Every country has a foodstuff that is so popular that it becomes something close to a national dish. I suppose in Britain, or England at least, it would be fish and chips – although I have heard that Chicken Tikka Masala is gaining in the popularity stakes. America has the hamburger, Italy has pasta, Turkey, the kebab and parts of Spain would say that paella was top of the food charts. If you ask most Greeks for the dish that fits into this category, it is most likely to be fasoláda that comes in at number one.
It is a dish that every Greek household is meant to eat once a week; a dish that comes directly from the country’s agricultural roots. It’s a simple soup of stewed dried beans in a hearty tomato sauce.The magic – and all simple dishes have to have a magical touch – comes from a more than generous slug of olive oil and plenty of chopped carrots and celery. Your regular haricot beans are acceptable but you will get a more authentic result if you use white kidney beans – most ethnic grocers stock them.
Fasoláda is always served with some salty or spicy side dishes; obviously olives are a must, a dish of pickled hot peppers is also common, but anchovies or preserved sardines are popular too. A common but more unlikely candidate for this, and the very last thing I expected to see on a Greek dinner table, was the very British kipper.
When I first started shopping in Greece some thirty or more years ago, I was a little surprised to be reminded of home by the stacked wooden crates stamped with names like Lowestoft and Craster.I was also baffled to see that the crates were indeed full of kippers, all golden and shiny. My mind immediately conjured up plates of grilled kippers, served with thinly sliced brown bread and lashings of butter, rinsed down with a strong cup of tea. I just couldn’t work out how this delicacy fitted in to my experience of Greek food. That was until I had fasoláda, served with a little dish of filleted, grilled kipper on the side.
In Greek these caramel-coloured beauties are called ‘rénga’ – a corruption of the word herring, I would imagine. Somehow, Greeks are surprised to find that ‘rénga’ are eaten in Britain – they are even more surprised to find that they can be served up at breakfast too! It is a strange thing that this seemingly, quintessentially British food has been adopted as part of the Greek national dish – a truly unexpected fusion.
So when a friend recently brought a beautiful pair of juicy kippers from the excellent Robson and Sons of Craster, the obvious thing to make to go with them was a pan of fasoláda. The perfect meal for February.
300gm dried white beans – white kidney beans are best -soaked overnight
1 onion, finely chopped
2-3 carrots, chopped into chunks
1 stick of celery finely chopped – or 2 tablespoonfuls of chopped celery leaves
200ml tomato juice
150ml olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper
Drain the beans that have been soaking overnight.
Put the finely chopped onion into a large pan with half a cup of water and let it cook briskly for a few minutes, until the onion has softened. It doesn’t matter if the water evaporates completely – just make sure it doesn’t burn!
Remove from the heat and add the drained beans, the chopped carrot and celery, the tomato juice and olive oil. Now add about 1 litre of water and return to the heat.
Bring to the boil and then leave to simmer for about 40 minutes or until the beans are tender.You may need to add a little more water – the consistency should be more soup than stew. Skim off any froth that rises to the surface during the cooking.
Season with salt and pepper and serve with bread and side dishes of olives, pickled chilies, anchovies or grilled kippers.