How the Greeks influenced Aussie eating


Me with my Papou Peter – I inherited both his love of food and his nose

I really wish I had known my grandfathers.

They both died when I was a toddler so all I have are some old 80s-style photos of them holding me proudly in their arms.

Despite not knowing them I am pretty sure my love of food stems from their influence: one was a seafood chef at The Royal Automobile Club, amongst other places, and the other ran a fresh fish shop in Sydney’s Wynyard Station which was the place to buy fish in the 60s. It’s now a McDonald’s.

These weren’t uncommon career paths for Greek immigrants, who came to Australia with nothing but the determination to succeed and a little ingenuity. Food was a way for new migrants to assimilate into the community and find jobs, even when they didn’t speak English. Many also came via America or had family in America where they’d picked up culinary ideas that were ripe for applying to the Aussie market.


The fantastic book by Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski

My ears pricked up when I heard about a new book by historian Leonard Janiszewski and photographer Effy Alexakis that delves into the impact that Greeks have had on the café culture in Australia. The book compiles the stories of many Greek families and looks at the development of eating culture through the lens of the Greek café and milk bar. The book proves that Greeks truly changed the face of public eating in Australia.

As part of History Week (can you tell I’m the daughter of a history teacher?) I went along to a book talk with my Aunty Kathy and was fascinated to learn more about other Greek families in hospitality and their impact on Aussie culture.


Pitt St Sydney circa 1900 including iconic Comino’s Cosmopolitan Oyster Parlor – photo from Greek Cafés & Milk Bars of Australia

It’s hard to imagine how different things once were. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Australia mimicked the UK and social hierarchy was everything. The rich ate here and the poor ate there. But in Greece, people have always mixed and mingled and eating is about family, delicious food and a sense of community. When the Greeks came to Australia to find a better life, they eschewed the social stratification of the day and opened establishments for everyone.

First it was oyster saloons or oyster parlors (back when oysters were cheap), which they soon transformed with burgers and other foods they’d seen in America. Then they had the ingenious idea of taking soda fountains, traditionally used in apothecaries for helping bitter medicine go down, and making them customer-facing, adding syrups and flavours to create fun and social drinks.


A classic Greek café menu inspired heavily by popular American dishes – photo from Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia

From soda the Greeks turned to milkshakes. New technology in the 1930s and the introduction of the Hamilton Beach Milkshake Maker made frothed milk drinks the beverage of choice. If you happen to have one kicking around from those times they’re worth an absolute fortune now. According to Janiszewski, the Greeks were even responsible for bringing in espresso machines… but it was the Italians who popularised them.


Martin Place’s Black & White 4d Milk Bar – photo from Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia

The Black & White 4d Milk Bar in Martin Place was Australia’s first milk bar. When it opened in 1934, 5,000 people lined up for a milkshake on the first day. My Papou Peter, pictured at the top of this story, actually ran the Black & White 4d Milk Bar at one stage. This was the start of a movement – by the end of the decade there were around 4,000 milk bars around Australia. McDonald’s would kill for that sort of market penetration these days.


The Niagara Café in Gundagai – the gent in the middle is my Papou Con

One of the better known Greek cafés, which still survives today, is the Niagara Café in Gundagai. From 1919 to 1983 it was owned by the Castrission family and my grandfather, Con Castrission, worked there when he first came to Australia. That’s him in the white shirt in the above photo, looking out from the bar. I’d really like to visit Gundagai one day and experience the café that was so influential in my family. My Papou Con went on to run his own café, The Astoria, in Echuca, before coming to Sydney to run Wynyard Fish Supply.

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9 more reasons to love cloudberries

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Fresh cloudberries in the flesh

It’s been almost two years since I announced to the world that cloudberries are my crack. Since then my dependency has grown worse, exacerbated by a recent trip to the northern hemisphere where I had more access to the goods than I could handle. I’m literally on a cloudberry high as I write this.

I’ve waxed lyrical about these babies before. Their rarity. Their delicacy. Their sweet, sweet, but tart taste that has my eyes lolling in my head. My habit started with cloudberry jam in London and peaked with fresh berries in Helsinki. I’m too far gone to stop now.

