Sunday, January 20, 2013

TRAHANA SOUP


I just got over a bad case of the flu, yes, it’s been making the rounds and so I was one of its victims.  When I felt like eating I wanted nothing else but hot, nourishing soup, and nothing would do but to have my mother’s Trahana soup.  I like its milky, somewhat sour flavor and its thick, creamy consistency.  Each spoonful I took felt like a soothing balm for my achy throat.  I requested it from my mother almost on a daily basis not only because I knew that I could tolerate it despite being ill, but also because I found it comforting to eat soup that my mother cooked to help me feel better.  Trahana as an ingredient is not much known outside the Greek community.  For Greeks, it’s a popular pasta-like product that’s turned into winter soups or used to thicken recipes.  Today’s  Greek chefs have devised novel ways of coking it.  One way is to use it as a side dish with meats such as lamb.  They combine it with tomato sauce and a little cinnamon, and it’s quite delectable that way.  However, nothing beats trahana made into soup, especially when your mother has made it.
Trahana is a healthful grain product made from crushed wheat and milk. As far as food groups go, it falls under the category of pasta, but it’s a type of pasta that is very high in protein due to its milk content.  Made by Greek farmers since antiquity, it’s a way of preserving milk for the winter.  Its unique sour taste is achieved through fermentation and drying. The fermentation produces lactic acid which lowers the trahana’s pH.  The drying process reduces moisture content.  Therefore, fermentation and drying allow trahana to be kept for a long time because it has been rendered inhospitable to pathogens.  The time to start making trahana is in early fall, after the harvest is done.  Milk, usually goat’s milk, is poured into churns and made into yogurt.    It’s switched into clean churns daily with more and more milk added each time.  Once the milk has fermented, wheat is mixed in along with lemon juice and a few spices.  In some regions vegetables are also incorporated into the mix.  The concoction is then boiled until it sets and forms a solid dough.  The dough is cut into small pieces and placed onto large tables covered with clean white sheets.  Protective tulle goes over the trahana.  The tables are taken outside so that the trahana can dry in the hot sun.  Usually there is a designated person such as a child whose job is to guard the trahana from animals and the elements.  My father would often recount how it was his job to do this when he was young.  If there is no one to guard it, the trahana dries indoors.    
Trahana is cut into pieces and set out to dry.
(pictures from Cooking Helena).
After it has partially dried, it’s put through a sieve and is reduced into gravel sized pieces.  Then it’s laid out again to dry completely.
Trahana is placed on a sieve and ground by hand.  It's then left to dry out completely.
Once that’s accomplished it’s stored in cotton sacks and saved for the winter.  One of its distinctive properties is that when it’s cooked it becomes creamy and thick.  Most children are not fond of trahana because of its sour taste.  When I was a child I would never go anywhere near it if I could help it.  I firmly resisted entreaties from my mother and grandmother to eat my trahana.  When my father, the family disciplinarian was around, I had a special way of pretending to eat it: I would pick out the feta cheese it was prepared with, and let the rest go.  However, a matured palate can appreciate and savor trahana’s singular taste.  
Trahana was anathema to me when I was a kid, but as an adult  I've come to relish its flavor.  Quick and easy to make, it's my go to soup on a cold winter's day!  

When we first moved to the US from Greece, we would depend on small sacks of trahana send over by relatives.  Even when we did live in Greece we would get our yearly “allotment” of trahana from a dear aunt who lived in the country.  Most Greek city folk still get their trahana in a similar manner.  However, these days, trahana is also available commercially.  Look for it in Greek and Middle Eastern markets, or find it through the internet.  It’s just as good as the homemade variety (well, almost), and it’s not expensive at all.  I should note that in certain regions of Greece a second variety of trahana is made, the sweet variety.  It’s made with milk that has not turned sour.  The most popular and best sweet trahana is that made in the island of Crete, and even as a child I used to love it.  There’s no sour taste to it obviously, and it’s made with whole wheat and actual pieces of wheat kernels left in it.  It’s an excellent trahana but not easy to find, unless one goes looking for it while in Crete.
This is a bag of trahana sold by Greek Internet Market.  
Titan Foods, a large Greek grocery store in Astoria NY, sells trahana through Amazon.

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion chopped well
1 or 2 scallions chopped
6 ounces mushrooms, chopped, pick your favorite varieties
4 or 5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 cup sour trahana
1 tablespoon chopped dehydrated onions (this is optional.  My mother adds them to the soup because she likes the way they give a crunchy texture-until they rehydrate that is)
1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
3 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese
black pepper to taste
5  cups chicken broth or vegetable broth or use plain water
2 cups water
2 tablespoons butter

Directions:
  • In a skillet heat the olive oil and add the garlic, scallions and onions. 
  •  Cook for a few minutes, and then add the mushrooms and the thyme.  
  • Cook, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes, until the onions have started to get brown and the mushrooms are soft. 
  • Remove from the heat and reserve.
  • Into a soup pot, add the broth and water and bring to a boil.  
  • Pour in the trahana and dehydrated onions if using, and lower the heat.  
  • Simmer for about 15 minutes until the soup is thick.  Stir occasionally so that the trahana does not stick to the bottom of the pot.  
  • Add the cheeses, the butter  and the reserved mushrooms and continue cooking for another 5 to 10 minutes. 
  • And that’s it. The trahana is ready.  Ladle it into soup bowls and serve it while it’s hot.    

This post is my contribution to Souper Sundays, hosted by Deb at Kahakai Kitchen.  Each Sunday Deb has a round up of contributed posts with recipes of soups, sandwiches or stews.  

3 comments:

  1. This is interesting. I have never heard of Trahana before, but it sounds delicious. I wish I could have some of that soup. Maybe one day I will feel adventurous and purchase some trahana online and give this a try. I love learning about new foods from other countries/cultures. Thanks for the post.

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  2. I have seen trahana but have not ever tried it before. It looks like excellent comfort food. ;-)
    Thanks for sharing with Souper Sundays this week.

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  3. I am glad you are getting over the flu. I know it's no fun at all. And I am glad you wrote about trahana: I had never heard of it and it sounds like a really interesting ingredient, the product of people creativity in times when food storage options were limited. You really make me want to have a bowl of the soup :)

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