Once the shopping for the family restaurant was finished—the octopus, squid and vegetables safely stowed—Marianna Leivaditaki’s mother would treat her to a meal so common across Greece that it might seem like no treat at all.
“After the fish market, it was a ritual,” says Leivaditaki, author of the cookbook “Aegean.” “She would say, ‘Let’s go for a souvlaki.’ There are about 700 places you can eat them, but you only ever go to the one place because it’s so good.”
The spit-roasted pork, which is sliced and rolled into pita, then topped with tzatziki and fresh tomato, is Greece’s most common street food. It’s also a fixture at nearly every saint’s day festival, where 50-kilo skewers of stacked slabs of boneless pork shoulder draw people to the church with the smell of smoke and sizzling fat.
Which means it was everywhere when Leivaditaki was growing up on the island of Crete, and it quickly became a beloved family tradition. That’s despite driving her mother nuts with her unorthodox approach to eating it. “I would open mine on a plate, eating everything separate, and my mom would say, ‘Why are you doing that? It’s so weird,’” she says, laughing. “Because I can taste everything different, OK?”
Unique spice with a flavor that’s hard to pin down, fenugreek is common to many Indian curries, spice blends from the Caucasus and the dry rub for the Turkish cured beef pasturma. Though it resembles a seed, fenugreek actually is a legume. It’s commonly compared to maple syrup thanks to a shared aroma compound called sotolon, but it also has resiny, bitter and some even say citrusy flavors. Use too much and it overpowers the food, making it bitter, says Marianna Leivaditaki, author of “Aegean”: “Learn to use it in moderation in the right amounts, that’s when you realize it’s fantastic. It just elevates, even just grilled chicken. It brings this richness to the meat that is delicious.”
Perhaps that’s why the recipe in her book is more of a deconstructed souvlaki, a plate of spice-rubbed pork tenderloin served alongside all the elements that typically would be stuffed into the pita. In Crete, the pork usually is seasoned with only salt, pepper, oregano and lemon. But in northern areas of mainland Greece, souvlaki may include spices such as paprika and mustard. Complicating matters, in Athens and further north the term “souvlaki” refers to cubes of skewered pork grilled over charcoal (souvla means skewer), and they call the sliced, spit-roasted meat in pita a gyro (from the Greek for spin).
Leivaditaki doesn’t feel beholden to any one tradition; she combines the different regional flavors for a bold spice rub. But what really drew us in was her unconventional addition of fenugreek, inspired by her travels in Turkey. This enigmatic spice carries a maple-like note that pairs beautifully with the natural sweetness of pork. In fact, Leivaditaki says that now she never cooks pork without it. “It brings this richness to the meat that is just delicious,” she says.
The rub also includes smoky, lingering heat from Aleppo pepper and smoked hot paprika, while a mixture of dried oregano and thyme provides an herbaceous note. For the tzatziki, grating a cucumber, then squeezing out the excess liquid keeps the yogurt sauce from turning runny, and a dash of red wine vinegar brightens it. And a simple tomato-onion salad doubles down on the dried herbs for a distinctively Greek flavor.
Whether the meat is tucked into flatbread or eaten separately, the sweetness from the fenugreek does in fact make this spin on souvlaki feel a bit like a treat. And Leivaditaki says there’s a bonus: “It’s extremely easy to cook this very well.”