by Chelsea W.
FIRST ENCOUNTER: THE SOUVLAKI PITA
I first encountered the souvlaki pita while visiting Santorini, Greece last spring. None of the five other girls I was traveling with had been to Greece before, but they had each grown up in the East Coast and thereby had grown familiar with Greek food at some point. I on the other hand was born and raised in Irvine, California, where Mexican and Asian cuisine are widespread, but Greek food not so much. Outings with friends in Irvine typically involve Korean barbeque, boba, revolving sushi bars, taco trucks, or a whole-in-the-wall burrito place, but never Greek. Besides the one time I briefly stepped foot into a deserted Daphne’s and then left to buy Panda Express next door, it never crossed my mind that Mediterranean and Greek cuisine was even an option.
So while my five friends could not stop raving about how excited they were to eat gyros and baklava, all I could envision of Greece were the images of my tween-era favorite film: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Lena riding a donkey up the white steps, Lena falling in love with local Greek fish boy Kostas, Lena cliff-diving into sparkling blue water with best friends. Needless to say, my expectations of Greece were entirely tourist-centric and based on a fiction; but amazingly, everything lived up to my grand expectations. What I wasn’t anticipating was that of all the sun and sea, sweet locals and stunning views, the greatest thing to capture my heart in Santorini was the food. I can still clearly recall how I ungracefully scarfed down my first souvlaki pita out of its tin foil wrapping, and how the taste of soft, steaming french fries mixed with tender pork and pita sparked my love. It was my first time experiencing the combination of meat, tomato, red onion, tzatziki, feta cheese, and fries all wrapped in a hot pita bread. Who knew sitting on a stiff mattress in a damp and dim hostel room was where it would all start?
We went on to eat souvlaki pitas twice a day every day of the trip, and then upon returning to the U.S. I satisfied my constant cravings for souvlaki pita by seeking out a spot in Manhattan. Besides the comfort it brings, I love to eat souvlaki pita here in New York because it gives me the chance to reminisce about that trip to Santorini. I can call up my friend/travel buddy Anna at anytime and count on her to join me for a souvlaki meal. The social aspect and positive memory associations are two dominant factors that contribute to my attraction to souvlaki. But on the actual taste-experience level, its greasy, savory, meaty, fast-food-cheap but filling qualities remind me of Mexican tacos and it’s this close similarity to another food I adore that makes me gravitate toward souvlaki pitas. Growing up in Socal has instilled in me an undying love for tacos and because there is, in my opinion, nowhere in New York that resembles the great-tasting, cheap, quality tacos I can find back at home (even East Harlem was a letdown), souvlaki pitas in the Lower East Side and in Astoria have become the substitute that satisfies those cravings.
What I’ve come to realize while considering my developing relationship with souvlaki pita is that it is shaped by several facets of my personal identity. As an Asian-American, a Southern California native, an American tourist in Greece, and a college student in New York. By exploring each of these identities in relation to the dish, I hope to gain a better understanding of how and why the souvlaki pita caught my attention and eventually became a part of my established taste palette.
THE FLAVORS: NEW & FAMILIAR
I’ve tried countless times to take photos of the souvlaki pita before I bite into it, and I’ll admit now that this street food isn’t so beautiful or aesthetically pleasing. The joy that comes from eating souvlaki pita can’t be captured in a photograph really. You can’t see in a picture how hot, greasy, seasoned pork warms your stomach and meshes perfectly with french fries and a dollop of light sour cream and yogurt tzatziki. You won’t find in a picture the hidden clusters of pasty, crumbly feta cheese between layers of fresh tomato slices and slivers of sharp, raw red onion. All of it is hidden craftily in a puffy golden brown pita, and every bite offers a different ratio of combined flavors that hits the spot.
My familiarity with each of the various ingredients within the dish ranges from I-eat-it-in-my-sleep (pork & french fries) to woh-this-is-a-first (feta cheese, tzatziki & red onions). By dissecting my range of familiarity I’ve been able to tackle some of the cultural politics surrounding the dish.
