Greek cooking. Yiayia, grandmother, makes filo dough with her hands in kitchen

How to cook like a Greek yiayia, grandmother?

I finally attended cooking classes with yiayia, my boyfriend’s grandmother. Her generation of Greek women cooks the most delicious meals. Tasty and seasonal, with local products gathered from friends and family who live close by. And one of the goals I had set for this year was to learn how to cook like her. 

Entering yiayia’s kitchen is not easy

My yiayia is from a time in which women did not have a paid job. Instead, her work has always been to care for the family and the household. Cooking, cleaning, and being there for her children. That is what she has done all her life. Now, she is 80 years old and did not retire yet, nor will she in the coming years. As long as she is able to, she will keep her job as the perfect mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. And the way to express her love to her family is by cooking. 

Yiayia’s food is the tastiest I have ever eaten. There is no mousaka, piroski, or kotopita like hers. I want to learn how to cook like her, but it is not easy to make a Greek grandmother allow you, her guest, into the kitchen. Greek women of this generation want to make the family happy with their food. They will cook all day, get tired, and complain, but they will never allow you to help them. 

In the past year, I have been continuously asking yiayia to let me help her in the kitchen or at least allow me to be there when she cooks. Until now, I did not get further than receiving recipes from her. However, a Greek grandmother’s instructions do not include all the information you need to cook. Yiayia would tell me to use a bit of salt and add a lot of flour, but with this information, I never recreated the taste of her dishes. I had to see it, and luckily the previous days, I was finally allowed to enter yiayia’s kitchen. 

Cooking starts early

We were going to make kotopita, a pie stuffed with a chicken from the village, inside a crispy homemade filo dough. Yiayia’s most tasty recipe and I immediately understood why. It takes yiayia two days to cook this dish! On the first morning, she makes the filo, which she then puts in the freezer till the evening. When the filo is ready to be moved into the fridge, it is time to prepare the chicken. And on day two, everything is combined into the most delicious pita or pie.

To cook with yiayia, I had to get up early in the morning. Greece is hot in the summer, and Greek life is adjusted to the temperatures. Early in the morning, it is time for work, followed by the time to swim. In the afternoon, the family eats lunch together and goes for a nap after that. And in the evening, there is again time for swimming, chores, and socializing. Yiayia knows this schedule well, and cooking in the morning can start as early as six o’clock, so, my alarm woke me up at 5.30.

When I entered yiayia’s kitchen at 6, she told me we had to hurry because there was a lot to do. Well, she had to hurry, because, for me, she put a chair in the kitchen to observe her cooking. That was not my plan! Refusing to sit, she soon understood that an extra pair of hands might come in handy when making filo dough. And I finally started learning how to cook like a Greek grandmother.

When yiayia says ligo, a little, she means a lot

The first thing I learned from yiayia is that when she says to put a little of something, she usually means you have to put a lot. Ligo alati, salt, is about a handful. Ligo olive oil in Greece apparently means to add about 7 or 8 spoons. However, when she says add ligo xidi, vinegar, a little is actually what she means.

I understood immediately why my attempts of recreating yiayia’s food with only her recipe did not turn out great. Her ligo can mean anything, from a little bit, till a lot for me. She did not learn to cook from a recipe, but instead looked at her mother when she was young. Who probably also told her to put a little of everything.

Everything has a unique technique

Using a rolling pin, cutting vegetables, or knitting dough, everything in yiayia’s kitchen has a particular way of doing it. Some recipes require medium-sized pieces of onions, and others require slightly smaller ones. There is dough that you open with your fingers open, and dough that you open with your fingers closed. There is a special technique for everything and only yiayia knows when to use which.

Yiayia’s food always has a story

The ingredients of a good home-cooked Greek meal always have a story. Especially in summer, no meal is cooked using only things from the supermarket. Peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers always come from either the family or a friend. But even meat is often something from close by. 

Yiayia knows many farmers. If she wants a goat, for example, she will call a friend, and the next day a man will ring the doorbell with a package, containing her goat. For chicken and lamb, yiayia calls a different person, but always the meat comes from close and is fresh. Something we should all try to do.

Cooking is combined with other jobs

As I mentioned earlier, cooking Greek food like a grandmother, is not done within an hour. When working with dough, you need time for the yeast to work, and with mousaka, you slowly bake layer after layer in the oven. 

Cooking is a continuous alternation between hard work and waiting, but Greek grandmothers are not familiar with the definition of waiting for something. When yiayia and I finished knitting the dough for the filo, she said it was time to go to the market, do laundry, and clean the house. I found out this translates into waiting half an hour to three hours to open the filo.

Cooking means hard work

For yiayia, a good recipe requires effort, especially when working with homemade dough. When a Greek (grand)mother cooks, she gets tired, sweats, and trains her muscles. And that is what it should be according to her. Yiayia even told me to be careful when helping her, afraid it would be too hard for me. “Tell me if you’re tired, I will take over!”

It is impressive to see an 80-year-old woman still work hard, knitting a big piece of dough for 20 minutes. When I tried, my muscles pained quickly, but for yiayia, it is a normal daily job. She showed me how strong a Greek housewife is, and how hard her work at home used to be. 

I admire her even more after spending time in her kitchen.

Yiayia’s recipes (more coming soon!)

Cooking with Yiayia : Traditional Greek Phyllo

Phyllo, or filo, is a dough, used in the Greek kitchen to create the most delicious sweet and savory pitas, the Greek pies. There is nothing more tasty than a…

Cooking with Yiayia : Kotopita

Greek pitas, or pies, come in various shapes and tastes. From a quick snack that fits in your hands, to an oven dish that feeds the whole family. As a…

Cooking with Yiayia : Greek Potato Piroshki

I was in quarantine in Greece, during the COVID pandemic, at an isolated beach house last year. Yiayia had left enough food in front of the door to survive for…

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Girl traveling in Greece on small boat over blue water

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