Friday, May 27, 2011

A Brief History of Kopanisti

(For Craig and Daniel)

Everyone knows that Seattle is the hub of Greek cuisine. The balmy climate, the ocean, the arid mediterranean soil baked under a perfect sun.


I discovered kopanisti on a rare, beautiful sunny day in Seattle. There for business, I got in late, driving into the city through the mystic pale of the gloaming*. While I checked in I asked about nearby eateries. Confronted with a litany of fusion restaurants (a simple bowl of vietnamese bun is my perfect comfort food when I'm on the road) but noticing the lateness of the hour and the mistiness beyond the lobby glass, I inquired into the restaurant nestled into the lobby corner. Mediterranean. A plate of sunshine. I could eat that.

I popped into my room, performed my regular hotel rituals, and then walked down to Lola's with a sheaf of the New York times under my arm.

Sidling up to the hostess I asked if I could order the full menu at the bar, only to discover that I'd crossed the dateline into the late night menu zone. Slightly crestfallen that the tagines I'd spied were not amongst the late night choices I registered my hunger and the warm glow of neon above the bar and grabbed a stool.

Kabob, gyro, a few vegetable things. Lamb burger. Chick pea fries**. A bunch of the descriptors were (sorry!) greek to me, but the tart syllables were compelling: mezedakia, fava cordalia, loukamades.

I contemplated the mini lamb burger and ordered a beer, a local IPA. A series of pita and spread combinations took up a lot of real estate on the menu, but it sounded kind of like chips and guac to me. Then I read:

Kopanisti, pistachio, mavrodaphe. 


I inquired as to what means kopanisti. All I heard was feta and pistachio and then my brain waves scattered. There was kopanisti on the burger. Done.

Kopanisti is traditional Greek cheese made in the Cyclades islands from ewe, cow or goat milk, or a mixture of them. Kopanisti is described as having an intense salty and piquant taste and soft texture and rich flavour which approaches that of Roquefort.


And apparently you will not get real kopanisti in America (think of champage versus sparkling wine but imagine that you can't cork it for export and you get the gist). It is often used in cheese pastries and as a snack with wine and ouzo. Where was that beer I ordered?

Kopanisti also commonly refers to a spread made with feta, herbs, olive oil, peppers and variously garnished with different lovely morsels. That is everything I need on a burger.

Mavrodaphne, the name of my future daughter, is a type of sweet grape, and a garnish on this particular version of kopanisti, along with the pistachios. 

A typical recipe for kopanisti goes something like this:
  • 1/2 lb. Greek feta cheese
  • 3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • mint
  • red pepper flakes, plus more as needed
  • 6 Italian chopped peperoncini (red peppers), 
     chopped, plus more as needed
Here is the sad part: I had a terrible cold that night, and this gorgeous concotion, a lovely orange red from the peppers and the perfect texture for speading, was wasted on me. I begged a dish of house made chermoula instead to spike up the flavor and clear my sinuses.

But the taste of that word will not leave my tongue. Back at home and sans head cold, the hunt for fantastic kopanisti in Los Angeles begins. Though I don't know if we have the climate for it here....

*Gloaming: Scottish for the late twilight common in summer months in very northern latitudes. A lovely and magical time, when you walk out from dinner at 10.30pm into a lingering bright sky.
**Chick pea fries sounded really compelling but I later realized they were sort of like big square falafel sticks. Yummy, but my socks stayed put.

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