Inhabitants of the Greek island of Skopelos have been curing and rolling fish for generations in a “sushi-style” preparation that dates back to ancient times.
Seasoned chef and Skopelos local Nikos Stamatakis has spoken about how the island’s cured version of the mornay eel is likely to have been Europe’s first ‘sushi’ in a recent interview with the BBC.
Nikos Stamatakis is the owner-manager of Agnanti Restaurant, a traditional island restaurant in the picturesque amphitheatrical village of Glossa that commands a majestic view of the Sporadic archipelago, on enchanting Skopelos. From the high veranda of ‘Agnanti’ (meaning view), under the cool vine-arbour, one’s gaze reaches all the way to Evia and Skiathos.
The gastronomic journey of the restaurant began in 1953 for the Stamatakis family who have remained faithful to authentic Greek cuisine ever since, offering carefully prepared dishes with their own family recipes that have been passed down through generations for decades.
Dining on the moray eel can be traced back to the days of Ancient Greece and may even be Europe’s first ‘sushi’, says culinary connoisseur Stamatakis, who hails from a long line of Skopelos taverna owners.
He explains that the residents of Skopelos have long been curing and rolling the fish in a ‘sushi-style.’ Whilst some stuff the fish with rice, other prefer to use plums and vegetables instead, especially on special occasions.
“You fillet the fish, roll it up and stuff it with plums and greens. You can then salt or smoke it in a wood-burning stove or in the oven,” said Stamatakis.
“Mother-in-laws-to-be would knock on the grooms’-to-be door with this version of the dish in hand before the wedding.”
The earliest form of sushi is called narezushi, originating from the paddy fields of ancient southern China. However whilst sushi is synonymous with raw fish for many people these days, narezushi was made by fermenting fish with salt and rice in order to control putrefaction throughout monsoonal periods and in intense heat.
In a similar way, the people of Skopelos would salt-cure the mornay eel.
This ‘sushi-style’ preparation of curing the eel before rolling and stuffing it is unique to the island and is not found anywhere else in the Mediterranean.
Preparing the eel in this way has been handed down from generation to generation, and was originally taught to the inhabitants of Skopelos by the monks of Mont Athos (Holy Mountain).
This was how Stamatakis’ pappous learned how to make sushi Greek-style.
“He, and basically everyone that came into contact with the monks, got impressed by their Byzantine culinary traditions, especially the way they cured moray eel [by salting or smoking it],” says Stamatakis.
“This is an old recipe. There is even mentioning of Ancient Greeks keeping moray eels in aquariums in Deipnosophistae (an early 3rd-Century AD, multi-volume Greek tome considered to be the oldest surviving cookbook).
“Skopelites loved the dish and brought it back to their wives on the island.”
This account by Stamatakis is supported by historian and author of Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, Andrew Dalby.
According to Dalby, this salt-curing cooking technique was first brought to the Mediterranean by Arabs in medieval times, after which it eventually made its way to Skopelos.
“When sikbaj [a popular meat dish that was cured by marinating the meat in vinegar and sour fruit juice] crossed over to the Mediterranean through the Arabs, it gradually turned into a form of fish cookery as its preparation worked well for fish,” Dalby says.
Mediterranean people then began to experiment with curing the fish by way of salting or smoking it instead of in an acidic marinade.
Dalby says that this curing technique was most likely passed from the Arabs to Byzantine Greeks, then to the Mount Athos monastery and finally to the Skopelites, thus explaining how Skopelos ultimately had its own ‘sushi’.
“It was the Greeks – first of any known people – who developed gastronomy around fresh fish and considered the moray eel to be a high-quality gastronomic choice,” says Dalby. “It is almost certain that the Greeks thought first of using this ‘sushi’-cooking style with the moray eel.”
Thus, with the ancient sushi tradition of Skopelos still alive today to prove it, Greeks may be correct in concluding that they were the inventors of ‘sushi’ in Europe.