The Greek restaurant community in Singapore is a small one – you can count them all on two hands. So it makes a big impact to the numbers when two new eateries joined the fray earlier this year, both opening within the span of two months.
“It’s difficult to open a Greek restaurant here in Singapore,” says Greek native George Kokkinis. “Not in terms of money or investors, but in getting the right passionate people and products. To bring authentic Greek food to Singapore, you have to source many products on your own because it’s difficult to find them through local suppliers. Plus, the prices can be very high because of the low demand.”
Mr Kokkinis is the general manager of the new Greek taverna named Bakalaki, which opened last month in Tiong Bahru. The other new player is Ergon Greek Deli & Cafe at Suntec City Mall, which opened in April. The two join a small number of existing restaurants such as Alati Divine Greek Cuisine in Amoy Street, Blu Kouzina in Dempsey and Mykonos On The Bay in Sentosa.
So what is Greek food, exactly? One possible way of understanding it is by comparing it with our local cuisine. As Mr Andreas Kourouklaris of Ergon Greek Deli & Cafe says: “We are culturally very similar with our eating habits in the sense that we see food as an opportunity for families and friends to gather together and spend quality time.”
However, that and our love for seafood is pretty much where the similarities end. He continues: “Greek food itself is quite different from Singaporean cuisine as it takes less preparation and highlights simple natural tastes, compared to the spicier food in Singapore.”
This natural flavour is why Blu Kouzina’s founder, Mr Gigi Tsakiris, describes Greek cuisine as “heavily dependent on the sourcing of ingredients”, so high quality is important. He brings up the example of the well-known Tzatziki dip which is made up of three main ingredients – yogurt, cucumber and garlic, as well as a bit of olive oil and salt.
Mr Leong Khai Git, managing director of Alati, adds that Greek cuisine also has a big focus on seafood. He says: “I notice Greek cuisine uses a lot of natural products – for example, honey is used as a substitute for sugar.”
He highlights that one of the dishes he hopes to offer in his restaurant is known as trahanas – wheat, mixed with either yogurt or milk, and left to ferment and dry, then broken into smaller pieces. “It has a nutty, slightly sour taste to it, and I once had a seafood version of it with saffron cooked like a risotto. It was mind-blowing. The use of a natural technique like fermentation to achieve new levels of flavour really showed the Greek expertise in treating their ingredients with respect.”
It’s because of this natural style of cooking, that Mr Tsakiris strongly believes that Greek food will take off not just in Singapore, but also globally – because it fits in with the global food and beverage (F&B) industry’s trend towards health and wellness.
He says: “Four years ago, I told my parents Greek will be the next big mainstream cuisine, just like how Italian, French, Japanese and Mexican became mainstream. I had just come from New York City and, in my last year, I was amazed at the number of Greek restaurants that were opening. So I will not be surprised when this trend starts to influence Asia as more people start to see the benefits of incorporating such a natural diet for their health.”
ERGON GREEK DELI & CAFE
When brothers Thomas and Georgios Douzis started the Ergon brand 10 years ago, the idea was to consolidate traditional products from across Greece and create a global food brand selling their local products.
Now, they have more than 300 outlets around the world and an inventory of about 1,400 items. The newest outlet is a deli and cafe that opened at Singapore’s Suntec City Mall in April – their first in Asia.
“I knew the brothers from the mid-2000s, when I used to live and study in Thessaloniki. As a believer in the uniqueness of the concept, I got more involved and saw the potential for Ergon when I moved to Singapore in early 2016,” says Mr Kourouklaris, managing director of the company that holds the franchise rights for Ergon Singapore, and who also heads the brand’s expansion in Asia.
He describes the food at Ergon as “authentic Greek cuisine with a contemporary and modern twist”. The authentic part comes from the fact that its dishes are made with Greek ingredients, but the menus are designed by a team of young innovative chefs back in the Ergon headquarters in Greece.
The cafe offers mezes, spreads, salads, sandwiches, as well as a brunch menu that includes specialities such as a Koulouri – a sesame seed bagel with poached eggs and Greek yoghurt (S$22).