An ongoing series on Greek cuisine and longevity.
Two years ago, Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones,” a book on the areas in the world where longevity is off the charts, contacted me about coming to Ikaria, a small island in the eastern Aegean where I run a cooking school and where my family’s roots are. The island is a Blue Zone.
Ikaria is not a place on the radar of most travelers to Greece, but when Buettner explained the reason behind his trip, to research the island’s large population of healthy nonagenarians, he made me think of something I had more or less taken for granted within my own immediate family. My mother, of Ikarian descent, lived with her mind and body intact to 95; my husband’s maternal Ikarian grandmother lived, fully cognizant, to 99. His dad, at a ripe 87, is spry and still writes books. My aunt lived to 95 and did her own gardening and household chores until the age of 92. Many of the people I know on the island are well into their golden years and still sound of body and mind. In fact, according to Blue Zones research, Ikarians are a third more likely than Americans to reach the age of 90; they have a 20 percent lower cancer rate, about half the rate of cardiovascular disease and almost no dementia.
I should explain a bit about Ikaria, for those of you — most of you — who know nothing about this remote, unusual island. Beyond its natural beauty, its perfect beaches, its uncharacteristic lushness and mineral springs that have been recommended for their therapeutic qualities since the age of Hippocrates, Ikaria is the island whose denizens have no sense of time. Read that to mean that there is no stress. Raches, for example, a loosely connected group of villages on the northern side of the island, where my family is from, is known in Greece as the place where people sleep in the daytime and live all night. Forget punctual. Shops, in the height of summer, open at midday, close around 3, reopen again sometime after 9 and stay open almost all night. It’s not uncommon to buy sugar, or even shoes, at the local general store in the wee hours of the morning. I got married in Raches and was two hours late for my own wedding; when I did finally arrive, the priest was still on his way. Life is S-L-O-W, a factor that surely accounts for the lack of stress, which, of course, affects the aging process.
So does diet. Ikaria’s traditional cuisine is essentially plant-based; meat, mainly goat, used to be eaten only on festive occasions. Indeed, at Easter, every village still organizes a communal meal where whoever can or wants to contributes but every resident is welcome. It’s a tradition of the past that has remained unchanged and its raison d‘etre was simple: At least once a year, everyone was able to enjoy a little meat.
Goats scamper wild all over the island, and one unique local specialty is the whole animal salt-cured. Ikarians call this preparation pasturma (nothing to do with the Armenian spiced, cured beef), and a few old-timers still make it. Pasturma is still added in very small quantities to bean soups and vegetable stews, mainly for flavor.
In the island’s traditional diet, which is a variation of the Mediterranean diet, fish figures prominently. So does strong wine and excellent honey, mainly pine honey, which locals, by empiric knowledge, claim, is the key to their longevity. Our beekeeper, Yiorgos Stenos, lithe and fit at almost 80, still works a 10-hour day as a successful merchant (he’s one of the shopkeepers who can sell you rice or a light bulb at 4 a.m.), and is the best dancer on the island, the man you want to waltz you around — tirelessly — at every local festival. He says his secret is the spoonful of honey he consumes religiously every day and the natural physical exercise he gets tending his hives. That and a diet that has become second nature to him: Not too much of anything, he says, and lots of vegetables and greens from his garden.
The traditional Ikarian diet is a typical poor-man’s Greek-island diet. It mirrors what grows or is produced locally. First and foremost among the raw ingredients of Ikarian cooking are wild edible greens and herbs. Dozens of varieties (Buettner counted 70), rich in antioxidants and minerals, blanket the island. Ikaria also boasts wild mushrooms, an excellent source of amino acids, carotene, antioxidants and proteins similar to animal proteins with none of the bad stuff; beans, which speak for themselves as excellent protein sources; high-fiber taro root; nuts (mainly walnuts, almonds, and chestnuts), stone fruits, apples, pears, grapes, figs and whole grains. Pumpkins and squashes are still a significant part of the seasonal diet, from late summer to winter.
All these foods were in the typical larder while most of today’s 90-year-old islanders were growing up. They are still important in the local diet, although meat is consumed much more now than it was a generation ago. Olive oil, in profuse amounts, runs free in almost every dish, including a number of sweets, on Ikaria.
Fennel, oregano and savory are the island’s most abundant herbs, but that’s not to say there isn’t a whole folk pharmacopeia that many locals are knowledgeable about. St. John’s Wort, called balsamo on the island, is not made into an infusion to combat the blues – it’s known as a homeopathic antidepressant in the West — but rather submerged in olive oil and used as a very efficient salve for cuts and wounds. Herbal infusions abound and are known for their curative powers: oregano for stomach aches and sore throats; chamomile to soothe and calm the nerves; a variety of sage that islanders, and, indeed, Greeks in general, call mountain tea, is sipped to soothe the stomach, among other things. These infusions, consumed regularly but with restraint, are another aspect of the local diet that may contribute to the islanders’ health, low stress levels and low rate of heart disease. Many of these herbal teas are mild diuretics, which are first in the line of medications doctors prescribe for hypertension.