First, the familiar. As an Asian-American and just straight up American, I grew up eating lots of pork/pig and McDonald’s french fries. French fries on road trips, bacon for breakfast, and cha siu (my dad’s favorite, a slab of honey barbeque pork always available at the local Chinese supermarket near home) for dinner. No surprise, China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork, so it’s practically ingrained in my DNA. Even after I moved to NYC and spent two years working at a vegan restaurant, my attachment to pork and meat is unshakeable so it’s again no surprise that I gravitated toward souvlaki in Santorini over, say, Greek salad.
Notably, meat was not a staple of the traditional Greek diet until more recently. According to Greek-American registered dietitian Elena Paravantes, meat was traditionally only consumed during celebrations and Sunday meals but this has “drastically changed in the past 30 years.” She states: “Urbanization and economic growth led Greeks away from the traditional Mediterranean diet adapting a more westernized style of eating. Today highly processed food and fast food has unfortunately become a very important element in the Greek diet.”
This perhaps explains the addition of french fries to the predominantly Greek combination of ingredients in the souvlaki pita. My mom, who traveled to Greece a few decades ago was surprised when I sent her pictures of my souvlaki pita from Santorini. She noticed the french fries and explained that she’d never seen any in the pitas and gyros she ate thirty years ago. This led me to reflect on American influence over foreign foods both abroad and in the United States. Even within Socal, I grew up seeing this fusion of America and “other” foods – in Panda Express’s orange chicken and in Rigoberto’s french-fry stuffed ‘Cali burrito.’
While there are varying skeptical opinions and debates about the Americanization of other cultures, I do believe there is a positive aspect to it. When in a new cultural space where food and ingredients are unfamiliar, it can bring comfort to find a familiar ingredient to latch onto. Particularly for Americans who perhaps have not explored an extensive variety of “other” foods, Americanized versions can be great entry points that balance new with old. That is not to say I would have been repulsed by souvlaki pita if there were no french fries stuffed in it, it’s just to say that the presence of something familiar allowed me to grapple with this new dish from a perspective other than “entirely foreign.”
As for the lighter, fresh ingredients – the raw red onion, tomato and tzatziki – these were not particularly familiar to me but I never felt hesitation embracing them. While my childhood flavor palette was more attuned to greasy pork and fries, my taste profile matured when I arrived in New York City. I attribute this mostly to my time working at the earlier mentioned restaurant/juice bar where I spent more than forty hours a week surrounded by vegans, vegetarians, paleo, and every other specialty dieter you could name. I gradually developed the habit of drinking vegetable juices, eating salads and predominantly vegetable-based meals. When my Chinese-health-concerned parents expressed their worry about my diet being too raw and “cold,” I came to understand why I had grown up eating warm vegetables like bok choy and cabbage and never saw salads at our dining table. I often wonder how my diet and taste profile would be now if I had not spent two years working at this raw vegan space. Would I have been deterred by the presence of cucumber-flavored tzatziki, tomato and the sharp flavor of raw onion in souvlaki?
CONTEXTUALIZING THE DISH
Considering the dish as a whole – it’s easy for me to say I like it because there’s meat and french fries and hey it reminds me of tacos too. But the fact is, souvlaki pitas are not tacos. And despite the familiar ingredients, the existence of this dish was entirely unknown to me until last spring. Why is that? More specifically, why is it that the souvlaki pita and its cousins – the gyro, the doner kebab, and the shawarma – are so readily available here in New York City but are less prominent in Socal’s food scene? Additionally, why are there so many cousins to this dish and what are the differences?
Greek immigrants in the United States were rare until 1880. Due to the poor economic climate and abundance of bankrupt citizens in Greece during the late 19th century, many young men came to the United States in search of opportunities. Because they moved to metropolitan areas where employment was more attainable, the highest concentrations of Greek Americans today reside in Northeast and Midwest cities such as New York City, Boston, and Chicago. Astoria, in particular, is considered “the heartland of Greek-American settlement” and “the largest Hellenic city in the world except for the ancient city of philosophers and poets, Athens.” This explains the abundance of Greek diners and prominence of Greek cuisine in and around New York City. Greek immigration to California was prompted by the opportunity to work on railroads in 1910, but due to the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 which limited the annual quota of immigrants from particular countries, most Greek immigration was halted until 1965. It is this history that explains why I was far less exposed to Greek culture than my travel friends who were born and raised in Boston and New Jersey and thereby already familiar with gyros and baklava.
