WRITER: Amany Ali Shawky / the interview people
Forget the economy. Forget the mass of tourists. Forget the beaches. In fact, you can forget about pretty much everything while you’re enjoying the decadent simplicity of authentic Aegean fare. Though its cuisine may be eerily similar to Middle Eastern food, you’d better not ask who did it first.
We were staying in the downtown area close to Athens’ Kotzia Square, walking distance from the local fish market, the hardware market and local spice vendors, where a fishy mist weighs down the air, mingled with the opulent, nostalgic aroma of mastic (a resin used in the manufacturing of ouzo and mastika, a local brandy). “Remind me to buy mastika for mum. She uses it for rice pudding and soups,” I shout to my husband as we try to cross the congested two-way street, a mission that would become increasingly tedious as the days went by.
I was 27 weeks pregnant when we went on our ‘babymoon’ to Greece. It was one last voyage as ‘me’ before I became the mother of Sultan, or Adam, or Souvlaki (kebab) – my husband’s newest addition to our quirky baby name list.
At this point, eating was the only thing I could do with ease. I was always hungry, and everything else seemed out of reach – for a pregnant woman anyway. Drinking, swimming, parading on the beach, sunbathing and shopping all became activities that raised question marks in the eyes of the masses. “But this is a small!” the sales lady at Attica Department Store protested as I tried to buy a summer dress. “Food it is then,” I tell myself as I finally settle on this trip’s obsession, and bid my sightseeing plans goodbye.
Before our trip, I had read about Greece’s bleak economic saga, and I was both sympathetic and concerned, coming from Egypt, a place undergoing its own historically charged moment. But on arrival, I found that the tourism industry was stubbornly persevering.
And so I too chose to stubbornly pursue my mission, which in my case meant keeping the gates of bliss open with a steady schedule of gastronomic feats – despite the familiar bad traffic and the many discomforts of traveling while pregnant.
The hectic, colourful Athens food market, known as Varvakios Agora, is the highlight of the vibrant Athinas market district.
We begin at the old tavern of Psaras in the heart of Plaka, which has been delighting foodies since the late 19th century. As my husband consulted Google Maps on our first walk in Athens, I enjoyed getting semi-lost in the narrow alleys of the old market, tracing the white stone steps that lead to food heaven. Wooden tables, white tablecloths and middle-aged, white-haired, mustachioed waiters welcome customers upon arrival.
The menu is succinct: Aegean specialties, mostly fish. I opt for Greek salad and fried octopus croquette as hors d’oeuvres (which brings my husband disturbing memories of the grilled octopus leg I inhaled whole in our early Santorini days). And seafood pasta is the main dish of choice.
The food is downright voluptuous, but its delivery is so elegantly simple that the meal is more of a sacred experience than a profane one. I swallow big chunks of cucumber and tomato delicately scented with thyme, with the zing of capers, the earthiness of excellent olive oil and the pungent, milky flavours of dense blocks of feta cheese washing over my palette immediately thereafter. Next, I pry open the mussels in my tagliatelle, releasing their garlicky, fresh juices into their succulent bath of tomato sauce.
I’m wiping my lips, sated, when I notice a waiter exiting the kitchen with a plate of watermelon and feta. I don’t know who passed the habit to whom, but it seems the Greeks share the summery, thirst-quenching sweet-and-sour treat of Egyptians. Hallelujah!
Our next Greek infatuation, after the seafood, turned out to be gyros. I mean, what could go wrong with pillows of soft, pudgy bread cuddling juicy, shredded meat deeply slathered in nutmeg, cumin and sumac, nestled with seasoned onions and chopped tomato? Nothing, as it turns out. Although both typically Greek and cousin to the Arab shawarma, some say this “opa” of aroma and texture is originally Turkish – yet another case of uncertain food paternity.
And if I ever find myself anxious or feeling left out as a pregnant woman on summer vacation, one gyro and a generous serving of watermelon and feta brings me back home. There’s a reason why: on every corner of Monastiraki Square you can spot northerners with a fat gyro, dripping tzatziki sauce on their “I Love Greece” shirts. It’s an instant source of comfort.
There’s something soulful about staying in the heart of a city. Although we were temporarily lured by the freshness of the upscale Athenian suburb Glyfada, downtown possessed the aromas and hues of the gods. We spent most of our time immersing ourselves in the hustle and bustle of the flea market, fighting for space with shoppers on Ermou Street, and constantly inhaling the delightful smell of souvlaki (hence the proposed name for our soon-to-be son).
The street vendors, old bars and stuffed vine leaves are all obvious reminders of Egypt, but it’s really the special, tarnished grandeur of Athens, its particular sweet melancholy, that makes it feel like home away from home.
The centre’s most colourful point is Brettos, the chromatic bar and distillery of the old market. In 1909, Michael Brettos made his first bottles of mint, cherry and mastic liqueur here, using a secret family recipe for premium-quality brandy and ouzo. But despite its historical importance, the place remains humble, and the friendliness of the staff makes Brettos a staple in our daily routine in Athens.
Ermou, which is the city’s main shopping avenue and connects the Greek Parliament to the Old City of Athens.
Every corner holds a surprise. Aside from the ceiling-high display of colourful, back-lit liqueur bottles – which draws in tourists like moths to flame – ancient wooden counters, old alcohol ads, mouldy barrels of brandy and a handmade ouzo distillery all help create an anachronistic charm.
As I sip on my luscious cocktail of grenadine, banana, pineapple, kiwi and orange, I skim through the 12-page menu full of flavours. Mastika liqueur seems the most intriguing. Unlike other blends, the mastic-infused drink is blandly colourless, yet grand, aromatic, deep and very smooth.
Looking up from the menu, I deeply breathe in a bewildering smell of old downtown bars in Alexandria. Just as Sting was an Englishman in New York, I am a pregnant woman in a bar, and I like it.