Dinner at Yiayia’s

For our family, food is a love language.

A look into the importance of food in my Greek-Canadian family.

by Kristina Pappas

Clockwise from upper left: fasolakia (green beans in tomato sauce); kolokithopita (pita); lemon chicken and potatoes.
Clockwise from upper left:
fasolakia (green beans in tomato sauce); kolokithopita (pita); lemon chicken and potatoes.

Yamas. Cheers. Everyone picks up their glass around the table and leans in to clink the crystal together, singing yamas in response to my papou, commencing the start of the family dinner. The kitchen table at my grandparent’s house is the hub for my Greek-Canadian family, where every gathering, memory, story and laugh takes place—from my father’s first steps to my own. Food is what gathers us all; it’s how we communicate and celebrate.

My grandparents grew up in Greece. Chris, my papou (pa-pu), is the second oldest of six children. He lived in a mountain village near Olympia and worked in the army as a cook. He came to Canada in 1956 to create a new future for his family.

Konstantina, called Dina, my yiayia (yi-ya), is the second oldest of eight children. She grew up in a village near Sparta, often helping her mother cook and care for the family. Sometimes, she would bring fresh bread to her father at the olive oil factory where they roasted it over the open flames and dipped chunks in fresh oil. With few options of a prosperous future in her village, she left for Canada at 16-years-old.

Upon arriving in Halifax, she boarded the train—last stop, Edmonton. She noticed whenever another immigrant got off the train at their destination, they left behind their loaf of stale, processed Canadian bread. She did the same.

Once in Edmonton, Chris and Konstantina’s paths crossed. They both worked in the restaurant industry; my papou working as a cook and my yiayia as a waitress. My papou walked by my yiayia’s work every day with a loaf of bread and a newspaper under his arm. When she finally accepted his invitation to dinner, thinking that if he was bringing fresh bread home every day, he must be a family man, their story together began. Shortly after, my papou opened his first restaurant, The Venice, then, a second restaurant in partnership with my dad in 1977. They called it The Marathon Steakhouse. They loved their regular customers and still talk fondly of them today. They sold it in 1995 shortly after the births of my sister and my cousin. My yiayia wanted to put the unceasing work and long hours at the restaurant behind her to focus on being with her grandchildren.

My sister, two cousins and I spent our summer days at our grandparents’ house chasing the long days of sunshine and getting lost in my yiayia’s teeming garden, the jungle of our imaginary games. Cucumbers and tomatoes, mint and parsley, carrots and beets, lettuce and chives. The fixings for our Greek salad. When our stomachs rumbled like the thunder we feared, we scurried inside for a snack. My yiayia whirled around the kitchen like a tornado to feed our four picky mouths. It was as if she had six arms, four sets of eyes and two brains. She had us cook with her as a way to pass down her heritage and to keep us busy for another afternoon. Our favourite dish to make together was koulourakia portokaliou, a filling Greek cookie with orange zest, commonly made at Pascha (Greek Easter). She taught us how to knead the dough and my older sister Alana and cousin Chris did the grunt work. My cousin Dean and I spent most of the time stealing bits of dough and hiding beside the white arborite counter, giggling as we ate, our faces covered with flour—the prize that comes with being the youngest. We dove back into the work when the fun part of making the cookies came around—the traditional braid or swirls that we called snail shells. Then we eagerly waited for them to turn golden in the oven. Once cooled, we dunked them in milk.

My yiayia had to get crafty with the four of us, no tomatoes for one, extra for my sister, only bits of bread for another, lots of meat for the older two and none for me. So my yiayia made me her green beans. A warm dish with beans in a tomato sauce with onion, garlic, mint and parsley. It’s still my favorite and I always find a sizeable bowl on the dinner table and some sent home with me in Tupperware during the winter.

On warm summer nights, my grandparents’ hosted barbeques in their backyard, sometimes, with a lamb roasting on a rotisserie—much to my horror. While we waited for the main dishes, we would grab for the plate brimming with kolokithopita, a dish similar to a quiche made with zucchini, dill, parsley, cayenne and feta, then cut into squares.

Left: The author’s yiayia Dina consults her recipe collection; right: a page from the binder.
Left: The author’s yiayia Dina consults her recipe collection; right: a page from the binder.

When I ended my meat strike, I grew to love my papou’s lemon chicken and potatoes, a savoury dish no one can make quite like him. Chicken on the bone that melts in your mouth with potatoes and sometimes zucchini, carrots and sweet potatoes, soft and drizzled in the extra garlic and lemon juice from the bottom of the pan. The best part is the pride he takes in making it because he knows it’s one of my favourites. As we all sit down to dig in, the lemony herbed potatoes extract praise from everyone. His face brightens with a twinkle in his soft brown eyes.

We still gather around the dining table at my grandparents’ house, in our designated seats, passing around heavy dishes heaping with food. My yiayia never settles until she sees we each have our food and more than enough of it. Even then, she watches, making sure the second someone needs something, she is there to fetch it, despite our pleas for her to relax. My papou observes, smiling, from the head of the table enjoying the company of his family, ensuring that everyone has their preferred cut of meat. For us food is a love language. A way of caring for the family, a way of living, a way of keeping our heritage alive.

Kristina Pappas, a frequent dough stealer until age 10, is entering her final year in Comparative Literature at the U of A. She was also The Tomato’s summer intern.

Kristina took me over to her grandparents, Chris and Konstantina Pappas (papou and yiayia, or, Chris and Dina) where we spent the day gardening, cooking and eating.

There is nothing better than cooking with a grandma—and it was fun to watch the back and forth between them. This is what’s needed to cook Chris and Dina style— regular kitchen appliances, a spit for roasting whole lambs, a large brick barbeque, two other stoves, an extra fridge and a freezer in the garage.
Dina measures (like most grandmothers) by eye, or with a glass cup and a cereal spoon. She also pulls bags of chopped chives, mint, parsley and blanched green beans from her freezer—all from her garden.

