Bringing Greece Home
by Allana Mortell
Of all the traveling I’ve done, the most vivid and fragrant memories always seem to involve food. Eating cannolis on cobblestone streets in Boston. Waiting in line for six hours to eat barbeque in Austin. Having pain au chocolat for breakfast and steak frites for dinner in Paris. Heading to Menemsha for a steamed lobster. And most recently, discovering the magic of a Santorini tomato fritter.
Santorini is known for its cherry tomatoes. These plump little fruits taste vastly different than your average cherry tomato found in the States. They’re darker in color, have a thickened outer skin, and leave the sweetest, sugar-like taste in your mouth. This is all thanks to unusual growing conditions: the island was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions, and its soil is especially moist.
I experienced these local delicacies on my first trip to Greece earlier this summer. My fiancé and I arrived in Santorini late on a Sunday, starving and slightly jet-lagged. We dropped our bags off at our hotel and met our concierge Nikolina for a complimentary welcome aperitivo. She quickly informed us we’d encounter plenty of restaurants along our walk to Fira, the island’s capital and nightlife hub.
She advised us to choose wisely. “Stop and read each menu first,” she said. “Trust me. There are a lot of them.”
As we began our late-night food journey along the cobblestone caldera path, I quickly realized Nikolina was right. Everywhere we turned was another restaurant and each one proclaimed to be better than the rest. One restaurant would claim to offer the freshest seafood and the next enticed you with the best view of the island’s volcano. As we walked by, I browsed each menu, scanning descriptions of fried feta, greek salads, and moussaka. But there was one item that continued to stand out: Domatokeftedes, Santorini’s famous tomato fritters.
If a fritter is on a menu, I’m hard-pressed to resist. If a tomato, in any form, is on a menu, I’m effectively drooling. Roast them, sauté them, serve them with burrata, or toss them with spaghetti. My love for tomatoes runs so deep that when I was six, my mom hand-crafted me a head-to-toe tomato costume for Halloween.
I had researched local dishes before we arrived in Santorini. I heard all about the fava bean dip. I knew we had to order Greek salads and gyros and saganaki (fried cheese). I figured we’d probably sip ouzo and drink Assyrtiko, a white wine made on the island, but somehow, these tomato fritters had completely escaped me.
On our second day in Santorini, we ventured to a town called Imerovigli for lunch. My first foray into fritters looked and tasted as I had expected–a strong tomato flavor with an even stronger punch of herbs including mint, dill, parsley, and oregano. They were firm on the outside with a soft bite that made them almost melt in your mouth. The fritters were served alongside a greek yogurt dip and made for an ideal snack. But I wondered: do all tomato fritters taste the same? I was determined to find out.
On our last day in Fira, we took a long walk down many steps to an unassuming restaurant along the water’s edge. We arrived in time for a late afternoon drink on the water. While the plan was to only stop for a quick Greek lager, I quickly scanned the menu for fritters, hoping round two would delight and surprise me even more.
And surprise they did. First, they looked the opposite from what we had eaten a few days prior. These tomato fritters were almost translucent. Through the thin, crispy batter you could see chunks of tomato, onion, and all kinds of herbs. On some fritters, whole cherry tomatoes, barely coated in batter, hung off the edges of the fritter, waiting to be plucked.
When my knife cut into them, you could hear the crunch from a table away. The fritters remained intact as I took a bite and the flavor of rich olive oil immediately coated my mouth. I was hit by the tomato flavor, a whole cherry tomato bursting in my mouth. The herbs were strong, but didn’t compete with the rest of the flavors. The harmonious dance of crispy batter, tomato, onion, herbs, and olive oil was just about enough to convince me to stay another day. They were, for any tomato fan, a culinary treasure.
I spent one of my first mornings back in Chicago at our neighborhood farmers’ market. I stocked up on the usual, but spent a few extra minutes at a booth filled with tomatoes. Roma, cherry, and heirloom tomatoes called to me, begging to be transformed into a fritter. While I may never experience the same flavor of those Santorini tomatoes without hopping back on a nine-hour flight, I was determined to try and create the famous fritters at home. They weren’t exactly the same, but that’s okay. I’ll hold on to the magic memory of those fritters and tomatoes along the water’s edge.