It’s an experience most of us have had while traveling.
You go to a restaurant where an old lady is cooking the kind of home-style dishes she’s likely cooked her whole life, and it turns out to be one of the most memorable meals of yours.
Anastasia Miari had this experience on the Greek island of Corfu in 2016. Along with her friend Iska Lupton, she sat down to a meal of succulent sea bream with skordalia (garlic dip) and a Greek salad, cooked by an elderly widow, also called Anastasia.
There’s just one difference with the rest of our vacation anecdotes: the older Anastasia, known as Yiayia, was the younger Anastasia’s grandmother.
Every year, Miari returns to Corfu to visit her grandmother – and one day, watching a documentary about “old women making bread,” she had a thought. Wouldn’t it be great to work on a project about elderly female cooks around the world?
She called Iska, a creative director who works with food and has trained as a cook, and their friend Ella Louise Sullivan, a photographer.
“I asked Iska and Ella if they wanted to go on holiday and cook with Yiayia,” says Miari.
The result is “Grand Dishes,” a book which profiles 61 great female cooks around the world who also happen to be grandmothers.
It’s a gumbo of profiles of women from across different cultures, along with their signature dishes.
“All the dishes are representative of where they’re from,” says Lupton. “We often asked them, ‘What do your children love eating?’.” The food they picked always turned out to be seasonal dishes from locally sourced ingredients.
Their travels spanned 10 countries and three continents, as Miari and Lupton went to meet 41 of the women, cooking with each of them. They went on a road trip of the US, toured Sicily, and navigated language barriers in Russia and Poland.
But they also traveled further afield through food culture, meeting Vietnamese and Tanzanian grannies in their native UK. One of their favorite stops in the US was Brooklyn, to meet “Baba” (granny) Maral, who was born in the mountains of Azerbaijan and became a dermatologist, but started over in America at the age of 41, after her husband walked out on her and her two kids.
“We had an incredible experience cooking with her,” says Lupton. “She kept producing more and more food, and it was interesting to see that that was obviously the culture, but we were seeing it in America. She had all these jars full of mountain mints and herbs. It made me desperate to go to Azerbaijan.”
Then there was 92-year-old Mualla, in Istanbul, who sadly died before the book was published. It was the pair’s first time in Turkey.
“She was a lovely old lady – someone had contacted us about her on Instagram,” says Miari.
“We arrived in Istanbul not knowing what to expect, but Zenep, her granddaughter, had come to pick us up and take us to our hotel. She took us to an incredible restaurant, and showed us Turkish hospitality.
“Mualla’s home overlooked the Bosphorus, and we ate halva, which [as a Greek] I’ve been eating as a kid.
“We make it with milk and she made it with water. It was a different take but it made me realize how similar Turkish people are to the Greeks. The way her family welcomed us reminded me of Greece, too. There’s always tension between Turkey and Greece, but it was an eyeopener to see the similarities.”
Finding their roots
In fact, as well as learning about other cultures, both Miari and Lupton learned more about their own origins.
Lupton’s grandmother, Margit, or “Lally,” is German, although she moved to the UK at the age of nine. Now 93, she made schnitzel for the book.
“My name comes from my granny and I felt Germanness inside me but my grandmother has never been very up for sugaring her story – but with Anastasia interviewing her, we found out so much more that was really special,” says Lupton.
“My whole family is incredibly moved by the book.”
And although Miari has always been in touch with her Greek side – she lived in Corfu until the age of 11, visits every year, and is currently living in Athens – she, too, discovered more about her roots.
Cooking with Flora in Hvar, Croatia, felt like “being in my grandmother’s kitchen in Corfu,” she says.
“We were making meat stifado, and it was exactly like Yiayia’s – and I was struck by how Venetian Hvar was. Both it and Corfu were part of the Venetian empire, and I suddenly made that historical link.”
“Greece has always been an intrinsic part of my identity, but what was surprising was the level of interest people have in my granny,” she adds.
“I’ve come to realize she has this very strong, Amazonian character that even comes across in a photo. And she lives this simple life that I maybe didn’t value, or think much of it because it was something I’ve always known, but I realized through the process of this that it’s actually really valuable.”
Breaking down barriers
Many of the women they met confounded their expectations about the places they came from. Take Vera, from Moscow, who only knew the words “thank you” in English – two words more than Miari and Lupton knew in Russian.
