When you think about Greek and Greek Cypriot food, your mind might go to a whole lot of meat.
“There’s just so many kebabs, and we love a grill,” admits Georgina Hayden. “That is probably a preconception that is justified.”
But there’s another side to the cuisine she’s keen to uncover – the plant-based food eaten during Lent and other fasting times of the year. And there’s an awful lot of fasting: up to 200 days a year, including the 50 days before Easter, 50 days before Christmas, and every Wednesday and Friday.
“If you’re doing it properly, that is a lot of days without meat,” says Hayden. “But it means when you do eat meat, they go hard – it’s about balance.”
Hayden, who worked with Jamie Oliver for 12 years, has dedicated her latest cookbook to ‘nistisima’ – “a Greek word, meaning Lenten food,” she explains. “It’s the food we eat in the preparation for any big religious festival. That is the bigger meaning, but if you were presented with something that was ‘nistisimo’, or some food that was ‘nistisima’, basically that means it’s plant-based, on a more simple level.” It does include shellfish, but Hayden’s book is entirely vegan, “for the sake of ease”.
It might all sound a bit daunting – the religious references and vegan eating – but that’s not Hayden’s aim at all. She’s keen to not tell anyone what to do – she’s not vegan herself and wouldn’t ask anyone to go completely plant-based if they don’t want to – she just wants to “empower people with a load of recipes that introduce more lentils and vegetables to their life”.
And you won’t find sad meat replacements or vegan cheese anywhere in the book – particularly as Hayden tried vegan feta once (“I was curious!”) and calls it “honestly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten”. Instead, she found so many dishes from Cyprus and the surrounding countries are accidentally vegan and totally delicious in their own right.
“Instead of trying to replicate cauliflower cheese and make it something it’s not, it’s about finding new dishes that have been around for centuries that just happen to be plant-based,” she says – and this wasn’t a hard task at all (the book could have been “double the size, easily”).
Hayden grew up around Greek Cypriot food – her grandparents ran a taverna in North London – but her research took her even further afield. “I was researching not just Greek food but the food from the surrounding countries in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. There are so many dishes and so much food from these places that is naturally and traditionally vegan,” she explains. “That just fascinates me, especially nowadays, when we’re trying to eat more veg and trying to be a bit more conscientious for the planet, whether you’re a meat-eater or not.”
She wrote the book when the pandemic was in full force and she couldn’t travel to meet people. She describes, with glee, Whats Apping monks in Lebanon, Face Timing a woman in Jordan to see what she was making for Lent and learning from another monk (there were a surprising amount of monks involved in her journey) the trick to the most delicious kibbeh (deep-fried, stuffed pastries) – adding pumpkin puree instead of water to the batter, to really amp up the flavour.
“There’s so much talk about – and rightly so – cultural appropriation in food,” Hayden says thoughtfully. “We really have to look at where our food comes from and where recipes come from. But it’s a really hard one – especially in a book like this – when you’re crossing so many borders. Everyone has their own version of pretty much the same dish. A lot of people are aware of stuffed vine leaves and they think of it as 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 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 washing up and whatnot,” groans Hayden. “But when you’re talking about vegan or plant-based cooking, because you don’t have animal fat to give you flavour” – you’ve got to invest a bit more time in it.
One of the monks she spoke to would cook his onions for an hour – a far cry from what most of us do, which is essentially burning diced onions in a pan for a few minutes before adding 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 might do your slow-cooked shoulder of lamb for four hours – why don’t you apply the same principle to your vegetables? Not everything has to be quick.
“In the book, there are loads of speedy recipes – because that’s life – but equally, if you’re not having a big chunk of meat for Sunday dinner, apply the same compassion and love to your vegetables and you’ll get loads of flavour. I think that’s even more important to do with plant-based food because it needs that sweetness that comes from slow cooking.”
But don’t worry, it’s not like the recipes in the book are overly complex and hard to follow – Hayden is Jamie Oliver’s protégée, 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 has always put the home cook at the forefront when he’s thinking about things, and he’s essentially taught me how to write a good recipe.”
Nistisima: The Secret To Delicious Vegan Cooking From The Mediterranean And Beyond by Georgina Hayden is published by Bloomsbury.