While it may take some long walks and yoga classes for Westerners to achieve the nominal level of calm that most islanders are blessed with because of their natural surroundings, eating like Ikarians is easier than it sounds. Their simple Blue Zone cooking may be replicated in any kitchen in the West. In the true Greek diet, Blue Zone or otherwise, seasonality is a basic tenet. Now it’s the season for wintry things, from taro root to winter squashes (acorn, butternut, pumpkin), to dense bean soups.
Taro can be the root of a meal
Not many people associate taro root with Mediterranean cooking, but on the eastern and southern Aegean islands, especially Ikaria and Cyprus, it is something of a national food. On Ikaria, it remains one of the main sources of starch, especially in the winter months. Locals, regardless of age (these stories get passed down), are quick to tell you how it was the food of sustenance during the Occupation. Generally, taro is stewed.
A rich source of dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, one cup of taro contains about 11 percent of the daily recommended requirements for vitamin C, 20 percent of the vitamin E requirements and 22 percent of our vitamin B6 needs. It is also an excellent source of minerals, especially magnesium, phosphorous, copper and manganese. Between the vitamin E and the potassium, both of which are said to have beneficial effects for heart function and blood pressure, taro seems like a fitting vegetable with which to start this series on the foods of one of the planet’s most relaxed, least heart-attack-prone populations.
Remember to relax while cooking and, please, don’t stress out if you’re running late …
Taro and Kidney Bean Stew
This dish is an old winter specialty from Ikaria. The recipe is adapted from a small book on Ikarian cooking, published (in Greek) by the community of Kavos Papas, on the south side of the island.
½ pound kidney or mottled beans, soaked overnight
1 bay leaf, cracked
½ cup extra virgin Greek olive oil
2 large red onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large taro root, peeled (use a chef’s knife to remove the tough skin) and cut into ½-inch thick half moons. Cut it down the middle lengthwise then slice.
½ cup chopped canned tomatoes or 1 tablespoon of good quality, preferably sun-dried, tomato paste
½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt and pepper
Lemon juice, verjuice, or a little red wine vinegar to taste
- Drain the beans and place in a large pot with enough water to cover by two inches. Bring to a boil, skim any foam off the top, add the bay leaf, lower the heat and continue cooking for about 35 minutes.
- While the beans are cooking, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy nonstick skillet and sauté the onions and garlic until soft and lightly colored, about 8 minutes over medium heat.
- Add the taro root slices and sauté for a few minutes, stirring. Local cooks do this to rid the taro of its mucousy texture. Set aside.
- Add the taro, onions and garlic to the simmering beans.
- Pour in another 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil, the tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and simmer for about 1 hour until the stew is densely textured and the taro and beans soft.
- Stir in the parsley and adjust the seasoning with additional salt and pepper and either lemon juice, verjuice, or red wine vinegar.
Taro Root Salad with Skordalia
Serves 6 to 8
1 large taro root, peeled
1 red onion, halved and chopped
1 celery stalk, trimmed and chopped
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or dill
½ cup olive or more, as needed
3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice or red wine vinegar, to taste
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Peel the taro root and place in a pot with ample cold water (to cover by 2 inches). Salt the water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer the taro for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until fork tender.
- Remove with a slotted spoon and stand upright on a cutting board. Cut away the muddy remains of the taro’s peel and discard. Cut the taro in half lengthwise and then into chunks about 1½ inches in size. Place in a large serving bowl.
- Add the onion, celery, parsley, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Toss carefully.
- Serve warm or at room temperature, with classic Greek skordalia (recipe follows).
Skordalia (Garlicky Bread Dip)
4 to 5 2-inch thick slices of sourdough country-style bread,
5 to 7 garlic cloves, peeled
½ to 1 cup extra virgin Greek olive oil
¼ to ⅓ cup red wine vinegar
Salt to taste
- Dampen the bread under the tap and squeeze out the excess moisture.
- Place half the garlic and half the bread in a large mortar. Using the pestle, start pounding the mixture, adding salt and olive oil in small amounts, then more bread and garlic, and, again, salt, then olive oil and vinegar, alternating between each in slow, steady streams, until the mixture emulsifies and is a textured paste.
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.
Photos, from top: Taro root; a beekeeper on Ikaria
Credits: Vassilis Stenos