I’m fascinated by the latest round of ancestry.com commercials. In particular, there is one where some middle aged guy, after thinking he was German for 50 years, went onto the website and found out he was Scottish. In addition, he seemed quite happy about exchanging the lederhosen for a kilt. I have a problem with this. If I found out that I wasn’t the nationality I thought I was after 5 decades, I’d be pissed. Immediate questions like “Did we have a Scottish mailman or a nanny?”would pop into my head. I would also have a frank discussion with my parents about the significance of properly relaying important information, such as where the hell I came from , to my siblings and I.
That said, there are times I wish my family history was a little more exciting. I’m at least a third generation Canadian so ties to my homeland are as faded as memories of the last time England won the World Cup. I’ve mentioned before that my mom has always been a good cook but it would be a stretch to say she was authentic. Her cabbage rolls, for example, are stuffed with precooked hamburger, minute rice and parmesan cheese. I have longed to be able to latch onto a culture and call it my own, especially from a food perspective. After a rather boring diet for the first 20 years of my life, I finally was able to experience authentic ethnic food. I remember working with a doctor from Thailand who introduced me to the first Tom Yum soup I’ve ever had. To this day, it is etched in my brain as one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Most culture’s foods are quite ubiquitous now. Even in sleepy towns like London, Ontario, there is a surge in the availability of international fare. Toronto is like a diner’s Disneyland, allowing any of us to be Korean, Indian or Jamaican for a day.
In other words, I’m a little jealous of people with well rooted histories and stories from the old world. Narratives of Sri Lankan perusing markets selling fresh mangosteen or eating carnitas in the alleys of Mexico city sound far more exciting that chasing the Dickie Dee guy down the street to get one of those ghost shapes ice cream bars with the frozen, tooth-cracking gumballs in the middle of a luke warm day in Sudbury. What overcomes the jealousy a bit is when I dine with them and get to see and experience the pride they have in their culture’s food.
Specifically, when it comes to Greek food, my experience was limited growing up. The Apollo was the main gig in town and I rarely went. At home, my mom didn’t know what a greek salad was. Since then, I’ve hit a number of Greek places through my triple D expeditions. Usually, these traditional eateries are pleasantly tacky, often decorated with blue and white colours, flags and pictures of architecture of the homeland hanging on the wall. I’ve also come to realize that every second diner, even if it doesn’t serve souvlaki (although it usually does), is owned by a Grecian. In fact, a Greek friend of mine owns a sports bar in London and I can bet on two things; good food and continuous reminders that, as opposed to England, Greece has won the Euro Cup whereas England’s World Cup win was even earlier than the last Leaf’s Stanley Cup victory.
I was surprised to hear a Greek place would harbour itself along Ossington, one of the more volatile and finicky streets on the whole Toronto dining map. That said, it keeps getting rave reviews. I was particularly interested to go since I was with a couple of colleagues who in some way have Grecian ties . I knew I would be treated to narratives which would nicely compliment some of the dishes that came out and would be a little more exciting than mine which involve the fact that my kids really like my horribly predictable (but decent) chicken souvlaki dinner.
The decor is less tacky than most Greek places and was actually fresh and bright, especially for an Ossington joint. It was bustling but there were no worries because they actually take reservations. It had wine that night so I can’t comment on the cocktails. Despite the fact that Greek wine is not as renowned as some it’s chest pumping European neighbours, Mamaka’s stick to their heritage by offering krasi of all types (about 15 white and red options) and price points ranging from $45 to $120. We opted for the $45 Sofos organic and the $60 Kidonista whites. Although neither were the best whites I’ve ever had, they were as crisp and clean as the joint itself and well worth the reasonable price.
The first lesson from my table mates was that among the many dips available in a Greek restaurant, taramosalata is a better choice than tzatziki. Made with fish roe mixed with other traditional Greek ingredients like lemon and oil, it has a pink hue and is quite salty. It was served with cucumber and pita. It’s a bit of a surreal spread and seemed synonymous with marmite from my British roots.
I didn’t need a lesson to understand the significance of octopus in Grecian cuisine but I did need one to understand Santorini fava. My knowledge of fava beans include their cameo in a Hannibal Lecter speech in “The Silence of the Lambs” and from my dietitian training in which I learned that they fact they cannot be consumed by segments of the world’s population due to favism, a genetic disorder in which there is insufficient glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase in red blood cells, leading to acute hemolytic anemia. Ironically, many Greeks carry this genetic abnormality which also protects from malaria . That said, Santorini fava has nothing to do with fava beans. In fact, it is similar to a hummus made with yellow split peas and flavoured with onions (in this case pickled…soooo Ossington) and capers. This dish was delightful and a nice change from the potato and olive combo which seems to accompany the mollusc everywhere else.
Once again, through stories at the table I was transported to a large Greek family dinner featuring Kokoretsi, a lamb offal sausage complimented with skordalia (a garlic potato taste). I was told stories of a grandmother, who did not want to waste a scrap of food, working meticulously to season and stuff everything into an awaiting casing with great success. Although I’m not a lamb fan, I couldn’t complain…it tasted like I was there.
For a side we had tiganites patates which were fries topped with a little feat, egg and spicy sauce. In other words, it’s Greek poutine. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to mess up fries and I will eat an egg on anything so I wasn’t disappointed.
Mamakas proves that Greek food can be as funky and cool as their Korean, Cuban or Vietnamese neighbours. This restaurant breaks the mold of predictable, diner-like atmospheres and instead offers a cool and sleek vibe. The food includes standard fare such as lamb and spanakopita but also transforms traditional but lesser known dishes into modern small plates which still emphasis the concept of family style dining.
I often go to medical conferences (which would perhaps discuss glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase) but don’t usually participate in the guided poster presentations which provide audio commentary to accompany the visual data. When it comes to dining, however, I’m singing a different tune. Listening to my colleagues reminisce about family gatherings rooted in old world traditions in the context of Mamakas decor, vibe and food makes me want to declare myself a culinary pyromaniac, break dishes and scream “Opa!” at the top of my lungs for at least a few hours before reverting to my sullen, ale-swigging distant English eating habits.
In the end, I’ve realized I don’t need ancestry.com. Being a United Kingdom mutt allows me to be a bit of an impartial chameleon when it comes to the diversity of cultural food choices out there. I think restaurant owners perceive there is as much a benefit in appeasing the clueless white guy as there is members of the ethnicity they represent. I feel I’m kind of like Mikey form the iconic life cereal commercials as many of the chefs anxiously stare at me wondering if, after a short period of consideration, I will like it.