Wednesday, June 9, 2010

KOULOURIA, KOULOURAKIA. WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Koulouria for sale. Grab them while they are stilll hot. The sign in red Greek letters says "crunchy!"
"Greek Girl from Queens," who is a reader of this blog, posted a comment asking if there is a difference between koulouria and koulourakia. There is some difference, and I decided to write about what I know here.

Koulouria (koulouria is plural, koulouri is the singular tense), are somewhat large, bread - like wreaths or rings, smothered in sesame seeds and sold as street food. They are crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, sesame - doughy tasting, and a great treat to eat. They are carbohydrate rich and low in fat, and make a very satisfying snack. Greeks eat a very light breakfast, so a crunchy koulouri holds them over until the mid-day meal. Koulouria are generally mass produced by specialized bakeries, but there are recipes for home cooks. (Find my recipe for koulouria here). Bakeries that make koulouria work at night, so that their product can be ready early in the morning for the waiting vendors, who will then sell them as snack food. Vendors cluster around markets and crossroads. Some have stationary street stands, others are mobile, moving according to demand. Most vendors are sold out by noon or 1:00 pm. Koulouria go fast. When I was a kid, attending elementary school in Thessaloniki, I used to consider myself lucky if I had the necessary sum of one drachma to buy a koulouri during recess. Sometimes, if our school vendor was in a good mood, she would pour into our cupped palms the sesame seeds that would be left on the bottom of the trays once the koulouria were sold out. A fist full of roasted sesame seeds can make a kid very happy.


There are always leftover sesame seeds at the bottom of the tray


Etymologically speaking, the word koulouri derives from antiquity. In ancient Greece, the word kollyrio* described a small round shaped bread made of barley flour. Later on, during Byzantine times, kollyrio evolved into the word kollykio, and that word evolved into the modern day word koulouri. All three mean the same thing: a small roundish bread. (Hold on. We're not done: In some regions it’s also known as semiti, a term that derives from the Greek word semigdali (semolina to us).  Semigdali or semolina is nothing else but hard or durum wheat, the type of wheat used in bread flour).  Koulouria were a popular street food in Constantinople, both during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. Waves of Greek refugees from Constantinople and Asia Minor reintroduced the koulouri to the Greek mainland during the early part of the 20th century. A large number of these refugees settled in and around the city of Thessaloniki, located in northern Greece. Soon, koulouria made by refugees could be found all over the city, a reason they are sometimes refered to as "koulouria Thessalonikis." Their popularity continues to this day.

Here is a personal observation: Look at the picture of koulouria at the top of this paragraph. Do you see the part where the dough has been linked to form a ring? It's clearly visible, it forms an indentation in the koulouri. That is the most delicious part to eat. Since it's been pressed down, it's crunchier, denser, thinner. I has a taste all its own. As a kid I used to save this "link" for last, and sometimes I would hide it in my pocket to eat as a special treat later on. Eating that little bite was a great if brief pleasure. There were two types of kids: those who loved the link and those who didn't. The links were a commodity to be traded in our playground at school. Sometimes you could wind up with two or three of them in your pocket. That was heaven!

*The word kollyrio is the etymological root for the word “collyrium,” which is used in the field of ophthalmology. A collyrium was an ancient medicinal preparation: a piece of soft bread was soaked in a remedy and used as an eye compress. Today, a collyrium is a lotion or liquid wash used as a cleanser for the eyes, particularly in diseases of the eye.

Koulourakia (which really means small koulouria), are small, buttery, desert type cookies. Today they can be eaten at any time, but historically they were made during holidays and times of celebration. Koulourakia can have various shapes such as twists, circles, serpentines, you name it. This depends on the region where they are made and the preference/stamina of the person making them. The basic recipe has flour, some sugar, and lots of butter. The texture is crumbly, crunchy but not hard, and the taste is buttery with hints of the flavorings used. There are several flavorings to choose from: orange, lemon, brandy, ouzo, etc. Koulourakia are brushed with eggwash before baking and it's traditional but not necessary to top each one with a few sesame seeds. When koulourakia contain spirits, they are called koulourakia methysmena, which means drunk koulourakia. In some regions of Greece, probably for dietary reasons, spirits are not used for flavoring. Anise can be substituted, to give the hint of the ouzo taste. Ouzo after all, the famous and omnipresent Greek apĂ©ritif, is flavored with anise. You can find one of my recipes for koulourakia at this link: http://sweetalmondtree.blogspot.com/2009/10/koulourakia-or-greek-butter-cookies.html 


