When you think of Greek food, the first dishes that come to mind may well be the dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves) or maybe the moussaka (Mediterranean shepherd’s pie), perhaps gyros or the flaming cheese dish, saganaki (this last was actually invented in Chicago, not Greece).
I’m guessing one popular Greek food that probably didn’t come to mind was giant lima beans.
At PapaSpiros Greek Taverna, they serve a lot of tasty chow, but to me the best thing I’ve eaten there is also one of the simplest: giant white lima beans in tomato sauce with olive oil, onion, carrot and dill.
I never thought much about lima beans until I had these tender legumes at Papaspiros, Oak Park’s only Greek-owned restaurant that actually serves mostly Greek-type food. Called “fasolia gigantes,” these limas are big as beetles, and they’re a staple of Greek home cooking.
Fasolia gigantes are so important to Greek culinary heritage that the European Union gives them a Protected Geographic Indication (PGI). This designation, enforced by the EU, means that like gorgonzola and Champagne, these beans earn their name only if they come from specified locations. True fasolia gigantes come from Greece’s north central Prespes Lakes, Nevrokopi, Florina, and Kastoria regions.
Because these beans are more family food than restaurant food, you won’t find them on the menu at some of Chicago’s more popular Greek places, like The Parthenon (where, incidentally, the vertically-mounted gyros rotisserie and opaa!-announced saganaki were invented).
Sofia Papageorge, who owns PapaSpiros with her husband, the eponymous Spiro, told me that it’s very important to use the authentic fasolia gigantes from Greece. “Once we had a problem getting the Greek lima beans through customs, so we used beans from South America. They were not the same. They were too small, and they broke apart and came right out of the shell when we cooked them.”
Sofia told me that Spiro eats fasolia gigantes three times a week.
On PapaSpiros’ menu, these beautiful beans are listed as a side, and they’re served warm, though traditionally they may be served cold or at room temperature. They can also be eaten as an appetizer or, in my case, occasionally as dinner. On late nights, if I’ve missed my main meal (rare), I go to PapaSpiros and order just the fasolia gigantes ($6.95) with a glass of red wine. Slow-cooked, these beans absorb the mild tomato sauce but retain a lot of structural integrity so that when you bite into them, they pop with flavor. PapaSpiros serves a basket of bread – with a foamy center and crispy, sesame-flecked crust – with any order. Beans, wine, and bread: that’s all it takes for a snack that will make you very happy.