It is a truism, endlessly repeated, that Greece stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and this is possibly most evident in its food. Over the centuries transient Franks, Italians and the more persistently resident Ottomans have left their mark on the country’s food. Turkish words, like ‘dolma’ (stuffed vegetable), ‘fasulye’ (bean) and ‘fistik’ (pistachio or peanut), are recognisable in Greek and are the same all over the eastern mediterranean. Yet at one time Greek was also the ‘lingua franca’ of the region. The tastes and smells of the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant all have a similar background – intertwining, mingling and constantly referring back to each other. Arguably, the major centres of Greek culture and civilisation – Alexandria and Smyrna, say – were in the East and it is generally considered that some of the greatest dishes in the Greek culinary repertoire come from that part of the diaspora.
Soutzoukákia derives from the Turkish word ‘sucuk’ – sausage – but these are not really sausages. This is a dish of small, fragrant meatballs in a rich tomato sauce, and comes from the city of Izmir- or Smyrna as was. They are usually referred to as Soutzoukákia Smyrneïka – Smyrna Sausages.
There are, course, endless variations of this dish – and every family will attest to having the true recipe. I have heard one where red wine is put into the meat mixture and the cook must dip her hands in red wine to shape the meatballs…. some are made with a mixture of different meats…others omit the onions in the mixture …. the permutations (and arguments about it) are almost endless. However the ‘must have’ ingredients are the ones that sing loud and strong of the flavours of the Levant – cumin, garlic and cinnamon.
For the meatballs :
500gm beef mince
I onion grated or very finely chopped
1 clove of garlic
1 cup of breadcrumbs, softened with water
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cumin
Good couple of ‘grinds’ of black pepper
Olive oil for frying
For the Sauce:
100 ml olive oil
1 shallot – leave whole
2 cloves garlic
400 ml tomato juice (or ‘V8’ juice)
1 bay leaf
1 stick of cinnamon
500 ml water
70 ml red wine
1 tsp salt
Ground black pepper to taste
First of all start by making the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a good sized pan (see ‘Practicalities’) and add the shallot. Brown the shallot whole, towards the end add the whole garlic cloves and allow to warm through. Add the tomato juice, water, spices etc and bring to the boil.. Cover the pan with the lid and turn down the heat. Allow the mixture to simmer for about 20 – 30 minutes.
While that is cooking, start doing the meatballs.
In a bowl mix, with your hands, the mince, the moist breadcumbs, onion, garlic, spices and seasoning. It needs to be a nice soft, smooth, mixture – it may be necessary to add a little more water if it feels bit dry.
Shape the mixture into oval, fat, little ‘sausages’. You should make about 25 from this quantity.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan, and gently fry the ‘sausages’ in batches. They need to be pretty well almost cooked. Put on a plate and put to one side.
Now turn your attention to the sauce.
Take the bay leaf and cinnamon out and put to one side – leave the shallot and garlic in the sauce and now blend it. Either do this in food processor, ‘mouli-legume’ or with a ‘stick blender’.
Put the sauce back into the casserole with the cinnamon and bay leaf. Now add the meatballs.
Allow this all to simmer for about 20 – 30 minutes.
Serve with either rice, mashed potatoes or pasta.