Greek island with the ancient tradition of ‘sushi’. At Verdent Skopelos, locals have been treating and rolling fish for generations in a “sushi-style” preparation that dates back to medieval times. “What are you doing? Why are you throwing it away?” shouted Nikos Stamatakis, a young fisherman who separated a giant moray from a net full of red snapper off the coast of Skopelos, a Greek island in the west Aegean Sea.
Greek island with the ancient tradition
“What do you want for this ugly animal?” asked the beaded fish fisherman. “I’ve been looking for this for a long time. This is the best sushi you’re about to throw away,” Stamatakis replied. This is a typical dialogue that Stomatakis, a seasoned chef, shares with Skopelos fishermen, who increasingly catch this “low market value fish” in their nets or use their sharp teeth to cut their longlines.
But Stamatakis, a culinary connoisseur who hails from a long generation of Skopelos tavern owners, knows the magnificent culinary potential of this misunderstood fish. Consumption of moray eel dates back to the glory days of ancient Greece, he says. In fact, the cured version of this two-jawed eel, which Hollywood is rumored to have modeled some of its exotic fears, may even be Europe’s first “sushi.”
“The fish is grilled, rolled and stuffed with plums and vegetables. It can then be salted or smoked in a wood stove or oven,” Stamatakis said. He explained that the locals have long been treating and rolling fish in this “sushi style,” with some scopelites filling the fish with rice, although plums and vegetables were preferred on special occasions like engagements. “The mother-in-law would knock on the groom’s door with this version of the plate in her hand before the wedding,” he said.
While most people associate sushi with raw fish, the oldest form of sushi, called nerezushi, consisted of salted fish and raw rice. Narezushi is thousands of years old and its roots lie in the rice fields of China. Just as the people who lived in these areas found a way to preserve and ferment local fish with salt to survive periods of strong monsoons and intense heat, the shotguns used the moray eel to enrich their local cuisine.
Treating and rolling the fish in a “sushi-style” preparation, as Stamatakis describes it, is unique to the island and cannot be found anywhere else in the Mediterranean. Stamatakis learned the dish from his grandfather, a sailor, farmer, and cook, who, in turn, learned it from the monks on Mount Athos. Like the friars, Stamatakis’s grandfather would salt the fish before rolling it up and stuffing it.
Skopelos or Hora
Mount Athos (or Holy Mountain) is a collective name for a mountain and a peninsula in northeast Greece, approximately 110 km northeast of Skopelos. It is the spiritual center of Orthodox Christianity and has been an autonomous region since Byzantine times, made up of 20 monasteries, 12 small monastic settlements, some 700 houses, cells or hermitages, and some 2,000 monks.
In the first half of the 20th century, there were many Skopelos lands near Mount Athos, Stamatakis said, and many locals in search of farmland began to trade with the ascetics. One of them was Stamatakis’s grandfather. He bought land in Glossa, an amphitheater town built on top of a steep hill 25 km northwest of the capital of Skopelos, also known as Skopelos or Hora.
“He, and basically everyone who came into contact with the monks, was influenced by their Byzantine culinary traditions, especially by the way they cured the moray [by salting or smoking it]. It is an ancient recipe. Ancient Greeks kept moray eels in aquariums at Deipnosophistae (a multi-volume Greek tome from the early 3rd century AD believed to be the oldest surviving cookbook), ”Stamatakis said. the plate and took it to their wives on the island. “
Lobster cooked with barnacles
Not far from the arid and dry Cyclades, Skopelos is the greenest island in Greece. 67% of the island is made up of a pure and uncontaminated vegetation, crossed by old mules, and olive groves that give way to charming villages that rise from endless pine forests.
Reminders of the Byzantine Empire and the association with Mount Athos can be seen everywhere, as the island is dotted with 360 chapels and churches. Skopelos is also a seafood paradise, and its residents pride themselves on cooking sea urchins stuffed with orzo pasta or rice and lobster cooked with barnacles.
“Skopelos is the most beautiful island in the world,” said Nikos’s uncle, Giannis Stamatakis, who has two impressive records. At 101 years old, he is not only the oldest person in Skopelos, but also its largest plum producer (with eight different varieties of plum, the island is a plum paradise).
Lean and well-groomed, with an admirable zest for life, “Barba-Giannis” (beards, which means uncle in Greek) does not understand why today’s gunslingers despise his favorite food: smoky brunette. It seems that young people don’t like his face. Or maybe it’s too complicated for them to prepare.
