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Starters without ends

The names may all be Greek, but food is a universal language. SUMITRA SENAPATY tastes the Grecian gourmet at New Delhi's Hyatt Regency


JUST THE other evening some of us took a direct flight to the Greek isles - in the culinary sense - feasting on stuffed grape leaves, seared lamb, roasted peppers, feta cheese with olives and syrupy baklava at the Hyatt Regency's Café. Although visiting Chefs Dimitrios and Stefanos call their cuisine Mediterranean, it is anchored with traditional Greek dishes like moussaka, dolmadakia, athinnaika, horiatiki and tzatziki - all pretty much Greek to most of us! Visiting India for the first time, the Greek chefs are from Hyatt Regency Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. One of the oldest cities in Europe it was apparently named after the sister of Alexander the Great.

Dimitrios tells us that during the Greek summer months , you'll find lots of people sitting in taverns sipping on ouzo and nibbling on plates of mezethes. Ouzo is to the Greeks what Guinness is to the Irish. And while a loose translation of the word mezethes is

`starter' or `appetizer', neither does the word any real justice.

You get the feeling that life is just a starter when you start to sample the mezethes, dished out by Dimitrios. For while mezethes can involve something as simple as feta cheese, bread and olives, it can also consist of platters of food with a wide range of delicacies from skewers of lamb to deep-fried squid and octopus. If you're looking for a coffee shop experience, the Greek Food Festival isn't the place. But if you are in the mood for a laidback traditional Greek meal, give this a try. Of course, eating only appetizers means missing out on the traditional Greek fish or meat main

courses prepared by Dimitrios. So it's wise to pace yourself.

We test the Greek waters with stuffed vine leaves that reveal the true charm of the islands - dolmadakia or grape leaves stuffed with rice and herbs. In Greece, the smell of good olive oil is a sign that the place has good food. And when you move on to the meat salad, hummus and cheese dips with bread and athinaiki - the fish roe salad - washed down with a glass of ouzo, euphoria (a Greek word!) ensues. Something familiar, but interesting is tsatziki, a popular cucumber dip that goes rather well with grilled pita.

Hot appetizers are also available, including the delicious Shrimp with Spicy Tomato Sauce, flamed in `Saganaki' style with what else, but ouzo! Ouzo is an anise-flavoured drink that turns white when mixed with water and is supposed to be sipped and not gulped, because it has a high alcoholic

content - higher than vodka in fact.

Every point in Greece is within 125 kilometres of the sea, so its influence can be clearly seen on the cuisine. Café offers a nice selection of seafood, including marinated shrimps flamed with ouzo, octopus salad, and fish salad and sliced sole with marinated and roasted vegetables. There are a few soups offered, and all of them quite different. Avgolemono is a delicate, lemon-flavoured soup with bits of chicken; while Fasolada is a bean-based soup seasoned with pepper. Both are sure to hit the spot with every palate.

Apart from the dips and pita, the Greek lamb chops are a must, succulently marinated with olive oil, lemon, garlic and oregano. They are usually served with a super-fresh Greek salad, a mound of tender rice and Patatosalata - fabulous roasted potatoes seasoned with lemon and herbs to give them a bright yellow hue.

No Greek meal is complete without some strong coffee, a slice of Baklava or the honey-drenched Greek almond cake. You'll also find chilled yogurt with candied nuts and some pastries resembling those you find in West Asia.

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