Later, when everything was ready, we went outside to the back veranda where we dived into those lemony potatoes, the savoury green beans and the eggy pita with fresh watermelon for dessert. It was a beautiful day. —MB

Papou’s Lemon Chicken and Potatoes

Lemon chicken and potatoes
Lemon chicken and potatoes

Chris adds a half cup of chopped ginger to his lemon chicken and potatoes, “because it’s healthy,” he says. Dina says the dish is also delicious made with small, multi-coloured new potatoes or with sweet potatoes (because it’s healthy). “In Greece, we would add two cups of oil,” says Dina. (It must have worked, these two don’t look a day over 65.) Variation: add fewer potatoes and add equal amounts of zucchini and carrots cut in large chunks, about the same size as the potatoes. 

14-16 chicken legs, visible fat removed
10 potatoes peeled and sliced (they looked like slices for apple pie)
8-9 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large knob ginger, chopped
2 T each salt, pepper, dried oregano and Italian seasoning.
¾ c fresh lemon juice
½ c olive oil


Place the chicken and one layer of potatoes in a large sauté pan. Toss half of the seasoning over evenly, then, layer in more potatoes (if including sweet potatoes, add them after the dish has cooked for an hour or so). Add more seasoning, pour the olive oil and lemon juice over and mix with a large spoon.

Cook at 350 uncovered for an hour. Check at 1 hour, adding a bit of water if necessary. Cover and cook for another hour. The dish is done when the potatoes are soft, browning at the edges and taste lemony. If desired, put under the broiler for five minutes to brown the potatoes.

Serves 6-8 people with leftovers.

Fasolakia Green Beans in Tomato Sauce

Eat as a side dish, preferably with some crumbled feta and a bun to soak up juices. Dina and Chris like the beans with prime rib or roast lamb, but it was equally tasty the next day over toast. The recipe makes a lot, but the beans are even more delicious eaten cold after a few days.

Dina used the mint from her garden, dried for tea and rubbed between her hands to distribute. Otherwise use fresh mint, as no commercial dried mint compares to Dina’s. The beans are ready when the onion is soft.

3 lbs green beans, topped and blanched
3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
½ can crushed tomatoes
1 med onion, chopped
1 c parsley chopped
½ c chopped mint*
1 t black pepper and salt
½ c olive oil
2 c water
2 sm green chilies (optional)

Place the beans in a large pot. Mix all the ingredients with the beans.

Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered. Cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Makes 6-10 servings.

* Dina dries her own mint and it’s amazing. Otherwise, use fresh garden mint, chopped fine.

Kolokithopita Pita

Not at all like North African pita, this dish is a bit like a frittata or quiche. Delicious at room temperature or cold, eat as a snack, something before dinner, or it could be a nice brunch dish. Kristina brings for lunch. Southern Italians do something similar and serve with tomato sauce. A large pan makes for a thin pita which is the way Dina’s family prefers it. Variation: use pumpkin instead of the zucchini.

11 c grated zucchini using the large holes. Let sit to remove the moisture, then squeeze with your hands. This could be done in advance and you could freeze the grated zucchini.
6 lg eggs, lightly beaten
4 T semolina*
3 T grated Parmesan cheese
½ c parsley, chopped
½ c dill, chopped
2 c green onions or chives, chopped
4 T olive oil
2 c flour
1 t salt
1 t pepper
½ t cayenne pepper
1½ c feta, crumbled

Add the eggs, parmesan, semolina, herbs, onions and olive oil to the grated zucchini. Mix well. Fold in the dry ingredients (flour, salt, pepper and cayenne), mixing well again. Add the feta. Put in a greased 19×17 pan and using your hands, smooth out in the pan from corner to corner, making an even layer. The pita should be quite thin. Brush with more olive oil to make a shiny top.

Cook at 350ºF for 45-50 minutes until browning at the edges. Cut into squares when cool. Eat hot or cold.

Makes about 30 squares, depending on size.

* Semolina is available at the Italian Centre. Dina keeps hers in the freezer.


Kristina’s two favourite cookies made by her grandmother are the orange-scented koulourakia and almond kourabithes. Dina’s recipes don’t call for a specific amount of flour. Instead, the instructions are to make ‘dough that is soft like a baby’s bottom.’

Koulourakia Greek Easter Cookies

1 lb unsalted butter, at room temperature
11 eggs
3½ c sugar
1 c orange juice
3 t (heaping) baking powder
1 t (heaping) baking soda
5-6 c sifted cake flour, more or less

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, orange juice, baking soda and powder. Add flour until the dough is soft and pliable as per Dina’s instructions.

Roll and twist, make the shape you like—snails, little ropes, rounds.

Beat one whole egg and brush the tops.

Bake at 350ºF for about 20 minutes until just starting to brown on parchment- lined baking sheets.

Keeps well at room temperature in a covered container. Dunk into coffee or milk.

Makes 9-10 dozen cookies, depending on the shape.

Variation: add sesame seeds on top of the cookie.

Kourbithes Shortbread Cookies with Almond Slivers

2 lb unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ c icing sugar, more for dusting
3 eggs (use only two of the whites)
2 t vanilla
1 c almond slivers or chopped (or roasted)
1 t baking powder
5-6 c flour, more if needed

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and baking powder. Add flour until the dough is soft and pliable as per Dina’s instructions.

Shape in hand to make rounds.

Bake at 350ºF until they’re just starting to brown. When cool, dust with icing sugar.

Makes 10-12 dozen cookies.

Variation: Add 1oz. Metaxa or Ouzo to the dough.