Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Have An Economic Meltdown Christmas!

The very first thing that happened when I set my dainty foot on the main floor of the office where I work in London last week is that all the analysts wanted to know what the dealio was with Greece. Is Greece the next Dubai? How soon do I think Greece would default on her debt? What are the odds of Greece abandoning the Euro and the EU? And now you guys have riots on the streets too because of the economy! Tell us, Bollybutton, what in Zeus's name has happened to make the Greek economy so bad!

And I was standing there thinking "For shizz?" Let's straighten out a few things here. Greece's economy isn't that bad, because it's never been that good, and to understand why, let's take a quick refreshing dip into her past.

For a country to have a strong and stable economy it needs a strong and stable past. Once's Greece's glory day party was over, all she was left with was an unmade bed and the West promising to call.

In the 1800s, Greece emerged from a 400 year Ottoman occupation which is no mean feat. By lots of scheming and dodging, Greece is one of few countries that emerged from a 400 year foreign occupation with her religion, language and culture practically unscathed.

How does this relate to the economy? While much of the West was having the Age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance, the Greeks were standing infront of the equivalent of a bored bank employee telling them "Computer says no" every time they wanted to try something new, say, like develop their country.

So in the 1800s the Greeks waged a bitter and bloody battle for their freedom and won it in a totally David vs Goliath kinda way. They'd barely had a chance to crack open the ouzo when World War I busted in to break up their party.

World War I ends, and Greece ends up pretty much bankrupt having sided with the Allies. The Allies think "Jolly wot wot, let's give Greece Smyrna as a reward". They let Greece invade Smyrna, the Greek army runs wild, and the Turks brutally retaliate while the Allies wonder what's for pudding. As a consequence of the immediate tragedy and the League of Nations' ridiculous solution in 1923 of forcibly moving all Christians from Turkey to Greece and vice versa, 1.5 million refugees pour into an already ruined country.

So that's Greece in the 1920s, absolutely at her wits end and being saddled with more people. Soon follows World War II, a civil war, a military dictatorship and it isn't until the 1970s that any kind of democtratic stability returns to Greece.

Now, how exactly do you build a world-class economy in the space of 35 years? The answer is you don't. You can't. It's like taking a starving orphan and saying "Next week, I want you to look like Mr Universe."

So back to what my colleagues asked me:

1) Is Greece going to default on her debt?

Not a chance. We're in the EU. Why would we want to go the way of Iceland? Though part of me thinks we should do it just to piss off Europe.

2) Is Greece the next Dubai?

You mean a ridiculously oil-rich country with more money than taste? Again, no way. And this is for a number of reasons. First, Greece hasn't enjoyed anywhere close to Dubai's boom to be in danger of a bust. Second, Greece has next to nothing in common with Dubai as a society, and that is very important to factor in.

A friend of mine earlier this year wrote an article on how well Greece was weathering the credit crunch compared to her neighbours. This has a lot to do with the social set-up. Greece didn't suffer the wave of bank crackdowns and reposessions that the UK did.

In Greece, it's unthinkable for someone to let their child or friend lose their house because they fall behind on payments. People will pitch in to save you losing your house, because home ownership is extremely important to the Greeks. Never underestimate the Mama Factor! Mama will sell everything she owns if it means saving her child's house. Are you listening, analysts in London? Next to Greece, write MAMA FACTOR in big red letters and put a circle around it.

If it's known that you are financially comfortable and let your child or friend lose their house, you will never be able to show your face in public again.

3) What are the odds of Greece abandoning the EU or the Euro?

Minus 2000. Neither of the above will happen. Greece totally lucked out by getting into the EU and will not jump ship. It's ridiculous to even suggest this. Same goes for the Euro. Sure, life is a lot harder for people here since the Euro, but if Greece still had the Drachma when the credit crunch hit, with the way interest levels went haywire Greece would have been totally screwed with a cherry on top.

The Greeks are crazy, but not that crazy.

Why then, is the economy in such a hideous state? Because pretty much everyone avoids following the law. You have more chance of getting a Greek woman to tell you her natural hair colour than you do of your average Greek paying their taxes. They just don't like doing it, because all Greeks distrust the government, and if you look back at their history it's not surprising why.

