When a Greek yiayia (grandmother) asks “are you hungry?” don’t bother answering no. Selective hearing kicks in, no means yes, and within seconds you have a bib around your neck ready to eat a miraculously appearing feast.
For all other occasions, the solution is simple: souvlaki.
Souvlaki and gyros: aren’t they the same?
Many interchange the words “souvlaki” and “gyros” (pronounced: yee-ros), but they’re not to be mistaken for one another.
We can differentiate them by learning some Greek. Souvlaki is the Greek word for “skewer”, so souvlaki is marinated chunks of meat skewered and cooked on a grill.
Gyros translates as “to go around”, which is exactly how it’s cooked. Gyros is meat that is layered onto a vertical rotisserie and cooks while rotating. Then it’s shaved into small pieces and put into a wrap. Think of gyros as souvlaki’s unhealthy cousin – with much more oil in its marination. Most Greek wrap stores will offer both souvlaki and gyros.
What makes an impressive souvlaki (aside from being available at 2am)?
BREAD: BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Pita bread is scarily similar to yiayia; it engulfs anything it can find in a blanket of puffy love. Strong bread game involves three things: elasticity, lightness and generous thickness. Poor bread game: thin, dense or worse – stale.
At the tip of the CBD’s Hardware Lane is Kalamaki Street Food, a Hellenic gold mine for anyone on a lunch break. You can rely on this Athenian-styled souvlaki bar to deliver honest, tasty, quick Greek food.
Co-owner John Petropoulos says after years of searching for the right pita bread, he’s found the one – from a small family business in Thomastown.
“We’ve tried a couple of brands, but nothing beats Mr Pitta, they’re the best,” he says about the bread’s sponginess.
Assistant manager at George Calombaris’ Jimmy Grants restaurant in Fitzroy, Sarah Hagen, agrees nothing surpasses Mr Pitta. Mr Pitta makes an exclusive wholemeal pita for Jimmy Grants, making its wraps healthier than others that use traditional pita made with white flour.
Jimmy Grants is steadily expanding throughout the city, and most recently opening a store in Richmond. Adding to its repertoire of modern wraps, the Richmond store has introduced a duck souvlaki with apple, tzatziki, and chips on the menu. The chain is opening Ascot Vale and Glen Waverley stores soon.
MEAT: THE PROTAGONIST
For many Greeks, finding good meat is as exciting (if not more so) as finding a romantic partner.
Owner and chef at Kalimera Souvlaki Art, Thomas Deliopoulos only goes for female pork because male pigs stink. He says: “It’s also important that pork is from a pig weighing no more than 60 kilos so the meat turns out tender and juicy.”
Owner of Orexi Souvlaki Bar Michael Paraskevopoulos says it’s not just about good quality meat, but how it’s cooked. He says a gyros’ flavour lies in the wood.
“We use natural wood to cook our gyros, no chemicals, nothing artificial. You get the natural charcoal flavour from it,” he says.
Paraskevopoulos is the third owner of Orexi, one of the first souvlaki joints opening in Oakleigh in 2004. Matt Preston claimed it his favourite souvlaki shop shortly afterwards.
CHIPS: THE CONTROVERSIALIST
Brisbane boy George Karakousis moved to Melbourne and opened Mythos Greek Restaurant this year. The long, narrow eatery is the newest kid in Oakleigh’s competitive food arena (next door to cake giant Vanilla). Although miniature in size, its food not to be underestimated. Karakousis personally prefers eating wraps with no chips, but accepts it’s about what the people want (democracy: invented by Greeks).
“Chips are a novelty that have come up in the last couple of decades in Greece,” Karakousis says. “It probably has to do with the fact that meat prices rose and people needed another way to fill souvlakis.”
Before putting chips in wraps, some places give them some extra loving. Jimmy Grants sprinkles its chips with oregano and Kalimera Souvlaki blesses them with paprika.
SALAD: THE INTRUDER
“Salad in a souvlaki is traditionally Australian,” according to Paraskevopoulos, who intends to uphold that tradition. He has lettuce, tomato and onion in his wraps.
After migrating to Australia, many of Greece’s youths are perplexed as to why salad has replaced chips in souvlaki. But, that’s how we do it down under. After all, something needs to cut through the carbs, meat, oil and potato.
If you need a souvlaki or gyros, here is where to find Melbourne’s best:
What to try: chicken souvlaki
15 Eaton Street, Oakleigh
(03) 9568 6069
What to try: The Bonegilla (chicken and lamb souvlaki)
113 Saint David Street, Fitzroy
(03) 9416 0060
287 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
570 North Road, Ormond
(03) 8419 8811
427 Church Street, Richmond
(03) 8419 8808
Kalamaki Street Food
What to try: chicken gyros
389 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
(03) 9602 4444
Greek Street Food
What to try: chicken souvlaki
Food truck: location varies
0419 505 210