The Greek island with an old sushi tradition
“You fillet the fish, roll it up and stuff it with plums and vegetables. Then you can salt or smoke it in a wood stove or in the oven, ”says Stamatakis. He explained that locals have long been smoking and rolling fish this “sushi style”, with some Scopelites filling the fish with rice – although plums and vegetables were preferred on special occasions like engagements. “The expectant mother-in-law would knock on the future groom’s door before the wedding with this version of the court in hand,” he said.
While most people associate sushi with raw fish, the earliest form of sushi is called narezushi, consisted of salted fish and raw rice. Narezushi is thousands of years old and has its roots in the rice fields of China. Just as the inhabitants of these regions found a way to preserve and ferment local fish with salt to survive severe monsoons and intense heat, so the Scopelites healed the moray eels with salt to enrich their local cuisine.
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The curing and rolling of the fish in a “sushi style” preparation, as Stamatakis describes it, is unique on the island and nowhere else in the Mediterranean. Stamatakis learned the dish from his grandfather, a sailor, farmer and cook, who in turn learned it from the monks of Mount Athos. Just like the ascetics, Stamatakis’ grandfather dried the fish in salt before rolling and stuffing it.
Mount Athos (or Holy Mountain) is a collective name for a mountain and a peninsula in northeast Greece, about 110 km northeast of Skopelos. It is the spiritual center of Orthodox Christianity and, since Byzantine times, a self-governing area consisting of 20 monasteries, 12 smaller monastery settlements, around 700 houses, cells or hermitages and around 2,000 monks. Until the first half of the 20th century, Mount Athos owned a lot of land in Skopelos, Stamatakis said, and many locals began trading with the ascetics in the hunt for farmland. One of them was Stamatakis’ grandfather. He bought land in Glossa, an amphitheater-like village on a steep hill, 25 km northwest of Skopelos’ capital, also called Skopelos or Hora.
“He, and basically everyone who came into contact with the monks, were impressed with their Byzantine culinary traditions, especially the way they healed moray eels [by salting or smoking it]. This is an old recipe. It is even mentioned that the ancient Greeks kept moray eels in aquariums in Deipnosophistae (a multi-volume Greek tome from the early 3rd cent. the oldest surviving cookbook), “said Stamatakis.” The Scopelites loved the dish and brought it to their wives on the island. “
Far from the arid and barren Cyclades, Skopelos is Greece’s greenest island. The pure, untouched flora makes up 67% of the island, old mule tracks crisscross it and olive groves give way to charming villages that emerge from endless pine forests. Memories of the Byzantine Empire and the connection with Mount Athos can be seen everywhere, as the island is littered with 360 chapels and churches. Skopelos is also a seafood haven, whose residents pride themselves on cooking lobster with orzo noodles or stuffed sea urchins and barnacles with rice.