Yogurt, octopus, lamb, olives, oregano. These foods “belong” to the Greek kitchen in the world’s eye. Not so corn.
Yet this American staple has been part of the Greek table for several hundred years, most likely introduced and disseminated by the Ottoman Turks, who may have encountered it first in Africa. The Turkish word for corn, misir, is the same as the Turkish name for Egypt. Greeks call corn kalamboki, after the Albanian word kalambok; they also call it arapositi, or “Arab wheat,” again implying a North African-Arab connection. In Crete, they simply call it xenikostaro, which means “foreign wheat.”
Somewhere along the way, “foreign wheat” was embraced by Greek cooks and transformed into myriad dishes. Fresh corn is the street food of Greek cities, roasted over coals and hawked, together with chestnuts, by itinerant merchants from carts on every other corner. Fresh corn is also a much-anticipated addition to country vegetable stews. On my native island, Ikaria, we make a dish called mageirio, which is a medley of string beans, tomatoes, potatoes, onions and fresh corn on the cob. Drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and coarse sea salt, Greek-style boiled corn on the cob is perfect food, at least to this palate.
Corn, dried, ground and very Greek
But it is corn in all its other forms, dried and as a meal or flour, that has found the most uses in the Greek kitchen. For generations, dried corn kernels were the stuff with which to fill dolmades (grape leaves). As my late aunt on the island of Ikaria in the northeastern Aegean taught me, the kernels were cheaper than once-luxurious rice, which is now the prevalent filling. Greeks who hailed from the Caucasus and settled mainly in Macedonia and Thrace in the north, still use dried corn kernels, which they call korkota. Merchants sell these tiny amber beads in the neighborhood farmers markets of Thessaloniki. In regional cooking traditions, dried corn kernels are tossed into vegetable and other soups to make them more filling.
Among the once itinerant shepherd communities of northern Greece, especially in Epirus, Macedonia and Thessaly, corn is an important staple. Most of the corn in Greece is actually grown up north, in the regions of Xanthi, Serres, Ioannina, and Larissa. Local cooks have learned to use cornmeal as, among other things, a replacement for laborious homemade phyllo. They sprinkle corn meal on the bottom and over the top of greens pies (nettles, spinach, chard, and sorrel are regional favorites). The cornmeal absorbs all the liquid in the greens, which are often raw when making these dishes, or it is set with the addition of milk poured over the surface of the pie. What results is a delicious savory pie with a thin, crunchy, golden, no-fuss crust.
The mainland region of Roumeli is home to one of the oldest and most unusual dishes with cornmeal: a cabbage and onion soup thickened into porridge with the help of fine ground yellow corn.
Ground corn is also the stuff of bread-like pies, usually enriched with milk, eggs and greens or zucchini, and sometimes served with a dollop of thick Greek yogurt.
Greek polenta, savory and sweet
Greeks have their versions of polenta too, in both sweet and savory renditions. In the Ionian islands of Ithaca and Lefkada “poulenta” is an old dish that sustained many a local denizen through the hardships of war and famine. Most younger Greeks have never seen it because their parents shunned poulenta “like the devil shuns church incense,” as one Lefkada cook once told me. In Lefkada, poulenta is traditionally flavored with garlic and cooked with olive oil; in nearby Ithaca it is seasoned with garlic, onions and, sometimes, raisins. Either butter or olive oil may be used. At least one rendition from these parts calls for a sweet version, drizzled with honey or petimezi (grape must syrup). Cornmeal creams (or mush) are called katsamaki and bazina in other parts of Greece, and these are often enriched with crumbled feta that melts beautifully into this soothing dish. Coarsely ground cornmeal is required in all these preparations. I have served feta poulenta at Pylos, as a bed for stewed greens, sweet mushroom stew and braised meats.
One of my favorite dishes with cornmeal is the pan-Greek bobota, basically a cake studded with raisins and flavored with orange zest and warm spices such as cinnamon and cloves. A quick version of this is an orange-flavored, raisin-studded cornmeal pancake or fritter from Corfu called tsaleti which is drizzled with either honey or petimezi.
By far, though, the most eloquent cornmeal dessert is an old recipe from Naoussa in central Macedonia, one of the major wine-producing regions of Greece. Here a sweetened cornmeal cream is served with one of the most unusual spoon sweets (whole fruit, vegetable or nut preserves): silver-dollar-sized pumpkin chunks that have been put up in the grape-must molasses of the local Xynomavro grape. It is divine, the kind of food devils and angels alike can embrace with gusto.
Buttery Northern Greek Cornmeal Cream With Spoon Sweets
Adapted from my forthcoming book, The Country Cooking of Greece (Chronicle Books, 2012)
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated orange or lemon zest
8 tablespoons butter (divided)
1½ cups pumpkin, eggplant, quince or orange spoon sweet* or any whole fruit preserved in syrup. Fresh mint leaves for garnish.
*Spoon sweets are a staple in the Greek country pantry. They are basically preserves of either whole or chopped fruit, the rinds of citrus fruits, immature nuts and some young vegetables put up either in simple syrup or grape-must molasses. They are available in Greek and Middle Eastern food stores all over the United States and Europe.
- Bring the water and salt to a boil in a medium-size saucepan. As soon as it comes to a rolling boil, stir in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, mixing with a wire whisk as you go.
- Add the sugar, orange zest and half the butter. Stir continuously over low-to-medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the mixture starts to come away from the sides of the pan, about 40 minutes.
- Let cool completely.
To serve: Either spread cornmeal cream into a smooth circle or mound, or dip 2 tablespoons into the remaining melted butter and scoop out a heaping spoonful of the cornmeal, working it with the two spoons to shape like quenelles. Place 2-3 quenelles on each serving plate or arrange them all on a large, round platter.
Spoon the preserves of your choice over the polenta. Drizzle some of the syrup on top. Garnish with fresh mint leaves and serve immediately.
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Photo: Greek cornmeal cream with pumpkin spoon sweets. Credit: Vassilis Stenos