Still, these shouldn't be excuses, and maybe this crisis is exactly what Greece needs to get our ass into gear. I've always believed in Greece and her potential. It's an amazing country with amazing potential, especially the new generation. Greece deserves progress, change and reform, but this has to come from within, and it's a very messy situation to untangle. Undoing so much corruption will take a very long time. The public sector, where everyone gets paid to do nothing, needs to be shruken or made electronic, as does the system for paying taxes.

Also, declaring self-employed earnings needs to be simpler. I know people who tell me they tried to get their earnings legalised and taxes paid, but it became such an impossible maze of stamps and paperwork that they gave up and went back to flying below the radar.

So, dear analysts in the West, relax. All you need to do with Greece is wait and see. I know a lot of your bonds went bust because of the downgrade, but sit tight and you'll see things will look brighter in the summer. And lastly, those economy-related riots all the news channels in the UK were showing actually have nothing to do with the economy. Those riots were pretty much unrelated. Think of it as our equivalent of a street party.

Have a good Christmas and next time check your facts a little before you go off downgrading your little hearts out.

Image: http://www.athina984.gr/files/imagecache/main/files/news-images/finance_0.jpg

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Once I Had a Love and I danced Bharat Natyam

In Monday'sriveting episode of GNTM, the girls had a pop icon photoshoot. How old did I feel when 18 year old Denia didn't know who Debbie Harry aka Blondie was?

For those not in the know, this is Debbie Harry:

and this is Denia not being Debbie Harry:

Needless to say, she got the boot.

Meanwhile, Mr Zeus is always telling me that you can find ANYTHING you need in Athens, and he was right. Can you guess what I found? A Greek lady with a classical Indian dance school: http://www.shantala.gr/index1.html

Monday, December 07, 2009

Another Burning City

I have just finished reading a book that shook me to the core like no other book I have ever read in my life. Never before have I flinched and cried out while reading something in a book or felt like I had to stop because I couldn't read on.

Yet, here I was in the comfort of my own home living in times of peace, reading words printed on a page that can't even begin to come close to the horror of the real events it documents. That perhaps was most upsetting of all - knowing that what I was reading actually happened.

I'm talking about a book about the destruction of Smyrna called Paradise Lost by Giles Milton.

Like many people in Greece, Mr Zeus's maternal side traces itself back to Minor Asia, specifically the city of Smyrna (Σμύρνη) today known as Izmir. I remember Mr Zeus telling me the stories passed down to his grandfather from his parents - of the city burning, of the Allied ships docked in the harbour cutting the fingers of desperate refugees trying to swim onboard their ships to escape certain death, rape, murder, torture, a city gone mad.

In this city where overnight Greeks and Turks were pitted against each other, it was the Turkish neighbours of Mr Zeus's great grandparents that helped get them to the harbour and then the safety of Mytilini. The two families never met again and Mr Zeus's grandfather was born two days later, a stranger in a foreign land, unwanted by both Greece and Turkey and within spitting distance of their once cherished homeland. He went on to marry my beloved Greek granny, a midwife in her youth trained by a doctor who fled Smyrna with only the clothes on his back and a thermometer in his pocket.

One day I pulled out a recipe book and started cooking Tas Kebab, a typical dish from Minor Asia. I threw the spices together in the pestle and mortar, and when I stopped to take a sniff, for the first time in my life I smelt something like nostalgia. It smelt so good, but the unusual combination of cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, chilli and cinnamon made me feel strange; it stirred something in my heart. The food itself moved you, it had a story to tell, and so I decided that it was high time I educated myself about the history of my Greek family.

I can't even begin to say more about the massacres of Smyrna, except for how horrific it was. One source quoted in the book, says that if you were to take what happened in those awful days of September 1922, added your own personal horrors and exaggerated as much as you like, you would still not come close to the reality of how terrible it was.

What struck me most of all is that I knew nothing about Smyrna before I met Mr Zeus. The West never mentions it. Who can say why? Out of guilt that they sat on their ships watching people get slaughtered and ordered their dinner bands to play louder when the screams began to disturb their dinner? Because they are heartless? I don't know.

