The Secret Ingredient
Updated: Mar 1
(by Julie Tsolka)
There is no place like the kitchen in a Greek home. Food is a big deal to us, and attention must be paid. It’s a reason to gather as friends and family. There is no Greek mother who doesn’t know how to cook.
And my mother’s meals were amazing: anything from spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese pies) to Italian pastas to desserts of all kinds. Before she had a family, she wasn’t really fond of cooking, but she started reading recipes after her marriage, and it became obvious that she is a natural cook, improvising with flavors that strayed from traditional Greek cuisine, adding or replacing an ingredient. It’s what made her food unique.
After my parents were divorced, Mom went to work in the telecommunications agency of Greece to support my younger sister and me. She loved managing big projects for the mobile and Internet divisions of the organization, but everyday cooking became Grandma’s job. Mom’s time at the stove was only for weekends and special occasions.
She came from a strict background, and academic grades were important to her, while I was more interested in art, ballet, music, and the theater that became my profession. Although we sometimes argued about my low grades or staying out too late when I could have been studying, she supported my choices. Mine was a very different path that she didn’t quite understand, but I lost count of how many times she drove me to casting calls and auditions, and sat in the audience at least three times for every show I was in. We saw the world differently, but she was, and is, always there for me, with pride.
One Sunday dinner—always an occasion in a Greek home—she made Chinese sweet and sour chicken. The first bite was a new experience. By the third bite, it was my new favorite. I’ve ordered it in restaurants, but it’s always a disappointment—so connected to my mom that I can’t eat it elsewhere.
And it’s not just about the delicious taste. It is a metaphor for our relationship: sometimes sweet (full of laughter, conversation, hugs and kisses) and sometimes sour (argumentative and tearful). But there is always love—the secret ingredient that made her recipe so irresistible.
Julie Tsolka is a theater and television actress in Athens, Greece: @julie_tsolka.
Sweet and Sour Chicken
1 1/2 lb. boneless skinless chicken, cut in small cubes
salt and pepper to taste
6 T. sesame oil
3 T. soy sauce
juice from 1 orange
2 T. honey
2 T. Chinese sweet and sour sauce
3 T. sesame seeds
Sprinkle chicken with salt, pepper, and cornmeal.
Heat a wok or deep frying pan with 3 T. sesame oil, and sauce the chicken until lightly browned, 5 or 6 minutes.
Add soy sauce, orange juice, honey, and sweet and sour sauce.
Cook over low heat until liquids evaporate.
Add remaining 3 T. sesame oil.
In a separate dry pan, toast sesame seeds and toss with chicken.
Serve over rice.