“When he was a kid, he used to go fishing and jump for joy if he caught a moray eel,” he told me. “I would bring it to my mother’s house to cook it and we had a feast. It tasted like butter, juicy and delicious. But, today, neither I nor my nephew can eat it anymore. It seems that young people don’t like his face. Or maybe it’s too much annoying for them to get dressed because the damn thing is slipping out of your hands, “he added almost with a sigh.
Machoula Stamataki, Nikos Stamataki’s mother, agrees. “Back then we used to eat cured brunettes,” she said. “Unfortunately, they don’t eat it anymore. Maybe it’s because it’s so difficult to clean and cook? The younger generation doesn’t know what they are missing.”
The Stamatakis family lamented the modern lack of appreciation for this fine fish, which put it in changing tastes when tourism hit the island in the late 1960s. “Maybe the shotguns had a choice, but we knew better … and my grandfather told me that our ancestors liked it too, “said Barba-Giannis.
The moray eel has a long and distinctive heritage on the island. According to Andrew Dalby, historian and author of Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, the ancient Greeks loved the brunette.
In his poem Gastronomia, Orchestratus, an ancient Greek poet, wrote that if his readers ever caught a moray eel floating between Sicily and Italy, they should appreciate it because it was a wonderful meal,” Dalby wrote. He said.
Dalby explained that the ancient Greeks appreciated cooked fish as much as possible, so they grilled or roasted moray eels on the fire and added very little olive oil or herbs as a topping as they would use it for cooking. all the flavor, he said.
It’s a fondness for the simplicity of cooking that can still be seen in modern Greek taverns, he adds, adding that in ancient times locals weren’t used to eating salt-cured fish. According to Dalby, This cooking technique was brought to the Mediterranean by the Arabs in medieval times, eventually reaching Skopelos.
“I am recovering the type of cooking that is used in escabeche de España (a fried fish dish that is marinated and served cold),” Dalby said. He notes that pickling was first practiced in the early medieval period and is derived from al-sikbaj, a popular meat dish that was used to cook pickled meat and citrus fruit juices rather than some cooking process. nurtured by the Persian court.
When Sikbaaz crossed the Mediterranean through the Arabs, he gradually switched to cooking fish because his preparation worked well for fish, Dalby said. The Mediterranean seem to have taken the light cooking process a step further, using salting or smoking the fish rather than simply curing it in an acid marinade.
He explained that through the Arab influence on the Mediterranean coast, this healing technique was passed to Spain and spread to the Mediterranean Sea; Or it went from the Arabs to the Byzantine Greeks, to the ascetics of Mount Athos and finally to the Skopelites.
He notes that the second route of transmission gives a strong explanation for how Skopelos finished his “sushi.” In any case, the final stage of that pickle development appears to be the moray eel dish at Skopelos, Dalby said. But whatever the truth about how this cooking technique came to the island.
It is no exaggeration to speculate that the Greeks may have invented their own version of “sushi” from Europe. It was the Greeks, the first of all acquaintances, who developed gastronomy around fresh fish and moray eel, being considered a high quality gastronomic option. It is almost certain that the Greeks made this ‘sushi’ with moray eel. They thought about using the cooking style.
Fresh water, fillet and salt
Beard-Giannis and others who frequented Glossa’s taverns before the tourist boom of the 1960s had no idea they were eating a dish with such an illustrious and complex history. Nor did they care. They would adopt the ugly fish, whether it came with a well-known tradition or not. It was very captivating.
We loved the moray eel at the time. We took the fish and cooked it whole, Shatabdi said. The Greeks almost certainly first thought of using this “sushi” style of cooking with brunettes.
The old shotguns used to carefully remove the slime from the moray’s back, wash it in plenty of fresh water, fillet and salt, and then salt or smoke it. And they will take their time with that. “Today, people eat clumsily and fast,” said Barba-Giannis.
Moray eel tastes
On the contrary, for his generation, the diligent grooming of the brunettes was a labor of love and a kind of ritual bond that united the community. But, even though modern scopelites may have developed an aversion to these unfortunate-looking creatures, the old technique of cooking moray eel “sushi” is still going strong on the island, according to his nephew.
“We are applying similar technology to smaller fish like sardines,” Stamatakis said. He rarely makes brown eel sushi, usually stuffing it with rice. “Moray eel tastes much better, but the ‘sushi’ technique is still here.”