However I will say if you are a foreigner living in Greece and planning a future here, treat is as your duty to learn more about the history of this place. There are things, thoughts and attitudes that you will never understand unless you do. This one book has helped me understand so much about modern Greece in a way that hours of talk and debate never did. Most importantly, it is written by a neutral source, neither Greek not Turkish, and so I place my trust in its accuracy.

Paradise Lost can be found for sale on Amazon.co.uk, with delivery to Greece if brought through Amazon rather than a vendor. Once you read it, once you read how peaceful, prosperous and beautiful Smyrna was, you really understand how apt the title is; it was Paradise that turned into hell. And I can't tell you how my hair stood on end, how sick to the stomach I felt reading scenes of desperate refugees huddles on the seafront, filthy, starving, sick and with absolutely nowhere to go, praying for a ship, any ship, to come and help, and knowing that somewhere among those souls were the great grandparents of my husband.

Image: http://img1.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/x3/x17542.jpg

Friday, December 04, 2009

Shopping Therapy

I'm holding an Indian bazaar this Saturday 4th of December in downtown Athens, near Akropoli metro if anyone is interested in seeing my bangles, saris, kajal, perfume oil and henna transfer tattoos in person. Email me at bollybutton@gmail.com for the wheres and whens!

Image: http://www.welt-atlas.de/datenbank/fotos/5-171/big/5-171-29.jpg

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Biryani to Kill and Die for

The city my dear mummy comes from in India, Hyderabad, is famous for two things: bangles and biryani.

Biryani is a type of Indian rice dish that consists of a delicious layer of spiced meat covered by a layer of rice, sprinkled with saffron and steamed. The following recipe is the extra fancy version:

Ingredients for 4-5 people:
1/2 kilo lamb (or chicken)
250 gr basmatic rice
1 large onion, or 2 medium ones
1 cup yoghurt
3 garlic cloves minced
about a tablespoon of grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup of chopped coriander and 1/2 cup chopped mint (important, you can't cut corners here, it has to be fresh coriander not the seeds. Ask your local laiki or central veggie market near Omonia)
2 chopped red or green chillies
Olive oil
a generous pinch of saffron soaked in three tablespoons of warm milk
handful of cashew nuts (optional)
6-7 dried plums or dried apricots (optional)

Spice mix:
1/2 tsp chilli powder - or more if you like it spicy
1/2 tsp tumeric
1 1/2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
2 cloves, pounded
2 cardamom pods shelled and seeds ground to powder
1/2 inch piece of pounded cinnamon or 1/2 tsp ground
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 bay leaf, broken into pieces and pounded as fine as you can
Salt to taste

Cut the lamb into bite-sized piece. If you have lamb on the bone, toss the bone in too. It gives extra flavour. In a bowl, mix the yoghurt and the spice mix along with the garlic, ginger, mint, coriander and chillies. Toss in the lamb pieces and mix everything nicely, salt to taste. Leave overnight if you can or a few hours, but if you don't have time you can move on to the next step.

Finely chop the onions and set a frying pan with some olive oil over a medium high heat. Try to get the onions nice and fine, because you're going to be browning them so it's less of a hassle if they are uniformly cut so that they cook uniformly too. Fry the onions in batches until golden brown, but not burnt. Like with curries, this is the secret.

This is where the depth comes from. Don't let your onions look anaemic, they should look like they spent a day at the beach rubbing baby oil on themselves. You'll recognise this from the yummy smell they release - if they start turning too brown the smell turns acrid.

Drain your fried onions on some kitchen paper. In a heavy-based pot big enough to contain the meat and rice, add some oil and toss in the lamb with the yoghurt. Cook on a medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring now and then, and add the fried onions. Cook everything on a medium heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring to avoid sticking. You'll notice everything start to get nice and juicy and dark as the fried onions break down and the yoghurt thickens.

Cook until the lamb is tender and switch off the heat. If using the plums and cashew nuts, add them about 5 mintues before switching off the heat. Don't use them if you're not a fan of mixing sweet and salty, but I love it, this is how my mum does it. It's not overwhelming, you get a burst of pluminess with random bites.

The meat mixture shouldn't be too watery, but it shouldn't be dry either. Somewhere in the middle. The lamb piece should be about 1/2 poking out of the liquids. Check for salt. It was at this stage that I remembered to take pictures. If you're wondering about the ring of dough, ignore that. I have a hassle free alternative to achieve the same thing further on. I was just showing off.

