Articles / Finding a Happy Food Routine in Greece

Finding a Happy Food Routine in Greece

Published May 8, 2024

Plus, Chantha Nguon is this week’s guest on Food with Mark Bittman

Photo: Mark Bittman

I knew I wanted to talk to Chantha Nguon as soon as I got a copy of –and read some of – her memoir, ​Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes​, which she wrote with the writer Kim Green. To be honest, though, I was really nervous. How to talk to someone who has been through so much, someone who has persevered the way Chantha has, someone who essentially embodies the word “inspirational”?

Five years before the start of the Cambodian genocide, when Chantha was nine years old, she fled her home there for Vietnam. Slow Noodles is the story of her life as a refugee who loses everything and everyone – home, family, country – and eventually flees to a refugee camp in Thailand, with nothing but her memories of her mother’s cooking to sustain her. The story of how Chantha picked herself up after seeing and experiencing such atrocities is, as you might imagine, remarkable. You’ll hear some about just how she did that – and much of it involves food. She is an absolute wonder, and it was an honor to talk to her.

Chantha Nguon. Photo: Ryan Carter

Also, we’re sharing Chantha’s recipe for Sour Chicken-Lime Soup, Village Style, from Slow Noodles – you can find that here.

And last – If you have a minute, we’d love it if you’d take a short survey about our show. Now, here’s Mark. – kb

Follow ​Food with Mark Bittman​ on: Apple Podcasts​ | ​Spotify​ | ​Overcast​ | ​Pocket Casts​ | ​Amazon Music

Meanwhile, in Athens…

I was only in Athens once before this trip, and all I remember was a) cooking with ​Diane Kochilas​; b) the Acropolis; c) unimpressive restaurants. This visit wasn’t dissimilar: We toured the Acropolis, I cooked with Diane, and the restaurants were disappointing.

Diane. Photo: Mark Bittman

Still, it was different. We hired a tour guide at the Acropolis. (I point out, not without some pride, that we were at the Taj Mahal on a Wednesday and the Acropolis that same Friday.) It was noon on a bright, hot, windy day, perfect for developing skin cancer, so we were careful.

Photo: Kathleen Finlay

It was crowded, as is probably always the case, but not unpleasantly so. The guide made all the difference, as she orchestrated a fascinating tour, ending at the magnificent (and fairly new) ​museum​ down the hill. Paying attention made the until-then somewhat academic argument about the ​Elgin Marbles​ – an important part of the Parthenon held hostage in the British Museum – much more real. They ​belong in this museum​ in Athens, and how anyone could argue otherwise is beyond me.

Diane and me in her kitchen. Photo: Kathleen Finlay

Diane took Kathleen and me to a neighborhood farmer’s market on a glorious morning, and as per usual I wished I had a kitchen. At least I got to cook with Diane (who’s been called the Marcella of Greek cooking, though she has a much different personality) and although this was, in one way, just like the 2013 trip – last time we did a pie of mixed greens, and this time we did mixed greens with rice (neither of us has changed much, I guess) – it was much more enjoyable this year, because instead of performing for a video crew, it was just the two of us. (We will produce a podcast, though, and I’ll publish the recipe when I get home.)

The city seems eminently livable, but it’s oddly new-ish, given that it’s one of the world’s oldest: There are antiquities, and there are some nineteenth- and more twentieth-century buildings, and not a lot in between. (Athens has had its ups and downs; in the mid-nineteenth century, its population was 5,000; now it’s 5,000,000.) Nevertheless, it’s got pleasant walkways and alleyways, beautiful hills and parks and plazas, and some excellent views. It’s notably touristic, at least in the center. We stayed at a sort of boutique-y hotel called ​InnAthens,​ and quite liked it, not least because it was across the street from a church with excessively loud bells, something we seem to enjoy.

Corinth Canal. Photo: Mark Bittman

After a mere three days there, we rented a car and drove south, past Corinth and its impressive canal, down through a dozen towns we’ve all heard of (Sparta!) and a hundred we have not. We stopped at a random roadside restaurant and were immediately served lamb stew and artichoke bottoms in olive oil, both better than anything we had in any restaurant in Athens; that was encouraging. Back in the car, we drove all the way to the Mani peninsula – the southernmost part of mainland Europe – to the town of Gerolomenas …

A nice view. Photo: Mark Bittman

… where we stayed at the gorgeous and perfectly situated ​Hotel Kyrimai​. It has a view of the sea, of the lovely harbor and town, and – to the west – of a huge hill protruding out to the sea, a dominant and majestic feature.

View from Kirymai. Photo: Mark Bittman

The northern part of Mani, to which we ventured only once, has some agriculture and industry, and a significant population. There’s plenty of evidence that the land in the extremely mountainous south had long been farmed – even some of the steepest hillsides have old terraces – but there’s little going on there now. In the summer season it swarms with tourists, but this was mid-April and it was dead: a few tourists and the staff of the few hotels, restaurants, and shops that serve them/us.

