- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

ATHENS — Rivalry between Greeks and Turks, simmering over centuries, ends in the kitchen.

Greeks long ago surrendered their taste buds to savory imports from the other side of the Aegean Sea: stuffed grape leaves, kebabs, honey-drenched sweets. Now, a hit movie is reinforcing these culinary bonds and celebrating a shared history that also includes music, language and habits.

More than 1 million people have seen the movie “Politiki Kouzina,” distributed outside Greece as “A Touch of Spice.” It’s a sentimental portrait of a boy who learned about life and the power of flavors in his grandfather’s spice shop in Istanbul, Turkey, before being deported with thousands of other ethnic Greeks in the 1950s.

Growing up in Athens, the film’s hero remained devoted to Istanbul, which is known to many Greeks simply as the “poli,” or city, and to its spicy fare, known as “politiki kouzina,” the cuisine of the city.

“For 2,000 years, the city was the capital of two large empires and a crossroads of the great trade routes carrying silk and spices. … This helped create a very special cuisine,” says food writer and historian Soula Bozi, the main adviser on the film, which could break Greek box-office records (in a country of about 11 million people).

Greek cooking was greatly influenced by the East through four centuries of Ottoman rule, but, more important, also by waves of returning Greek refugees displaced by the wars, forced exchanges and deportations that started in the 1920s.

Greeks still call Istanbul by its historic name, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which fell to the Muslim Ottomans in 1453. Istanbul remains home to a tiny Greek minority, retains its place as the spiritual center of Orthodox Christianity and is a focus of homage — as well as shopping — for many Greeks.

The politiki kouzina crafted by Istanbul’s ethnic Greeks has more cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and other spices than regular Greek food and is sometimes indistinguishable from Turkish cuisine. It remains a nostalgic specialty in Greece and is the inspiration for several popular restaurants.

“Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Jews all lived there,” says Miss Bozi, an Istanbul native who now calls Athens home. “The fish in Turkey have Greek names. Our meat dishes … are more Turkish.”

Dishes from “the city” are hardly for the diet conscious.

“Food from Istanbul has more spices and seasoning than Greek food and is often prepared in a different way, often using butter instead of olive oil,” says Myrsini Lambraki, co-author of “Greece-Turkey at the Same Table,” a collection of recipes from the two countries.

The film, which has both Greek and Turkish actors, has not yet opened in Turkey.

At Pandelis Restaurant in Athens, the agile Erdal Akca, a Turk from Istanbul, is having a busy night flipping phyllo, manning the gas burners and producing those awesome deserts. He has been perfecting his “ek-mek” syrup-sponge base for ice cream and his Oriental rice pudding, “kazan dipi,” for the past 12 years.

“After the film, many more people are coming,” says restaurant owner Christos Petrou. “The difference with our food is the hand that makes it.”

There’s full agreement from Miss Bozi, who has visited and spoken with dozens of elderly women to compile her recipe collection.

The Istanbul Greeks’ recipes were developed in very traditional homes where good cooking was regarded as a vital skill for young women.

“Politiki kouzina requires inexpensive materials, but it takes time to prepare and a little experience,” Miss Bozi says. “Some of the dishes require constant attention and involve several stages.”

“You can manage your time to make proper food. … I don’t like fast food,” Miss Bozi says. “I am an advocate of slow food.”

She picked two of her easier recipes, one for lamb and the other for a milky dessert:

Lamb tas kebab

2 onions, finely chopped

2 level tablespoons butter

Leg of lamb, meat coarsely chopped

2 large tomatoes, peeled and mashed

Salt, pepper, cinnamon, sugar, to taste

Cook onions in butter until golden. Add meat, and brown the pieces, stirring with wooden spoon. Add tomato pulp, salt, pepper, cinnamon and a little sugar to taste. Reduce heat, cover pot, and cook at least 40 minutes, the longer the better. Serve with plain rice. Vegetable oil can be used instead of butter and chunks of beef instead of lamb.

Malebi

4 level tablespoons corn flour

1 quart milk

Rose water, for garnish

Icing sugar, for garnish

Dissolve the corn flour in a little water, and add the milk. Heat in a pot, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens. Pour into a shallow dish to cool. Cut into squares, sprinkling with rose water and icing sugar. Serve with ice cream and fresh strawberries.

• • •

• In Washington, Greek and Turkish mezes — as well as mezes of Lebanon — are the focus of the menu of Zaytinya, 701 Ninth St. NW. The restaurant also serves wines from the three countries. Zaytinya (named for the Turkish word for olive oil) is open daily; phone 202/638-0800.

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