But this year I took it to a whole new level. Cloudberry yoghurt? Yep. Cloudberries and fried cheese? All over it. Cloudberry soap? Absolutely (but only topically mind you – even I have limits). Cloudberries found their way into my world no less than nine times this July.

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Delicious yoghurt flavoured with Swedish cloudberries

Cloudberry yoghurt

Clouberries are called hjortron in Sweden, pronounced ‘you-tron’. I don’t even have to hint to my Swedish friends anymore, they know how much I love them. On my first morning in the northern Swedish city of Sundsvall, I was greeted with a delicious breakfast spread by my adopted Swedish mother, Ing-Mari. Amongst the crisp rye bread and västerbotten cheese was a carton of hjortron fjäll – a thin rich yoghurt flavoured with my favourite berries. What a way to start the day!

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Cloudberry jam is where my addiction started

Cloudberry Jam

This is how is all began for me and is probably the most well known and well travelled cloudberry product. If you’re lucky you can even find it at IKEA (if you live in Sydney don’t even bother trying the Tempe store, I generally clean them out). It’s ubiquitous in Sweden and I had to start restricting my purchases as it’s not very practical to transport around the world.

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The unbelievably tasty combo of fried camembert and cloudberry jam

Cloudberry jam… with cheese!

Cheese and jam is a winning combination, nothing makes me go weak at the knees like a hunk of blue cheese stacked with quince jam. That was until the day I discovered fried camembert with cloudberry jam at a street market in Skelleftea, up in Swedish Lapland. The fried cheese had a crispy exterior, gooey cheesy interior, and worked delightfully with the heady sweetness of cloudberries.

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Cloudberries are a cornerstone of Swedish dessert menus

Cloudberry dessert

It’s not uncommon to see cloudberry jam or sauce featured on Swedish dessert menus. The ante was upped, however, on a dining experience in Umeå, where I came across rullrån with mascarpone and cloudberries. Crispy cigar wafers were filled with mascarpone and served on a bed of macerated cloudberries and it was a sensational combination. Can’t wait to recreate this one at home. Read More

7 reasons why you need to know about Georgian food

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Georgian food stand at the Dorogomilovskiy market

How much do you know about Georgia?

The country nestled under Russia in the Caucasus that is, not the US state.

In all truth I previously knew only one thing about Georgia. In 2007 a little Georgian lass came fourth in Junior Eurovision (for under 15s), and on her return to Georgia she was welcomed like royalty. The Prime Minister even came to meet her at the airport, such was the enormity of this occasion.

Any country that treats its fourth place Eurovision winner like a god is solid in my book.

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Pelamushi is a typical Georgian dessert

At this point I have to fess up and make it clear that I haven’t been to Georgia. BUT, I have just spent two weeks in Russia, in which Georgian food takes a starring role.

There seems to be a few reasons for the proliferation of Georgian cuisine. Firstly, it’s damn good. The benefit of sitting smack in the middle of the ancient East-West trade routes was being able to take your pick at the best of what was passing by, be it pillowy Turkish-style bread or Mediterranean salads. I’d argue that the cuisine is far more sophisticated than Russian food, which is hearty but more rudimentary in its approach to flavours.

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Making Georgian khinkali is serious business

There’s also the Stalin factor. His influence can still be felt across the country, despite the momentous changes since his death in 1953. Just visit the Moscow metro which he designed as an interconnected web of museums ‘for the people’, which features his face at every opportunity. Stalin was from Georgia, so this undoubtedly influenced this prevalence of Georgian restaurants throughout the 20th century.

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Perfectly folded Georgian soup dumplings known as khinkali

Therefore it’s not at all hard to find a Georgian restaurant in the main Russian cities and you’d be wise to seek one out at least once. I did just this on my first night in Moscow and subsequent nights in Saint Petersburg. It’s possible that I ate at more Georgian restaurants than Russian restaurants. Don’t tell Putin okay?

I narrowed down my favourite dishes to seven – and to be honest I didn’t even really go to town on some of the meat dishes the cuisine offers. And have I mentioned how much I liked the wine? There’s no question that I need a trip to the source to explore this delicious cuisine even further.

