Kayiana at George's | Photo David Hammond

When I spy a menu item I don’t recognize, that’s what I order; whatever it turns out to be, it will certainly be new and maybe I’ll learn something; plus, who knows, it might even be delicious. 

Last Saturday at George’s Restaurant on Oak Park Avenue, the dish I ordered — because I’d never heard of it — was kayiana. 

Turns out, kayiana is simply three scrambled eggs, feta cheese, onions, and tomatoes — nothing unusual here. In fact, these are such common household items, I might have made something like this myself without ever knowing that it was a traditional Greek breakfast food. Salty feta complements the more neutral eggs, the onions provide acidity to balance the richness, and the tomatoes add color and sweetness. Eggs and cheese are also complete proteins, and tomatoes are fruit, so kayiana is a good way to start the day; I’m glad I ordered it. 

Kayiana (also called kayianas or strapasada) seems to have originated in the Peloponnese area of southern Greece (though this would have happened sometime after 1492 when New World tomatoes arrived in the Old World). Kayiana is related to shakshuka, a traditional North African dish of eggs poached in red sauce with olive oil, peppers, onion, garlic and maybe paprika, cumin and cayenne pepper. We make this dish every Christmas morning, though we call it Eggs in Purgatory; it’s an Italian American/Catholic thing, with eggs representing souls in purgatory, suspended between heaven and hell. Okay, not exactly an appetizing concept, but it’s family tradition.

Ordering food without knowing exactly what I’m getting has yielded some very good dining experiences … but not always. During my first trip to Mexico City in the ’80s, I went to a student restaurant. My Spanish was shaky, and I didn’t recognize many of the words on the menu. I decided to take the plunge and order blind. This seemed like a reasonable bet because the only food I really have a hard time enjoying is chitterlings, diced pork intestine. Of course, this unknown dish I ordered was, indeed, diced pork intestine; the servers stood in the kitchen doorway, giggling, to get my reaction: I tried to pretend I was digging it, but I ended up eating only a few of the calamari-looking rings of sliced pig guts. 

Kayiana, however, was simply delicious. Like many recipes that come out of home kitchens, kayiana offers abundant opportunities for variation; I’ve come across kayiana recipes that include adding olives, different herbs, perhaps some ham or bacon, and many kinds of cheese besides feta. It’s all good; the deep structure of all kayiana preparations is the same: eggs + cheese + tomato

According to Italian tradition, when you’re lucky enough to try food you’ve never had before, you’ve earned the right to make a wish. Although I’m all in favor of trying new foods, I always make the same old wish. 

But that wish, of course, will remain unknown.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...