Vefa Alexiadou: Meet Greece's answer to Delia Smith

In her native country, she's bigger than Delia. Now, Vefa Alexiadou's recipes have been published here – and they're not typical taverna fare

Lemonia, the Greek-Cypriot restaurant in London's Primrose Hill, has had more than its fair share of famous faces in today. Kate Moss and Sadie Frost popped in for lunch and so, too, did the singer Rachel Stevens. But it is the presence of a Greek cook called Vefa Alexiadou that gets the staff all in a fluster. Even the chef pops out of the kitchen to get a glimpse.

It's not surprising they're all in awe, because back in their homeland Alexiadou is universally acknowledged to be the grand dame of Greek cuisine and is fantastically famous. She published her first cookbook, An Invitation To Dinner, in 1980 and has produced dozens of bestsellers since. For 13 years she had a daily slot on the TV show Morning Coffee, which virtually the entire country tuned into, and she also has a chain of kitchenware shops dotted all over Greece. She has a combination of Delia Smith's oracle status and Jamie Oliver's sharp entrepreneurial streak. "I have," she tells me modestly, "taught the women of Greece how to cook."

She certainly has the manner of someone who has spent their life dishing out instructions. She's never short of tips, either, and when Lemonia's chef steps up to greet her she tells him that his stuffed courgettes weren't quite right and the flesh should have been dug out a little deeper.

Although a few of Alexiadou's books have been translated into English, she has never actually been published in this country, but this summer Phaidon has brought out a venerable tome called Vefa's Kitchen, stuffed with more than 700 recipes. It's the most comprehensive treatment of Greek food we've seen in this country.

It's also arguably a collective Greek effort, because the book is the result of the years and years Alexiadou spent gathering recipes from all over her country. She launched an enormously popular cooking contest on her TV show and every year thousands of people would send in their recipes. She and her team would sift through them and whittle them down to the winners, which would then be published in a magazine. "Women from villages all over Greece would pass on their family recipes," says Vefa, "Some would even send me the original manuscript written in their grandmother's hand writing."

The result is a kind of Greek "best of" and anyone who thought that Greek cuisine was the stuff you were served on your annual holiday – moussaka, kebabs, Greek salad – is in for a surprise. In the chapter on mezedes (or meze), for example, there are nearly 120 dishes. Yes, taramasalata, tzatziki and hummus are all there, but so too is cuttlefish in wine, salt cod fritters and squid served with nettles.

There is a big chapter on lamb, "many Greeks' favourite meat", full of delicious-sounding slow-cooked stews, as well as a wonderful section on fish. One surprise about the book is how well it caters for vegetarians. Much of Greek cooking, Alexiadou tells me, follows the teaching of the church. Traditionally, Greeks fast 40 days before Easter and 40 days before Christmas and during these times meat and dairy products are banned. Thus, a wealth of sophisticated vegetable dishes emerged on the Greek menu. So the book includes recipes for stuffed celery root, braised okra, fennel bake and, unsurprisingly, endless suggestions for what to do with an aubergine.

With such emphasis on tradition, it comes as no surprise to hear that Alexiadou's mother was hugely influential. "There was always something on the stove and the house always smelt of cinnamon, vanilla and herbs of every kind."

Although Alexiadou was a keen young cook, at the age of 18 she enrolled at Thessaloniki University to study chemistry. She got a job as a chemist and it was not until she was 45 that she embarked on her career in food. "I used to cook for a group of friends," she says, "and the next day the phone wouldn't stop ringing with each of them asking 'how did you do this?' and 'how did you do that?'. They began to push me to write a cookbook." At the time no one was interested in publishing an unknown food writer, so she borrowed the money and published it herself. The first print run of 5,000 books sold out within four weeks.

I ask her why she thinks Greek food hasn't caught on in this country in the way that, say, Italian has. Alexiadou thinks it's all a question of perception. When Greeks starting arriving in New York, she says, instead of opening restaurants they chose to sell souvlaki, pitta and tzatziki from stalls on the streets. "Greeks didn't open restaurants like the Italians did," she says. "Italians respect their kitchen. Greeks don't. We have a great cuisine. We should present it nicely and not on the streets."

She blames the restaurants in her homeland, too. "Greek restaurants often use very bad ingredients – the worst ingredients in order to save money. Because of this, very few people in Britain understand what real Greek food is. The only way to know the true flavour of Greek cuisine is to be a guest in someone's home."

Theodore Kyriacou, the chef who opened The Real Greek in London in 1999 agrees. "When we first opened people would come in and walk straight out again," he says. "I was very clear that I wasn't going to do the usual suspects of Greek salad, moussaka and kebabs. None of those things were on the menu. People didn't recognise any of the dishes from their holidays in Greece and just left." When Kyriacou sold up in 2006 there were seven Real Greek restaurants, but he still wasn't sure how far we'd come in our acceptance of Greek cuisine. "I thought that more Greek restaurants would follow," he says, "but I think it's going to take years to change the minds of people about what Greek food actually is."

Still, if Alexiadou has her way it won't be long before we all come round to her way of thinking. After all, she says, compared to British food, it's no contest. "There is no English cuisine, I'm sorry to say. You all need my book."

Vefa's Kitchen by Vefa Alexiadou is published at the end of June by Phaidon; Lemonia, 89 Regents Park Road, London NW1, 020 7586 7454

Marinated red mullet from Corfu By Vefa Alexiadou

Serves 6

3 ¼ (1.5kg) small red mullet or snapper, scaled and cleaned
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose (plain) flour
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 cup (250 ml/8 fl oz) tomato juice
3 cups (750 ml/1 ¼ pints) olive oil]
1 cup (250 ml/8 fl oz) red wine vinegar
15 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon dried rosemary

Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper. Put the flour into a plastic bag, add the fish, a few at a time, and shake to coat. Transfer the fish to a colander and shake off excess flour. Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan. Add the fish and cook for around five minutes on each side, or until cooked through. Remove from the skillet and let cool. Pour the tomato juice, olive oil, and vinegar into a pan, add the garlic and rosemary, season with salt, and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the garlic has softened. Pour a little of the hot marinade into an earthenware bowl and make a layer of the fish. Pour in some more of the marinade and make a second layer of fish. Continue making layers in the same way until all the fish has been used. Pour in the remaining marinade to cover the fish. Let marinade in the fridge for at least 3-4 days. Covered with oil and stored in a cool place, fish prepared in this way will keep for several days, and the flavour continues to improve.

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
newsVideo for No campaign was meant to get women voting
Arts and Entertainment
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?