Buttery koulourakia to have with your tea or coffee...
Note: some of the information on street food and on the etymological origins of the word "koulouri," is taken from the book "Street Foods, World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics, Volume 86" edited by Artemis P. Simopoulos & Ramesh V. Bhat

5 comments:

  1. Greek Girl from QueensJune 14, 2010 at 2:33 PM

    Thanks so much for this, Ana. I don't know if you received my earlier thank-you note/comment, as for some reason I couldn't connect to your blog for a few days/nearly a week.

    If you didn't receive that earlier one, I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time out to research the whole koulouria/koulourakia thing, and how you're probably 100 percent right about my grandmother referring to these beauties as something that sounded to me like 'kloothya' or 'kloothia.' It was probably her saying 'koo loo thee ya' very fast, with her northwest regional accent (she came from Ioannina) and spoken quickly enough, came out as 'kloothya.'

    Have you made a batch, then? Oh...wait..you'd said in a post prior to this one (what happened to that one, by the way? I looked for it and it's disappeared...I'm assuming you edited it since then, and the post above is the 'finished product')...that you were going to make some at the end of June/early July, and tell us about it in a post. I'm really looking forward to that, although I realise you already have two brilliant posts about these gorgeous cookies already. There's always room for one more koulouria, na?

    Once again, thank you so much for responding to my queries regarding a very precious childhood memory. I feel honoured that you decided to devote an entire blog entry to this, rather than email me off-blog (which would be lovely too, of course).

    I'll let you know how my koulouria turn out...sorry, I mean koulourakia. I wonder if my nuna knew the difference between the two terms, but still opted for calling them koulouria/kloothia? Sadly, I'll never be able to find out for certain, as she's been gone many years now, God rest her.

    If I ever am fortunate enough to visit Greece, my first stop will be to Ioannina, my grandparents' birthplace and childhood home before they moved to New York.

    Thanks for reading through all this, and again, thanks for your kindness and generosity, as well as your time and research.

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  2. Greek Girl from QueensJune 14, 2010 at 5:57 PM

    Thank you so very much Ana. You've exceeded my every hope & wish of finding out more about the origins of these wonderful cookies from my childhood, bringing back beautiful memories for me, baking with my nuna many years ago.

    Thank you, too, for going through the time and effort of asking your mother and your cousin about the pronunciation my grandmother used (kloothia/koulouthya ... koulouria!). I'm sure you're absolutely right about her dropping vowels or syllables to make it sound smoother or get the word out faster. That, plus her northwestern regional accent (Ioannina) probably added to that particular pronunciation.

    As for bourekyas, my nuna sometimes called them that too, but most of the time, she interchanged that with the term 'boyikos,' or, as she pronounced it, 'bee yee koos.' She made it the same way you described, above. Half a batch of 3 kinds of cheeses: feta, farmer's and pot cheese, and then another batch that was a mixture of spinach and feta and farmer's cheese, shaped in the form of a turnover or a Cornish pasty.

    Anyway, I loved those things nearly as much as the koulouria. I could've eaten them every day and never grow tired of them. She made them with such skill, such love, and I loved it when she would allow me to help her by either mixing the cheeses with the spinach, or by pinching the edges of the bourekyas with my thumb, or putting either the egg wash or the sesame seeds on the kloothia.

    I just wish that I had the presence of mind back then to really pay attention, or better still, to write down the recipe (as well as how she spelled all of them), so I could have it today, many years later.

    As for kolva, I think it's along the lines of the Turkish/middle eastern 'kolyvah,' which was a sort of walnut and honey syrupy mixture, sometimes with almonds, pistachios, figs, and adored by my uncle. He used to plead with her to make a big jar of it especially for him, which she did often. This concoction was way too sweet for me. though - super thick, syrupy and gooey...but oh, how my uncle adored it. I think, if I'm not mistaken, it's sometimes referred to as 'Greek spoon sweets'?