Take your basmati rice and give it a good wash in 3 changes of water. Add enough water to cover it, salt and boil on a medium heat for around 5 minutes. Drain the rice off and layer it over the meat mixture. Sprinkle your milk with saffron over the top. It will be a pale yellow. Ever eaten traffic light yellow biryani? That's usually food colouring.

Set over a medium heat and allow to come to the boil. Do not stir anything from now on. Take a towel and soak it under the tap. Wring it out, but not completely - juicy wet but not dripping. Wrap the lid of your dish containing the biryani in this wet cloth, as if you're gift wrapping. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, place the wrapped lid on top of the pan and if you have something heavy, weigh the lid down with that, like a marble mortar or a stone.

Leave undisturbed to cook on a low heat for 15 minutes. After the time is up, get a fork, crack open the lid and dive in to try the rice and see if it's cooked. Two important things here: 1) try not to faint with joy at the delicious aromas released when you break the steam seal 2) get in and out with your fork as quickly as possible and replace the lid. If your rice is not done, if will need to keep steaming and this will take longer if you let too much steam out.

When my mum was a little girl, her father would throw parties where cooks were hired to cook great big couldrons of biryani over coal fires. The traditional method of sealing the pot is with a ring of dough. This ensures absolutely all of the steam gets locked in to cook the rice, and the dough around the pot collects the best nutrients from the cooking rice and meat. A friend of my grandfather would volunteer to cook the biryani for parties so long as he got dibs on all the sealing dough afterwards. Personally I don't see the attraction. It tastes pretty awful.

And there you have it. Dig right in and enjoy this lucious, luxurious biryani. Mr Zeus didn't like it, I think it's too complicated in taste for him. But if anyone's interested I've got enough biryani for 4 people, so come on over!

Tips for success:

1) Make sure your salt levels are right. I'm still getting this wrong as the rice sets off a lot of the saltiness

2) To steam the rice, it's important to have a lid that fits snuggly onto the pot.

3) Once you've started steaming, resist your curiosity to crack open the pot and spoil the steaming. God knows I've been chased out of the kitchen by my spatula-wielding mother enough times as a child for sauntering over to a pot of rice and lifting the lid to take a peek.

4) Expect some stuff to stick to the bottom of the pot when steaming. You can reduce this by having a sturdy pot to start with as the heat distributes better. If you only have crappy pots with very thin bottoms, you can avoid too much burning by placing a frying pan on the heat and then your crappy pot on top of the frying pan. This makes the frying pan act as the bottom of the pot and the heat is distributed better.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Best Indian In Athens?

At tango class on Monday one of the girls slipped me a menu from a restaurant she'd been to. "The best Indian in Athens!" it declared boldly. "Oh really", thought I, "I'll be the judge of that!"

The place in question is Jaipur Palace in Glyfada which I've heard of but never been to. The menu was a takeaway menu from there. Last night I began to flick through it and practically fell off the sofa laughing. By way of the stupid prices, this was one of the most unintentionally funny menus I'd ever seen.

Chicken curries from EUR 9.60 each, chicken tikka EUR 10.30, lamb karai EUR 11.80, one tandoori roti EUR 1.50. And this is just the takeaway menu! These prices are totally ridiculous. Ah Mr Zeus, I wonder if you realise how much money you're saving by being married to me. What are they using in their curries to make them so expensive? Garlic grown by blind Tibetan nuns? Chillies irrigated by the tears of a thousand Indian princesses? It's curry, not rocket science!

I was impressed though that the menu contained one of my favourites, dahi papdi chaat. But then it went on to list something called a chef Dhananjay salad with eggs, ham and cheese. You would grow old and die searching for that in India... because it doesn't have any business being on the menu of an Indian restaurant.

Still, who am I to rip this place apart without trying it first? I feel an undercover restaurant review coming on! I'm most curious to see if their biryani is actually biryani. Will it be actual saffron rice, or just yellow dyed rice?

Speaking of which I have lamb marinating for a biryani right now. I'll post the recipe if it's a success, and save you all paying moronic prices for it.