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Khachapuri made with sulguni cheese and butter


My first thought when this molten cacophony of bread and cheese was presented was its likeness to Turkish pide. This version was topped with the crumbly brined Georgian cheese called sulguni, along with chunks of another cheese.

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LOTS of butter

But wait a minute. I gulped and soon realised that the giant yellowy chunks weren’t cheese, they were butter. Meant for swirling through the cheese, just in case you weren’t already in the throes of a dairy overload. Butter, cheese and carbs – does it get any better? Read More

Making dolmades with yiayia

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Delicious dolmades

I love to cook. No surprises there.

Pouring through the pages of a culinary tome and diligently following the instructions is a great way to reach gastronomic heights.

Or you can cook with my yiayia Alexandra and watch how she uses her instinct and years of experience to freestyle her way through a dish, never producing anything less than perfection.


Yiayia Alexandra at work

My yiayia Alexandra was never taught to cook. She talks about her mother’s cooking with pride but never had a chance to learn from her because she spent her teens working in the family’s olive grove and was then whisked off by boat, alone, to Australia at the tender age of 19.

She initially lived in the small country town of Giri with her aunty and worked in the family café making sausage rolls and pies for the local farmers. It was only when she married and moved to Sydney that she learnt to cook and over the years of bringing up a family she became known for her culinary prowess. Not an easy task considering her husband, my Papou Peter, was a seafood chef.

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Dolmades are packed tight before being cooked

I’ve cooked and eaten many delicious Greek dishes from yiayia (I can’t think of a single occasion when she’s veered from Hellenic cuisine) but one dish I’ve never seen either of my yiayias cook is arguably one of the more recognisable Greek mezedes, dolmades.

I asked my Yiayia Maria once why this was and she told me it was because her husband, my Papou Con, didn’t like them. She had therefore never made them while he was alive and sure as hell wasn’t going to start now, even though he’s been dead for over thirty years.

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The bare ingredients

So I turned to Yiayia Alexandra to show me the ropes. I’ve only ever eaten rice stuffed vine leaves but it turns out yiayia had other ideas so we went shopping to pick up beef mince along with rice, parsley, onion, eggs and of course vine leaves.

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Yiayia works the mince mixture with her hand

Back in the kitchen, yiayia rinsed the salty packed leaves while I was tasked with chopping the onion and parsley. Yiayia worked them into the mince with her hands along with eggs, salt and pepper.

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Yiayia is a master at the stuffing technique

It’s the assembly stage of dolmades that takes time. We stood side by side for the next half hour, the concentration dripping from our pores as we carefully layed out the leaves, filling them with the mince mixture and rolling them up into little fingers. Read More

Hanging with Heston

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Shameless Heston selfie

It’s been a while since my last post (about a celebrity chef) and what do I back it up with?

Another post about a celebrity chef.

I promise I’m not a one trick pony and I’m also not friends with every celeb chef in town. I just happen to meet a few in my line of work.

I’m currently promoting Heston’s new TV show which has seen me work with him on a few shoots over the past few months. But I’ve been a Heston fan for much longer than that and can now proudly say I’ve been to every one of his restaurants. A bona fide groupie.

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Outside The Fat Duck in Bray

Let’s start with the biggie. The Fat Duck in Bray receives 35,000 calls a day from eager foodies trying to book a table. Yes, that’s 35,500 A DAY. It’s no wonder it took my friends and I over a year to get through, in fact it’s a wonder we made it through at all.

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The famous ‘Sounds of the Sea’ complete with iPod in a shell

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The even more famous Snail Porridge

It was and still is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Everything about our lunch that day is etched firmly in my mind. The 90 minute drive out to the picturesque Berkshire town of Bray with Katia, Jess and Santosh. The 18 course degustation that surprised and delighted at every turn. I remember the £50 bottle of Taittinger we drank was the sweetest I’d ever tried and I still have the menu carefully stored as a priceless memento.

