“You fillet the fish, roll it up and stuff it with plums and greens. You can then salt it or smoke it in a wood stove or in the oven,” Stamatakis said. He explained that locals have long been bleeding and rolling the fish in this “sushi style,” with some skopelites filling the fish with rice – although plums and vegetables are preferred on special occasions like engagement. “Mother-in-law would knock on the bride and groom’s door with this version of the dish in their hands before the wedding,” he said.
While most people associate sushi with raw fish, the first form of sushi, called narezushi, consisted of fish preserved with salt and raw rice. Narezushi is thousands of years old and has its roots in the rice fields of China. Just as the inhabitants of these regions found a way to preserve and ferment the local fish with salt to survive periods of strong monsoons and intense heat, the Skopelites salted the moray eel to enrich their local cuisine.
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Drying and rolling the fish into a ‘sushi style’ preparation, as Stamatakis describes it, is unique to the island and not found anywhere else in the Mediterranean. Stamatakis learned the dish from his grandfather, a sailor, farmer and cook, who in turn learned it from the monks of Mount Athos. Like the ascetics, Stamatakis’ grandfather used to make the fish dirty before rolling and stuffing it.
Mount Athos (or Sacred Mountain) is a collective name for a mountain and peninsula in northeast Greece, about 110 km northeast of Skopelos. It is the spiritual center of Orthodox Christianity and an autonomous territory since Byzantine times, consisting of 20 monasteries, 12 small monastic establishments, about 700 houses, cells or hermitages, and about 2000 monks. Until the first half of the 20th century, Mount Athos had a lot of land in Skopelos, Stamatakis said, and many locals in search of farmland began to trade with the ascetics. One of them was Stamatakis’ grandfather. He bought land in Glossa, a village built amphitheatrically on top of a steep hill, 25 km northwest of the capital of Skopelos, also called Skopelos or Hora.
“He, and basically everyone who came in contact with the monks, was in awe of their Byzantine culinary traditions, especially the way they cured the moray eel. [by salting or smoking it]. It’s an old recipe. It is even mentioned that the ancient Greeks kept moray eels in aquariums at Deipnosophistae (a multi-volume Greek tome from the early 3rd century CE considered to be oldest surviving cookbook), “Stamatakis said.” The Skopelites loved the dish and brought it back to their wives on the island. “
Far from the arid and arid Cyclades, Skopelos is the greenest island in Greece. A pure and preserved flora represents 67% of the island, old mule tracks crisscross it and the olive groves give way to charming villages emerging from endless pine forests. Reminders of the Byzantine Empire and the connection with Mount Athos are visible everywhere as the island is dotted with 360 chapels and churches. Skopelos is also a seafood paradise, its inhabitants pride themselves on cooking cooked lobster with orzo pasta or sea urchins and barnacles stuffed with rice.