If I had a dollar for every wistful, "rather be here" Instagram story of a sun-drenched scene on some Greek Island or other that's crossed my feed this past year (Travel editor Stephanie Holmes, I'm looking at you), I'd have a bit of pocket money. I'd use it to eat my way around all the restaurants serving Greek food here in Aotearoa.
There aren't many of them. Thai, Indian, Chinese, Italian eats abound north and south, but if it's souvlaki you're seeking, you've got your work cut out (except, as The Spinoff once revealed, in souvlaki stronghold Christchurch).
I ask Theo Papouis, owner and chef of Oiko's in Wellington's Miramar, why Greek food is so elusive in this country. "I know that my dad — who had worked as a chef — wasn't keen on me cooking for a living," he says. He reckons the same went for many Greek immigrants to New Zealand in the 1940s, many of whom opened fish and chip shops, grill houses, and milk bars, mostly serving in-vogue American-style fare.
"I've been reading a really interesting book which describes how here in Wellington [home to the largest concentration of New Zealand's Greek immigrants] there was a 'Hellenic Mile', with dozens of Greek-owned restaurants and cafes", says Papouis. "But the next generation weren't encouraged to carry on those businesses."
Back then working in hospitality wasn't seen as particularly estimable, but the times have a-changed and these days there's more mana attached to owning and running restaurants. And, thank goodness, there's more appetite for a variety of cuisines.
Papouis' family background is Greek-Cypriot and he describes the menu at Oiko's as Hellenic, to encompass the wider influences on Greek cuisine, including from Asia Minor.
Papouis, who's first culinary influence was his dad, trained and worked in the UK before spending five years in Cyprus — an island known for its fantastic produce grown under the Mediterranean sun. "There are certain ingredients I can't get here but I try not to get on that buzz — I focus on the great produce we do have, and I can make great Greek food with it."
His signature dishes include feta crusted with sesame seeds, fried, and lathered in honey and thyme. "And our pita, which we make mainland-style, so not pockets, but puffy and soft".
"Our haloumi ravioli people often assume is some kind of fusion, but it's actually a traditional Cypriot dish — we make it with Zany Zeus haloumi. The lamb shoulder is a favourite — it's braised for six hours or so with oregano, bay leaf, and tomato and then we reduce the sauce to pour over the lamb."
Oiko's often hosts Greek musicians, but Papouis approaches this on a casual basis— "I don't want it to be a kitsch thing," he says.
Consistently packed to the brim since opening in February this year, Daphnes in Auckland's Ponsonby proves there's a collective appetite for Greek-inspired cuisine in an upmarket setting.
A four-month sabbatical in Greece a few years ago had successful restaurateurs Clare and Joost van den Berg in awe of the food culture, notably on the island of Paros where Clare describes "a simplicity but also a boldness: big flavours showcasing amazing produce".
The couple — as well as so many people they spoke to — have fond memories of long lunches at Sydney's Apollo, and wanted to offer Auckland a piece of the flavoursome fun — especially important in our current insular state, says Clare.
"We want to bring here what we can't travel to get. Customers tell us when they walk into Daphnes they feel like they've walked out of Auckland — it's invigorating." That said, van den Berg is quick to recognise that "We're not Greek and we don't pretend to be. But we're thrilled to have had really positive feedback from the Greek community".
Chef Anna Weir says the souvlaki — which means 'grilled on a skewer' and not necessarily wrapped up in bread with a tonne of salad and chips — have become her favourite section of the menu.
"It was important to recognise Greek history and culture, and that cooking over fire was a key feature. We apply a glaze just before cooking over a mix of cherry wood and charcoal, which all add flavour. It's quite humbling cooking over coals and the smell reaching into the dining room reminds everyone of simpler times."
A rocky walk along the beach (Campbell's Bay to Murray's Bay and back) and a dip in the ocean followed by a slap-up Greek feast at an outdoor table licked by the afternoon sun — you really can live the Greek islands life over here! (Disclaimer: perhaps wait till spring for the swim bit).
El Greco is a hidden gem on Auckland's North Shore, with a menu driven by the upbringing of owner Kostas Grigorakis, who was born in Thessaloniki and raised in Crete.
"I used to wake up to the smell of fresh bread and pastries and the day's food being cooked by my mother", Grigorakis reminisces. "Every day, members of our extended family would gather at my parents' home to talk, eat, and drink together".
It's those family recipes on the table at El Greco — using plenty of fresh herbs, lemon juice, and Cretan olive oil, that give customers a moment's insight to Cretan life.