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Heston’s Bacon and Egg Ice Cream

We even convinced one of the staff to reveal to us the secret of the Bacon and Egg Ice Cream. While it looks like a bacon-flavoured egg is cracked into liquid nitrogen to immediately freeze into a smooth and rich ice cream, we knew there had to be another way. And no I’m not telling! Read More

8 reasons why I love Nigella

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Hanging with Nigella

It’s no secret that I adore Nigella. And yes, I am being a shameless show off by sharing this photo of us from a few years ago. Indeed it’s framed on my wall, how did you know?

I had the honour and pleasure of working with Nigella a few years back while part of LifeStyle Food Channel and can honestly say that what you see is what you get. The smooth honey voice, cheerful disposition and infectious laugh? It’s there on and off screen.

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Nigella in conversation with Annabel Crabb

Fast forward a few years to last night and I was in the beautiful but decidedly un-intimate setting of the Sydney Opera House, watching Nigella as she engaged in conversation with the delightful Annabel Crabb.

It got me thinking of all the things I love and admire about Nigella. So here are my top 8.

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The hottest tickets in town

  1. She tells it like it is

For someone so seemingly posh, Nigella is pretty down-to-earth and practical.

Mid cooking demo at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival a few years ago, she exclaimed a hair had fallen in the dish she was making.

‘Oh well’ she reasoned. ‘I must have eaten truckloads of my mother’s hair while I was growing up.’

How true is that? It’s just a hair people. Move it to the side and continue cooking.

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Nigella preps for her performance

2. She’s practical

‘Beside my bed I keep a collection of condiments: Maldon salt, Tabasco, chilli sauce, soy sauce.’

This admission came out last night as Nigella was telling us about her two ‘modes’ – the ‘moving at the speed of light’ mode and the ‘comatose on the couch’ mode. The condiments come in handy for the latter when she can only bear to eat food amongst soft sheets. Nigella revealed that one of her luxuries is expensive linen. And how she proceeds to ruin it by dripping soy sauce everywhere. We’ve all been there right?

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My eyes always go straight to Nigella’s engaging intro

3. She is a superb writer

No surprises here as she’s a trained and experienced journalist but this is really what sets her apart from the legions of other would-be-cooks in the world. She’s a writer who happened to fall into food and subsequently the recipes play second fiddle to her unique way of storytelling. Before you even get to the ingredients you know the provenance of the dish, the mood she was in when she created it and the occasion that inspired such a dish. Anyone can throw a few ingredients together but not many can transport you into the heart and soul of a dish before you’ve even stepped foot into the kitchen.

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The offending ‘recipe’ of avocado toast

4. She’s risen above avocado-gate

Oh yes. The culinary scandal of 2015. In her new series, Simply Nigella, Nigella takes a few minutes to extol the virtues of avocado on toast on any day for any occasion. She clearly notes that ‘this is hardly a recipe’, and goes on to suggest ideas for jazzing up this old classic with new flavours. The next day an indignant media declared that Nigella was hoaxing the public by ‘calling avocado on toast a recipe’.

For god’s sake people, did you not read the title of the show?? Read More

New Year’s resolutions of a foodie

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My homemade miguelito margaritas

While the rest of the world is planning to ditch alcohol and make the gym a daily ritual, I look at a new year as an opportunity to eat delicious things and explore the world – all the while searching for more delicious things to eat of course. So this is what I wish for my 2016:

#1 More cocktail drinking. I’m keen to actually make more cocktails as well as just drink them – after all it’s an art form. So this year I pledge to invest in the proper bartender’s kit as I only have a dodgy cocktail shaker at the moment, which has been known to fling drops of pisco sour around my kitchen.

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I hope to discover more cuisines that revere beetroot!

#2 Last year was up there in the exciting foodie travel stakes – I discovered the cuisines of Transylvania, Iceland and Poland, amongst other places. Next year I want to up the ante – will it be okonomiyaki from Japan or feijoada from Brazil? Who knows – stay tuned!

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I long to recreate yiayia’s magic in the kitchen

#3 Make my spanakopita taste like yiayia’s. Okay we all know this is an impossible task and never going to happen. But one can always dream, right?

