Marathon. Read the word and you think of endurance tests, or battles, or perhaps even Lord Byron, who sat above the crescent beach and wrote: “The mountains look on Marathon–And Marathon looks on the sea; And musing there an hour alone, I dreamt that Greece might still be free.”
Unless you live in Attica, you probably do not associate Marathon with cabbage beds or turbanned Sikhs on bicycles. And yet, this flat and fertile plain, where a small army of Greeks defeated a golden horde of Persians 2,500 years ago, is an enormous vegetable patch. In recent years, because many Greeks stopped doing manual labor, Marathon has turned into a suburb of Lahore.
It’s funny how the immigrants to this country fell immediately into certain job categories. Filipinos do housework, Georgians and Bulgarians care for the aged, Albanians build, Egyptians man the fishing boats, and Pakistanis, Indians and Sikhs plant and pick veggies.
An unexpected benefit of this last is that almost everywhere Asian groceries and restaurants have sprung up to cater for these people. They are not always immediately evident.
Even though the Taj Mahal is on the main road between Marathon and Nea Makri, not far from Attica’s biggest beach at Schinia, where the battle was actually fought, I had never noticed it. Even though it has a turquoise blue facade quite unlike anything else on the strip, it doesn’t advertise itself.
But H, a friend who was born in India, had been advertising it for months, so after hearing her sing its praises, how could we refuse an invitation to lunch there on the second day of this year?
We certainly weren’t hungry after too many festive meals. And I’d just put my own pot of dal — lentil soup to boil — when the phone rang.
An hour later, we were peering in the window for a sign of life. Nothing, But the door was not locked and we gave a shout. A tiny young man appeared and after some earnest discussion with our knowledgeable friend, we placed our order and were told to come back in 40 minutes.
Everything is made on the spot. So we strolled on a back street past lemon groves, NeoHellenic villas, and potato fields. The only people we encountered were dashing looking dark-skinned men riding their bikes in what H said was a peculiarly Indian manner, knees in, feet out, and very very slow.
With more time and energy, we could have visited the Marathon Museum, the famous burial mound of the Athenians or even the sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods near the coast. We could have walked along the waterfront. But we were lazy if not hungry.
Our lunch was superlative. Piping hot samosas, creamy dal, chicken and vegetable curries, rice, lassi (yogurt drink) and a carafe of drinkable wine, plus divine nan that was as light and moist as a croissant. The fiery factor was just right, too. We ate with relish, but had to ask for ‘doggy bags’ the helpings were so generous.
The cost of all that was a bit too spicy. We had feared as much because the prices on the menu had been blacked out. However, the dishes are authentic and if we’d been six people instead of four, the bill would have been quite acceptable. We’ll bear that in mind next time.
There is a certain irony to the presence of so many Asians in Marathon, where the Persians’ defeat meant that Europe stayed “Western” for so many millennia. But as long as these visitors bring their cooking pots and spices with them and allow us to share their meals, who’s complaining!
I for one hope they’ll stay even when Greeks pick up the hoe again.
The Taj Mahal, 325 Marathonos Ave., near the turn for the Tymvos Marathonomahon (Athenian tumulus), tel. 2294- 56123; 6937401340
My favorite Indian cookbook author is Madhur Jaffrey. She has a recipe for Spicy Baked Chicken in Illustrated Indian Cookery that has become a regular in the family kitchen. But my son, who’s also a fabulous cook, has even improved on it.
First we make a spice rub of about equal amounts (1 heaping tablespoon, let’s say) of ground cumin, finely ground Turkish chili pepper (paprika will do), turmeric, black pepper, salt, 3-4 mashed garlic cloves and lemon juice.
Then we rub the chicken, cut up into 10 pieces, with it and let it marinate in the baking dish for at least 3 hours, or all day (in the fridge, in this case). If the chicken is free range, we remove the skin, poke the flesh with a knife and make sure the rub gets everywhere.
Finally, just before popping the chicken pieces into a preheated oven (200 C/400 F), we pour a can of chopped tomatoes over the chicken along with a good swig of olive oil. Turn the chicken half way through cooking. (If the chicken is a large one, like the country chickens we have on Andros, cook at a lower temperature.
Yummy with rice or fried potatoes.