Posted on 14 Apr 2012 20:12
If you tuned into the first of the new all-stars Chopped tournament on Food Network, you may have wondered what the secret ingredient "sour trahana" was. Michael Simon referred to it as sort of a Greek pasta, and that is essentially what it is: a small granular pasta. I know we mostly think of pasta as something Italian, but Greece has dozens of traditional pastas as well.
For instance, Greece has something called nioki. Nope, it is not a relative of Italian gnocchi. It is more a handmade orzo, which, if you've ever seen, you may have mistaken for rice, but it is actually a pasta in the shape of grains of rice. Greece also has varieties of egg noodles.
Trahana is called xinohondros in Crete, which means sour chunk and that describes what trahana is if you just think of the chunks as much smaller than the Creten variety of the pasta.
Trahana and Sour Trahana
There are actually two varieties of trahana. You may have guessed that there must be a non-sour version. After all, why would they call the one on Chopped sour if all trahana was sour? So, yes, there is a sweet trahana as well. However, it does not contain sugar.
Trahana is made from wheat flour (usually a coarse semolina or a bulgur1) kneaded with milk. If the milk is fresh, it's sweet trahana. If the milk is soured, it's sour trahana. Sour trahana uses buttermilk, yogurt. Alternatively, fresh milk can be used and the pasta can be left to naturally sour in the sun for a day or two, although most people who don't buy theirs probably dry it in the oven.
The dough is broken into small pieces and allowed to dry on a sheet until almost completely dry but not so dry they are brittle. The pieces are passed through a special sieve to make the pieces smaller and give the pasta it's large bread crumb or course pebbly shape. It is then allowed to dry a bit more.
Trahana is usually reserved for soups but it can also be cooked in water or broth and used on it's own, perhaps mixed with something like milk, or yogurt as Chef Simon used, and then used under a dish like a polenta or pilaf. When simmered in sour milk, it can become a porridge-like soup, essentially a gruel, reminiscent of Cream of Wheat, but with more zest and character. It could be compared to couscous, risotto, Chinese congree, or grits. Sour trahana was known as the shepherd's breakfast up until fairly recently. It is also a classic savory pie filling in Thessaly, Epirus, Roumeli, and Macedonia.
The ancient origins of trahana are disputed. Some way it is not a Greek food, but is Turkish, Persian, or Slavic. It has a very long history in Greece (and Italy) however, and its name hasn't really changed for centuries. Today, most Greeks buy commercial trahana already made. Sour trahana can be found at most Greek or Middle Eastern food markets. but I'm sure there are still some places in the country where cooks still dry their own out in the sun.
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