    Sorry for rabbitting on and on like this, but again, I'm just overwhelmed by the amount of love, care, attention and time you've taken to research this for me, and to post it. You've truly made my day, if not my entire week, by posting this. Thanks so, so much!

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  3. Thank you so much for your lovely words. Sorry about the mix up with the post, but I had decided to edit it and it wasn't presentable for a few days. All the information is here though, but it's in better grammatical shape. I will be making koulouria and posting them, and also I have some recommendations for cookbooks that I will email to you. I'd rather email you this info so I can send along links to the books. Not sure that I can do this here. We are baking in heat here in Philadelphia, hope the weather is better were you are. Thanks again for your comment!!!

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  4. Hi Greek Girl from Queens! Here are some books that can be found on Amazon.com
    I would recommend "Eleni," a great book, which years ago was a popular bestseller and was even made into a movie. You may have read it, but if you haven't, it's worthwhile reading just to give you a glimpse of everyday life in a Greek village near the city of Ioannina, in the province of Epirus. Here is the link, and you can search inside the book at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Eleni-Nicholas-Gage/dp/0345410432/ref=pd_sim_b_1#noop This book deals with communism, nationalism, civil war, but politics and religion aside, it gives a very nice description of everyday life in Epirus.

    And on to cookbooks. Look at this one: http://www.amazon.com/Culinaria-Greece-Specialties-Marianthi-Milona/dp/0841603642/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1276561060&sr=1-10#noop I have it and I love it. It's not a gourmet cookbook, and it only includes popular recipes. What I like about it is that it has a lot of information about Greece, all the different regions, and it has lot of pictures and clear instructions. The pictures are wonderful! There is a recipe for koulourakia in circular shapes on page 193, and there is also a recipe for kolyva that your uncle liked so much.

    (Kolyva is made like you said with honey, sugar, a variety of nuts, cinnamon, and boiled wheat kernels. It is a food that originated in ancient times, when Greeks were still polytheistic. It has been incorporated into modern day rituals. Although it's sweet, and can be eaten with a spoon because it has a loose consistency, it is not a spoon sweet. Spoon sweets are fruits that have been cooked in syrup. They are served on small crystal plates, with the sugary fruit resting on the spoon they will be eaten with. Spoon sweets are made from oranges, quinces, cherries, even tiny baby eggplants. They are served accompanied by a glass of cold water. They can be stored in jars for quite a while. Spoon sweets are similar to what we call preserves. Kolyva, on the other hand, is quite a delicacy, lots of people love it, but it has a special purpose: Hold on now, please don't get upset or anything. Kolyva is made to remember loved members of the family that have died. They are made on the anniversary of the person's death, and are distributed to friends and relatives).

    Another cookbook is this one: http://www.amazon.com/Food-Wine-Greece-Classic-Mainland/dp/0312087837/ref=sr_1_17?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1276565728&sr=1-17#noop It's a classic Greek cookbook, lots of good recipes, but no pictures. The author is Dianne Kochilas, who has traveled extensively in Greece, and the recipes are well researched and tested. You can see some of her cooking videos on You Tube, here: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Diane+Kochilas&aq=f

    Another cook book I found while looking around Amazon, is "Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean," by Joyce Goldstein. http://www.amazon.com/Sephardic-Flavors-Jewish-Cooking-Mediterranean/dp/B000A3WW0I/ref=pd_sim_b_6 There is a section in it on Greek/Jewish cooking. What drew my attention to this book is the cover, which has a picture of leek and meat fritters. When I was a kid growing up in Thessaloniki, Greece, my parents owned a restaurant. Thessaloniki was home to a substantial number of Sephardic Jews. A good number of Jewish bachelors were clients at our restaurant, and on occasion they would ask our chef to could cook some of their favorite dishes. They even brought in recipes. These leek fritters were made for them quite often. I have been looking for a recipe for these fritters (prassokeftes) for a very long time, and now there it is! I'll be ordering this book.

    Anyway, this list is a good start, hope to speak with you again. (ask me about my visit to Ioannina in 1989).

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  5. Greek Girl from QueensJune 17, 2010 at 12:00 PM

    Thanks very much for these cookbook links, Ana. Will reply 'properly' when I have a bit of free time to myself. I'll have a look for these on ebay, where I've found some great bargains from time to time.

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