On the Greek island of Skopelos, the country’s greenest island located in the Western Aegean Sea, residents have long been making a “sushi-style” fish dish, which can even be traced back to the Ancient Greeks…
1. A unique dish
The Greek ‘sushi’ is made from moray eel, nowadays a low market-value fish, and the traditional way of preparing it has a long history. Nikos Stamatakis is the owner-manager of Agnanti Restaurant, a traditional island restaurant on Skopelos. He comes from a long generation of Skopelos taverna owners, who learned how to prepare the delicacy and passed the skills on over generations. According to Stamatakis, the moray eel’s consumption dates back to the days of Ancient Greece and the cured version of this two-jawed eel could in fact be Europe’s first “sushi”.
Stamatakis describes the process of creating this unique dish. First, the fish is filleted, then rolled up and stuffed with plums (the island has plums galore with eight different varieties of the fruit) and greens. It can then be either salted or smoked in a wood burning stove or an oven. The chef explained that locals have been curing and rolling the fish in this “sushi style” for many years, and whilst some Skopelites stuff the fish with rice, on special occasions plums and vegetables were traditionally preferred.
3. A long history
The first ever form of sushi was called narezushi and was made of fish preserved with salt and raw rice. Thousands of years old, the dish’s roots can be traced to the rice fields of China. At the time, just as was common in many societies, people used salt to preserve and ferment food, in this case local fish, in order to not starve during periods of heavy monsoons and intense heat. In the same way, Skopelites salt-cured the moray eel to enrich their cuisine. Skopelites are the only people in the Mediterranean to have used the ‘sushi’ like technique of curing and rolling the fish, a knowledge that has been passed down through time. In Stamatakis’ case, he learned the dish from his grandfather, a sailor, farmer and cook, who learned it himself from the monks of Mount Athos (or Holy Mountain), a collective name for a mountain and peninsula in north-eastern Greece, located about 110km northeast of Skopelos.
4. An ancient recipe
It was in this way that the old recipe of Byzantine culinary traditions was passed on, and it is even mentioned in Deipnosophistae, an early 3rd-Century AD multi-volume Greek tome considered the oldest surviving cookbook, that Ancient Greeks were fond of moray eels and kept them in aquariums. The fish certainly has a long and distinguished legacy on the island, and although it is seemingly less popular today among the younger generations, likely due to the long preparation process, it plays an important role in the island’s history and cuisine, and even further afield, as Europe’s first ‘sushi’.