When you think of Greek and Greek Cypriot cuisine, you might think of a lot of meat.
“There are so many kebabs and we love grilling,” admits Georgina Hayden. “It’s probably a preconceived idea that is justified.”
But there’s another side to cooking she wants to learn about: the plant-based foods eaten during Lent and other fasting times of the year. And there are a lot of fasts: up to 200 days a year, including the 50 days before Easter, the 50 days before Christmas and every Wednesday and Friday.
“If you do it right, that’s a lot of days without meat,” Hayden says. “But that means when you eat meat they get tough – it’s a matter of balance.”
Hayden, who worked with Jamie Oliver for 12 years, dedicated her latest cookbook to “nistisima” – “a Greek word meaning Lenten food,” she explains. “This is the food we eat when preparing for any major religious holiday. That’s the broadest sense, but if you were presented with something that was “nistisimo”, or a food that was “nistisima”, it basically means it’s plant-based, on a simpler level. It includes shellfish, but Hayden’s book is all-vegan, “for ease.”
All of this may sound a little intimidating – the religious references and the vegan diet – but that’s not Hayden’s point at all. She’s keen on not telling anyone what to do – she’s not a vegan herself and wouldn’t ask anyone to go completely plant-based if they didn’t want to – she just wants to “give people a bunch of recipes that introduce more lentils and vegetables to their lives”.
And you won’t find any sad vegan meat or cheese substitutes anywhere in the book, especially since Hayden once tried vegan feta (“I was curious!”) and calls it “honestly, the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten”. Instead, she discovered that many dishes from Cyprus and surrounding countries were accidentally vegan and totally delicious on their own.
“Instead of trying to replicate cauliflower cheese and make it into something it’s not, it’s about finding new dishes that have been around for centuries and happen to be based on of plants”, she says – and it was not a difficult task at all (the book could have been “double in size, easily”).
Hayden grew up around Greek Cypriot cuisine – her grandparents ran a tavern in north London – but her research took her even further. “I was researching not only Greek food, but also food from surrounding Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries. There are so many dishes and so much food from these places that is naturally and traditionally vegan,” she explains. “It fascinates me, especially these days when we’re trying to eat more vegetables and be a little more mindful for the planet, whether you’re a meat eater or not.”
She wrote the book when the pandemic was in full swing and she couldn’t travel to meet people. She happily describes WhatsApping monks in Lebanon, FaceTiming a woman in Jordan to see what she was doing for Lent, and learning from another monk (there were a surprising number of monks involved in her journey) the most delicious kibbeh (fried stuffed pastries) trick – add pumpkin puree instead of water to the batter, to really amp up the flavor.
“There’s so much talk — and rightly so — about cultural appropriation in food,” Hayden says thoughtfully. “We really have to look at where our food comes from and where the recipes come from. But it’s really difficult – especially in a book like this – when you cross so many borders. Everyone has their own version of pretty much the same dish. Many people are familiar with stuffed grape leaves and consider them a Greek dish. But it’s not just a Greek dish – you go to Turkey, the Middle East, you go to Eastern Europe, everyone has their own version.
Another thing that all of these dishes have in common is time. “It’s probably the opposite of what everyone wants right now – everyone wants speed, everyone wants less dishes and so on,” Hayden groaned. “But when you’re talking about vegan or plant-based cooking, because you don’t have animal fat to add flavor”, you have to invest a little more time in it.
One of the monks she spoke to was cooking his onions for an hour – a far cry from what most of us do, which is basically searing diced onions in a pan for a few minutes before adding drizzle. other ingredients. “OK, we might not have time to cook onions for an hour – but when you do, it makes so much difference,” says Hayden. “You could make your lamb shoulder simmered for four hours, why don’t you apply the same principle to your vegetables? Not everything has to be fast.
“In the book, there are tons of quick recipes – because that’s life – but also, if you don’t have a big piece of meat for Sunday dinner, apply the same compassion and love to your veggies and you’ll get heaps of flavor.I think that’s even more important to do with plant-based foods because they need that sweetness that comes from slow cooking.
But don’t worry, it’s not like the recipes in the book are too complex and difficult to follow – Hayden is Jamie Oliver’s protege, after all. She recently reunited with her former boss as a judge on Channel 4’s Great Cookbook Challenge with Jamie Oliver, and calls him “such an amazing mentor”.
Hayden adds, “He taught me so much – he always put the home cook first when thinking about things, and he basically taught me how to write a good recipe.”
Nistisima: The Secret to Delicious Vegan Cooking in the Mediterranean and Beyond by Georgina Hayden is published by Bloomsbury, priced at £26. Photograph by Kristin Perers. Available March 31.
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