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There’s a liquorice takeover going on in my pantry

#4 Find a use for the plethora of liquorice items I have in my cupboard. If anyone has any suggestions then please let me know, otherwise my dad will be getting a liquorice-flavoured dessert on his birthday for the rest of his life.

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I want to shop like this every week

#5 Go to more food markets. I already dip into a few around town but it’s not enough. A new one has just opened in my suburb. So expect to see me there every Saturday morning… at 11.59am…

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I know I can do better than this next year

#6 Go truffle hunting again but this time two months earlier than I did this year – I want to go bang in the middle of the season so I collect a truly impressive haul. Read More

Sydney’s best foodie experience

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Getting fishy with it at the Sydney Seafood School

Yes it’s a big claim but I’m calling it.

To me a great foodie experience needs to be engaging, immersive, authentic, and above all, tasty.

There’s one experience that ticks all the boxes in my book and that’s a class at the Sydney Seafood School. I’ve now racked up about five or six classes over the years, so consider myself somewhat of a veteran.

Anyone who has spent some time in Sydney will be familiar with the Sydney Fish Market but the Sydney Seafood School takes the experience one step further

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Our expert seafood instructor

A stroll through the fish market and past the silent auction halls will most certainly put you in a fishy mood as you enter the school and take a seat in the cosy theatrette. In front of you is a demonstration kitchen that puts Masterchef to shame, with cameras capturing the action from every angle on overhead screens. The walls around you are covered in ‘leather’ wallpaper, made from dried Icelandic salmon skins. The designers really took the brief to heart.

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Raised screens capture all the action

Either a well versed home economist or high profile local chef will demonstrate 3-4 recipes which all use supremely fresh seafood, straight from the market floor. Classes cover everything from tapas and paella to how to barbeque seafood.

I most recently experienced the crab double act: Singapore Chilli Crab & Black Pepper Crab, over a three hour class. The heady mix of salty, sweet and hot flavours in these two dishes works beautifully with fresh green blue swimmer crabs.

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Fresh green blue swimmer crabs straight from the market floor

Everyone working at the markets is an expert on seafood so you always get the backstory on the ingredients being used. In this case we learn how to prepare various crabs (who knew crabs had a flap?) and the distinction between varieties and their provenance. Each dish is broken down into steps and we watch the process intently from start to finish.

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Our studious kitchen team

Then it’s time to step next door and put the lesson into practice. We form groups of 4-6 and congregate around our own free standing kitchen. Each person is armed with a recipe booklet and allocated a task so the prep moves at lightning speed. I don’t often cook with crustaceans so I get a thrill from cleaning and segmenting them, knowing I won’t have to clean up the mess. It’s fiddly business. Read More

Marvellous Market #3: Great Market Hall, Budapest

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The Great Market Hall in Budapest

You know a city is serious about food when it builds a giant, purpose built market smack in the middle of the city (Sydney are you listening? Take note please).

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The market’s beautiful interior, looking down on the ground floor

That’s what the Hungarians did in the late 19th century when they built the Great Market Hall. Despite some knocks during the World Wars, a renovation has kept it looking sharp as one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.

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Rows of immaculately displayed local products adorn the food stalls

But it’s what’s inside that is really exciting. While the first floor features local handicrafts including traditional Magyar dress and collectables, the ground floor and basement are dedicated to food. Rows and rows of glistening fresh produce, endless stands of paprika and chilli and plenty of local delicacies are enjoyed by locals and tourists.

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Paprika and pepper in every possible form

The paprika stands are works of art – sachets, tubs and tubes of the stuff (spicy or sweet) are carefully arranged in colourful rows along with strings of dried peppers and garlic.

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How can you not smile at the Smiley Shop?

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Owls, ghosts, cats, mushrooms and other random pickle shapes

One thing Hungarians LOVE are pickles. Pickles and sauerkraut. They have their own dedicated area – ‘pickle alley’ in the basement floor. What I especially love is the creativity involved, with jars displaying cute messages and smiley faces made from the pickles, plus a massive array of sauerkraut-stuffed pickled vegetables.

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Sauerkraut is measured by the pitchfork

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