Those who love Sifnos have a special place in their hearts for its talented cooks. I know I do. So it was a happy day not long ago when I found a video online, a part of this year’s celebration of island foods and of its famous son, Nikolaos Tselementes. Born in the village of Exampela, he went on to an illustrious career as a chef in kitchens across Greece and far beyond. His 1932 book, the first cookbook of Greek recipes ever published, became a fixture in the country’s kitchens and still is today. Indeed, when Greeks speak of any cookbook, tselementes is the word they most often use.
The subject of this video was revithokeftedes, fried chick pea balls, and its main intent was to teach viewers how to make the dish. Oh good, I thought. Sifnians know chick peas, create magic from them, and these savoury bites are but one of the delicious foods based on this humble ingredient you can find in almost every one of their tavernas. Though I’ve happily eaten revithokeftedes all over the island and it was one of the first items I learned to order in Greek, never have I made them myself. Here was my chance.
Tasting this satisfying snack all over Sifnos can profitably and deliciously occupy a diner for a very long time. Though the differences may seem subtle at first, every kitchen makes it their own way and I’ve often heard it said that there are as many chick pea ball recipes as there are people who make them. Revithokeftedes, it seems, are where Sifnian cooks strut their stuff. One might use garlic, another never. One version might, from its first brush against your lips, taste of an explosion of fresh dill. Or of whichever combination of wild herbs that grow most abundantly on that part of the island. And every Sifnian yiayia surely passes on the knowledge her own grandmother gave to her.
That finally I could learn to make this favourite food of mine was only one of the gifts this video brought me, so extra precious this year when I can’t travel to Sifnos and can only love it from afar. There are two women in the video who I know. In fact the older one, the yiayia showing how to make it her way, is someone I met early the very first time I visited Sifnos. Since then, she’s always kept such a close eye on me that when I speak of her, I most often call her Grandma. She’d be pleased, I know, at how much I understood of her revithokeftedes instructions, how many of the words I caught. It’s she who’s taught me so many of them.
Into her old-fashioned food grinder went plump chick peas, not the dried ones. A strong and continuous crank of the handle and the results landed in a large Sifnian pottery bowl. Cooked potatoes followed. Then handfuls of greens, parsley and perhaps at least one more I wasn’t able to identify. Onions, which Sifnian cooks so generously use and I always so happily eat. When the bowl was filled near to the brim, in went both her hands and they mixed and worked through the ingredients until she was satisfied they were thoroughly mixed and held together well. Next, between her palms she deftly rolled out several perfectly-formed chick pea balls. A plate then appeared on the screen, the finished product fried to a deep golden brown. My nostrils began to tingle. Though the Atlantic Ocean and more separated us, I could practically smell them from here. Oriste, she said in that grandmotherly way I’ve heard so often. Here you go. Kali orexi. Enjoy.
I will. My mouth waters even now as I write these words. Her revithokeftedes, I know her well enough to be certain, will be some of the best.
Photograph and video: Giannis Kontos
The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales are both available through Amazon. You can receive then in an instant to read on your Kindle or other device, or order them in paperback. They are available also at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos and Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario. Please support independent business like that everywhere.