The Kyrimai at night. Photo: Mark Bittman

All of which we were fine with: This was meant to be the “vacation” part of our trip, where we’d take casual hikes, lie on the beach or at the pool, catch up on work and communication, push ourselves a bit less to see things and meet people. For the most part, that’s what happened.

The weather was fantastic, and Mani is strikingly beautiful, more like the Platonic ideal of the rural Mediterranean coast than anywhere I’ve ever been – something like the Riviera or western Liguria, but with hardly any houses or businesses. We mostly drove around, seeing deserted beaches and nearly deserted towns. ​Areopoli​, where the Greek flag was first raised during the war of independence in 1821, had a few people, and ​Gytheio​, a major town more or less at the intersection of north and south Mani, was bustling, but for the most part we had the place to ourselves.

Everyone said that the main local tourist attraction, the ​Diros Caves​, was worth visiting, and they were right: You get a boat ride through spectacular caverns and, even though the caves weren’t discovered (at least formally) until the 20th century, it’s easy enough for you to imagine yourself in the River Styx, on the ride to Hades. Photos capture almost nothing, but this video is pretty cool.

The place where we saw the second highest number of tourists was ​Vathia​, a literally deserted town on a cliff overlooking the sea; it was gradually abandoned by its residents until, by fifteen or twenty years ago, there was no one left. Since most other towns its size were all-but-deserted, it didn’t seem that unusual, but there were always the cars of ten or twenty tourists parked on its outskirts.

Vathia. Photo: Mark Bittman

We passed by Vathia almost every day, because by the second day of our week-long stay, we’d discovered ​Porto Kagio​, another stunningly picturesque village, and one with a restaurant called Porto. Porto is one of those restaurants with three sections: a true interior, which contains the kitchen and bar; a semi-enclosed terrace, where most people sat; and the tables on the beach. We ate on the beach whenever the weather cooperated, which was usually, sometimes with our feet in the water – a perfectly waterside experience.

We ate lunch there every day but one. Our first full day in Mani, we’d hiked almost to the southernmost tip of the peninsula, where there’s a lighthouse (the green dot at the bottom of the map), not quite making it all the way because of our various, er, weaknesses. When we returned to town we settled in at one of the seaside tables, and were immediately invited inside to view a cooler full of ice and fish; this became our routine.

Most people here ate fried squid (perhaps most people at most restaurants in southern Greece eat fried squid), and once or twice we did, too, but our lunch was usually whatever fish looked best (they were all good, but a local fish called rofos – maybe dusky grouper in English, but fish names are tricky – was the best), along with a cucumber-tomato-olive salad, a plate of fresh asparagus, and a half bottle of white or rosé. A nap usually followed (though one day we kayaked). Talk about an awesome routine.

Chef at Manh-Manh. Photo: Mark Bittman

Dinner wasn’t that different, just a bit more elaborate. We ate at the hotel the first night, and all I’ll say about that is, if you go there, I wish you better luck than we had. The next night we walked into town, about five minutes away. We had a recommendation, so we took it and ate at Manh-Manh. We never ate dinner anywhere else. (I am a firm believer that, when traveling, if you find a place you like, you just keep going. I’ve always done that, except for the times I’ve been working, and have been “forced” to try as many restaurants as possible.)

Checking out the fish. Photo: Kathleen Finlay

Here we sat above the water, outdoors when it was warm, in an enclosed spot on the couple of chilly nights, and here, too, we looked at “the fish” every day. The difference was that Manh-Manh specialized in shellfish, and so on many nights we ate either slipper lobster (which looks like a rock) or the local shrimp, fried. The lobster is fantastic steamed or grilled, but the chef here made a wicked pasta with lobster, always enough to serve four even though there were never more than two of us. In the evening, too, we usually had a simple salad, and on different nights we ate fried zucchini cakes (I make those, and love them), a fritto misto of eggplant and zucchini, some meatballs. One night we were encouraged to try the fish soup, a DIY affair comprising a fish-broth-based egg-lemon soup and a “side” of a whole roasted fish and vegetables, which you dipped in the broth at will.

Zucchini and eggplant. Photo: Mark Bittman

By the end of our time there “our” server, Maria, was offering us samples of staff meal, so we had a soupy dish of greens and rice (not unlike what Diane and I had cooked together) and one of flat beans and zucchini. Of course we became friends with everyone by the time we left – including a couple of guys who were also there every night, and looked like they had been for the last thirty years – because who’s nutty enough to eat at the same place seven nights in a row? There was even a lunch: That came on a day when we were driving back from the north, too far out of the way to go to Porto Kagio, and Kathleen said, “Let’s try another place,” and I made the case for the known and excellent entity, so we ate at Manh-Manh.

I won’t say these meals were “the best” that we’ve had since leaving home, but the combination of a known routine, the meeting of expectations, the knowledge of what’s forthcoming, the familiarity with the servers and cooks … there is so much comfort in that, and when the food is almost all local and fresh … this was a week where eating was really front and center.

And now … on to Morocco! The last stop on this ever-surprising journey.

One last thing. If you enjoyed this piece, you might check out ​Kathleen’s take​ on the same ten-day period; there’s some repetition, which is to be expected, but also some lovely writing and, of course, a different perspective.