediterranean and warms to his friend Jan Power's definition of the meaning of 'Wog' as "I've always thought it stood for wine, olive oil and garlic". Having talked about their mostly peasant origins he says that the original Anglo settlers of Australia had no peasant or middle class, hence we only had the terrible cuisine of the aristocrats. Now I would take great issue with that, as surely the convicts that came with the officer aristocrats were largely what could be described as peasants - or the poor at least. And I would guess that many of the soldiers, and some of the officers were middle-class. I will agree, however that the Anglo diet of Australia prior to the waves of immigration in later times, was pretty ordinary - as it was back in Britain I have to say. So yes immigrants have transformed the Australian food scene as they have in Britain. That and globalisation.


"I asked Peter why what he and other young chefs are doing is happening here. "Because we have some very imaginative young people out here. Because we haven't the barriers - like in France or England where you're taught this is the way it's done. We don't have those restrictions. We don't have Michelin Guides."" John Newton


And yet these young chefs, and the chefs of today, are not hidebound either by their 'homelands'' traditions and 'authenticity' because:


"any claim to an 'authentic' recipe or an 'authentic' cuisine from any of these Mediterranean cultures is so much tosh. What's authentic in one village is risible two kilometres down the road." John Newton


Maybe it's all to do with being in a new country and in a position therefore to play a part in defining what that 'new' country's cuisine should be.


So at last to the first recipe - Eleni's Wild greens pita - otherwise known as Hortopita. Eleni is Peter Conistis' mother. There's always a mother in these stories. In at least his first two restaurants, Eleni shared the cooking with her son - here they are at the time the book was written, in what I think was the second restaurant. The first was a tiny hole in the wall, for Peter was not a trained cook - he had previously briefly studied law, and then did a communications degree which led to a brief media career. Becoming increasingly interested in food, after working whilst a student in restaurants, he undertook several trips back to Greece, consulted extensively with his mother and eventually in 1993 took the plunge with his hole in the wall venture, paid for entirely by himself. It was immensely popular and he has never looked back. His mother is still alive I think, but also, I think, not working in the restaurant any more, although I'm sure she is consulted.


That first recipe was chosen, partly because of his mother and also because he considers wild greens to be the trademark Greek ingredient. The Mediterranean people, but the Greeks in particular I think, are famous for foraging for food, and the wild greens play a huge part in this. Essentially we are talking weeds - ‘any plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered' is one definition. Of course you need to know what you are picking so that you don't poison yourself, but even I would recognise a dandelion or a stinging nettle - oxalis too. And of course you can always use any other kind of leafy green - but it won't taste the same. Indeed it will taste different every time, depending on what you find. Besides it's fun to forage, especially if you do it with friends and family: "The gathering as well as the cooking of food should be joyful," says John Newton, who believes that the same kind of joy cannot be obtained from a supermarket. True, although you - well some of us - can get at least a little joy from supermarket foraging - particularly if it's a supermarket - or even better, a hypermarket - in a foreign land.


"I know from my Mum about twenty different dishes to make using these wild greens." says Peter Conistis - this is one I found, and most probably the dish that is most frequently made. I found this one on a website called The Greek Foodie - Horta-Greek greens with olive oil and lemon.


So hortopita - what's the difference from spanakopita? Well it's just the greens - spinach or wild greens. Mind you I suspect that these days at least the pastry might be different, with filo definitely used for spanakopita and a slightly thicker home-made pastry for the hortopita. Below is a picture of the 'authentic' home-made pastry version and a recipe on the SBS website for Hortopita. So next time you are thinking about making spanakopita try a turn round the garden or down the street to the local park to see if you can find anything edible there.



When I retrieved this book from my bookshelves I thought I would be putting it in the street library, but now I think it was really interesting, and so I might put it aside for a further look. Maybe cook something 'new' from it next week, so that I can tick off my 'new' recipe aim for the week.


As for Peter Conistis and his gorgeous looking dishes, I found three actual recipes online -Snapper, slow-braised beans, fennel and kataifi pie/Gourmet Traveller; Olive and tomato keftedes/SBS, and Spiced lamb cutlets with spanakopita flatbreads/delicious. all three examples of 'changing the form but retaining the spirit'.



Now when can I book a weekend in the sun in Sydney? Haven't been there for quite some time.

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