Speaking of gyros, why is is that they anticipated eating gyros in Santorini, but it was Lucky’s pork souvlaki pitas that we ended up scarfing down twice a day? If we recall the long period of Ottoman Turk control over Greece that was earlier discussed, we can then understand why gyros and souvlaki pitas and shawarma and doner kebabs are essentially the same dish muddled under different names. The meat found in shawarma, doner, and gyros are cooked in the same slow-rotisserie style and are combined with many of the same ingredients.
Though I’ve spent time searching for the distinguished precise answer to “what is the difference?” I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t one single answer. Much of the declared distinction has to do with taste preference and territorial pride. Even within Greece, the distinction between terminology of “souvlaki” and “gyro” (though there is a technical cooking preparation difference) and what dishes are called what varies from region to region. This is what I found not only in books and online, but also from personal experience. On one recent Saturday, my friend Anna and I took the train to Astoria and visited the small, casual Greek restaurant BZ Grill. When Anna asked for the gyro lunch combo and pronounced it “ghee- roh,” she was promptly corrected by our middle-aged Greek server – “you mean, the jai- roh?” We both nodded and exchanged a subtle look of confusion. When I later brought this up to classmate Jack, whose mother is Greek, he claimed that the absolute correct pronunciation was in fact “ghee-roh” with a barely audible “gh”. Again this muddled terminology and pronunciation of what is essentially one single dish can be attributed to the long history of cultural overlap and territorial exchange Greece experienced in the past.
THE EXPERIENCE: COMFORT
Aside from the interesting/confusing history of Greece and its intriguing ingredients, why has my first souvlaki pita experience resonated with me – and why do I keep going back for more? Beyond just the meat and the bread, it has to do with the experience.
Both my parents were born and raised in Hong Kong and grew up with large families. Particularly my dad, whose father (my Ye-Ye) had four wives and eight children under one roof. When I visit Hong Kong every few years, we meet up with my dad’s many sisters and cousins at big dinner gatherings in grand, ballroom-sized restaurants with chandelier lit ceilings and huge round tables. Long dinner parties with dozens of family members seems to be a staple of dining culture in Hong Kong and is a tradition my parents brought over to the U.S. Within my own family of six, we grew up eating from communal dishes at a round table and always shared meals together. My familiarity with communal food and familial dining is the first broad connection between my Asian background and Greek cultural traditions of family bonding over food. It’s why the souvlaki pita brings me comfort.
The Greek father-son duo who run the bright blue King Souvlaki truck on the corner of 31st & 31st in Astoria work side by side everyday and have an established routine. Between chatting with customers and grilling skewers they manage to share laughs and jokes with one another. When they hand over the brown paper bag which holds my freshly prepared souvlaki pita, they never fail to flash a grin at me. Do they know that I walk 20 minutes and ride the subway another 40 minutes just to trade $5 for their food? Probably not, but their friendliness and their pride in what they do makes it all worth it for me. I find comfort in seeing this family bond over their food and in seeing strangers smile in this city where most strangers pass each other by without a glance.
It’s the same comfort I felt when eating at Lucky’s Souvlaki every day in Santorini. We were new to the island and new to the culture, so it was a relief to return to the same spot each morning and find the familiar friendly, leather-tan faces of Lucky’s family ready to fill our stomachs. The speed and efficiency with which they maneuvered around one another and worked in the tight space was a mark of their established family routine.
Souvlaki pitas also remind me of the comfort I feel whenever I return to Tacos Jalisco for a good dose of Mexican food after months of being away from California. Spanish soaps play from the small televisions and mariachi music plays from the speakers. Servers stop by to ask how school is going and always take pride in the plate of enchiladas they put on the table. I find this type of warm, fast meal and this interaction with the people who make it what is most gratifying about the experience. It means more to me than sitting in a five-star upscale restaurant where the food might be spectacular and satisfying, but you never see the face of the people who created the experience for you.