Κάντε κλικ εδώ για Ελληνικα
My family is really an Eastern European patchwork. Although both my mother and I were born in Athens, Greece and we have a Greek surname, my ancestors for many generations were born in other countries. Namely Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. As a result, when my grandparents came to Greece, they brought with them the traditions of their home countries.
Our Greek/Russian/Romanian traditions
They say that in a family, women are the upholders of tradition. They are the ones who set the cultural tone for everybody else. This is true for my family at least. Consequently, our traditional holiday foods are mostly from Russian and Romania. But we do like Greek food too 😉
As we lost my father’s mother when I was just 4 years old, it was my other grandma, the one from Odessa, who was the biggest influence. During the holidays, grandma Eleni would take me to the Russian church in Athens to worship. She loved going to church. I was too young to understand much, but enjoyed the choir singing. (Russians are famous for their choir music)
On the other hand, my father’s mother from Romania, Anna, was the better cook. As a result, my mum used her recipes more often. From salata de boeuf (the Romanian version of Russian Salad Olivier) to everybody’s favourite meatballs.
By the way, did you notice that one grandma was called Eleni and the other Anna? Do these names ring a bell? If so, it’s because I was named after them. My name is Ele(-)anna, a combination of Eleni and Anna.
My family’s Easter traditions from Russia and Romania
Painted Eggs (Greece & Eastern Europe)
There simply cannot be an Easter in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Greece without painted eggs. It is actually an ancient pagan custom. Eggs and the colour red symbolise new life and life-giving blood. As Christ came to bring “new life”without sin to humanity, the custom continued in Christian times too.
My grandma Eleni dyed the eggs not with commercial paint, but used red onion skins. It is also customary to create ornate designs using tie & dye or other methods. Moreover, both Romanians and Greeks enjoy playing a game with painted eggs. They will knock each other’s egg and the person who gets to break most eggs before breaking their own wins.
Our version of Greek “mageiritsa“
The Greeks like to make a soup called “mageiritsa” to break the Lent fast on Good Saturday at midnight. Traditionally it has lamb entrails, lettuce, dill, spring onions and rice. As nobody in the family liked lamb much, grandma Eleni made a lighter version of this soup. Basically it has chicken stock, some dill and rice.
My other grandma, Anna, would make a soup out of boiling the meat, potatoes and carrots for salata de boeuf (see below). This year we combined the two: my mum added dill, spring onions and rice to the soup she got after boiling the chicken, potatoes and carrots for the salad. Next year maybe we’ll add chicken liver too!
Salata de boeuf (Romania) or Salad Olivier (Russia)
This is the Romanian version of the Russian Salad Olivier (салат Оливье). It’s very similar to the Russian version, but has one main difference: Romanians add mustard. If you check out the Russian recipes, none of them uses mustard. But as the main cook was grandma Anna, it was her version that we got used to in my family.
This salad is very popular in all of Eastern Europe as a festive dish. It is a must for Christmas, New Year’s and Easter, but also birthdays and other celebrations.
Every family has their own version but the typical ingredients include cooked meat (beef, chicken or ham), boiled and diced potatoes, carrots, peas, pickles (lots of pickles!) and mayonnaise. If you follow the Romanian tradition, you also add a generous amount of mustard. Personally I think the mustard adds a welcome tangy taste to the salad and I like it better.
Drob de miel (Romanian)
Russians don’t like lamb meat much (my great-grandfather Andrei called it “a cat” and didn’t like it at all). However, Romanians do eat it at Easter. In fact, my grandmother Anna also used to make the traditional Romanian drob de miel. But it is a very time consuming dish, so she made it very rarely.
Drob is similar to Scottish haggis and calls for lamb entrails. That said, if such meats aren’t available in your country, you can get a similar result with ground meat.
Cozonac cu nuca (Romania)
Eastern Europe and the Balkans have a strong tradition of Easter sweet breads. Each country has its own version, but most call for flour, sugar, milk and eggs. In Greece, they call it “tsoureki“. In Israel, they call them “challah“. They call it cozonac in Romania and kuzunak (козунак) in Bulgaria. Also, Russians have kulich (кулич)and Ukrainians pashka (паска), but more on that soon. In fact, it is thought that Armenians were the first to come up with the idea.
Romanians in particular, fill their cozonac with ground walnuts (cozonac cu nuca means sweet bread with walnuts) and shape into a roll. Some also add raisins and Turkish delight or candied fruit. It’s time consuming to make it, but worth it. Again, this is popular for both Christmas and Easter.
You can see a step-by-step recipe at Where Is My Spoon.
Kulich or Paska (Russian & Ukrainian)
As I mentioned previously, every country in this part of the world loves a sweet bread for Easter. The Russian/Ukrainian version is more similar to Italian panettone than the braided versions of Greece, Israel and the Balkans.
Grandma Eleni, being born in Odessa in Ukraine, called this bread “paska“. The two versions are very similar, with small differences. My great-grandmother Maria, the expert on this cake, used to decorate them with braids of dough and candied cherries. In Russia, they decorate them with a sugar glaze instead. Another way to decorate them is to write XB on top. The letters stand for Христос Bоскрес or “Christ is Risen” in Russian).
You can see a great recipe for kulich/pashka at Natasha’s Kitchen.
Paskha – Пасха (Russian)
Okay, this is where things start to get a little confusing. You see, Russian “paskha” (with an h) is a totally different dessert from the Ukrainian paska (no h). The former is a no bake cheesecake, whereas the latter is a sweet bread. What a difference a letter makes!
Pashka is made traditionally with Tvorog, a fresh Russian cheese. However, you can use ricotta or other farmer’s cheese too. The cheese mixture is put in a special ceramic mold and let to drain for a few hours before serving.
You can find a good recipe for Pashka at The Spruce Eats.
Oh yes, that’s another “pască” there! Makes you wonder if they run out of alternatives and just named everything “pasca” or “paska”, right?
Anyway, this is a Romanian combination of a sweet bread and cheese dessert into one. In other words, you take the sweet bread dough, form it as for a cheesecake, put a farmer’s cheese mixture and raisins in the middle and bake it. It’s the best of both worlds!
You can see the recipe at Where Is My Spoon’s blog.
To sum things up…
Easter is the biggest religious holiday for the Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Both my grandmothers added many beloved recipes from the “old countries” to the family traditions. Now our Easter dinner includes “new” favourites from Greece like kokoretsi, as well as Russian and Romanian dishes.
Are you familiar with Eastern European cuisine? Do you celebrate Easter and how? What are your favourite family dishes?