“I sort of expected Russian food to be quite brown and bland, and that Russian people might be cold,” says Miari.
“But they were so friendly and warm, and the granny was one of the most welcoming we cooked with. For me, Moscow was a standout place – I never expected to go to Russia, if it wasn’t for this project I’d never have gone, and now I can’t wait to go back.
“Our five-week road trip through the Bible Belt of the USA was interesting as well.”
Lupton agrees. “We’d had such an amazing experience with food from the Mediterranean, lots of vegetables from the garden, and I think we were expecting American food to be more processed, but we found moments of complete freshness where people made things from scratch.”
All the grandmothers, she says, made wonderful food – in a completely different way than those of us who follow recipes are used to.
“So much was about produce, and knowing from feeling or smelling something if it was good – there’s this intuitive thing I’ve observed that’s so different to how other people cook,” says Lupton.
“There are no measuring scales, it’s done from the heart, by the eye, weighing with the hand.
“I wouldnt know where to start if I had to cook on fire, but Yiayia knows at what point the fish needs to go on.
“Today, there are so many new recipes being designed, we have access to recipes from everywhere, which is incredible – but how amazing would it be to know six recipes so well that I can pass them on to my grandchildren? This was time-perfected recipe-making that was so interesting to see. And I wonder if it’s dying a little because of the possibilities of endless experimentation.
“You can be more creative within the parameters of spices you’ve got. They’re limited; we have an endless supply of what we might need. But they’re the experts in their fields.”
Each had a different field, too. In Croatia, “Baka” Dagmar cooked a gregada fish stew on an open flame. In North Carolina, Sharon whipped up a super-fresh shrimp stew with “pie bread,” while in Brownsville, Tennessee, the authors met Helen, the eponymous owner of Helen’s Bar B Q – one of a handful of professionals included in the book.
Tigger, who lives in the London borough of Hackney, cooked a peanut stew that she’d learned to make while living in Uganda. While the elegant Clara Maria, in Madrid – whose nickname is “Yaya,” like Miari’s “Yiayia,” made chicken marinated in sherry vinegar.
They met Dolores, in Louisiana, almost by mistake. A sheriff pulled their car over, and, when they explained their mission, he said they had to meet her.
An 80-year-old Black grandmother of one, who lived through the civil rights movement while she was at school, she introduced them to “pig’s ears” – a typical dessert of the area that few people make today – as well as telling these Deep South newcomers about the current state of race relations in her area.
And they learned about the immigrant experience in their native UK from Tinh, who fled Vietnam in the 1980s for a refugee camp in Hong Kong before coming to the UK, and from Rajni, who struggled when she first moved from Tanzania to England in the 1970s.
Despite the range of countries they went to, there was no issue with communication. The women’s grandchildren translated for their grannies in Moscow and Poland, but yet Miari and Lupton said it was barely needed – “Our interactions transcended language,” says Lupton, while Miari agrees, “I think food often does.”
And what also transcended cultural differences were the women’s experiences.
“It made me think about their stories – they often had to flee their countries because of war,” says Lupton. “Some went to Germany, mine left – I’ve thought a lot about how that movement happened.”
‘Granny cooking’ of the future
The grannies, of course, are getting older. But Miari and Lupton aren’t convinced that their style of cooking will die with a generation.
“We may need to become more like them,” says Miari.
“Climate breakdown is happening, already people are reconsidering their waste and meat consumption. It may be optimistic but I feel it’s moving towards what our grannies were doing – and we may have to out of necessity in the next couple of decades.”
Lupton thinks there may have been a shift towards granny-style cooking in the past year: “I think lockdown made people realize it’s nice to spend the whole time cooking. I’ve enjoyed working from home, being able to put something on in the morning and leaving it to cook.”
They say that their experience has changed travel for them in the future.
“I’m more open to talking to locals when I travel now – this has made me travel differently,” says Miari.
“We had the best tour guides, seeing a city or a village through the eyes of someone who’s lived there for 80 years, and from now on, I want to travel differently, and understand a place through locals’ eyes.”
And, of course, eat locals’ food.
“We’ve eaten at the best restaurants in the world – grannies’ kitchens,” says Lupton.