Braised lamb with cinnamon, coriander, fennel and wine from the kitchen of Ryan Tatsumoto.
Braised lamb with cinnamon, coriander, fennel and wine from the kitchen of Ryan Tatsumoto.

Ryan Tatsumoto
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

I’m not sure why, but I’ve always loved the flavors of the Mediterranean — cuisine that comes from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Extremely diverse, it includes dishes from European countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain; North African countries such as Algeria, Libya and Moroco; and Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Therefore, Mediterranean cuisine is about as diverse as the multi-ethnic cuisine in the 50th. And though I relish all of the above, I crave the flavors found in Maghrebi (Morocco and Tunisia), Egyptian, Levantine (Middle-East), Ottoman (Turkey and Greece) and Greek cuisines – from whole grains to fresh herbs, lamb and goat with warm, savory spices such as cinnamon, coriander, cumin, saffron and cloves.

The Annual Greek Festival

My love for Greek food probably started during the early days of Honolulu’s annual Greek Festival, which has been ongoing for almost 40 years. When I took my first bite of gyros redolent with garlic and oregano and that zesty yogurt sauce, tzatziki, I immediately fell in love with the cuisine. And after moving to the Bay Area for graduate school and sampling Greek, Levantine, Persian, Yemeni, Turkish and Moroccan cuisine, I was hooked for life.

The Aziza Experience

I first sampled contemporary Moroccan cuisine with a California twist at Aziza in San Francisco, from Chef Mourad Lahlou. By ordering the prix-fixe menu, you can try more dishes — usually the chef’s best menu selections.

Our meal included fluffy couscous found in most Moroccan meals, a tagine (ceramic cooking vessel with a wide short bottom and a tall conical cover so that evaporated moisture continually drips back on to the food keeping it moist) of mixed vegetables, shredded chicken bastilla (the original dish uses pigeon) cooked with saffron, cinnamon, ginger and other spices then wrapped and baked in phyllo dough. We enjoyed our dinner while sipping craft cocktails, and though we didn’t sample any mechoui or whole lamb roasted in an underground pit or chicken with preserved lemon and olives, we were perfectly sated. But alas, delayed renovations at Aziza have kept it shuttered for the past year though Chef Lahlou is partnering with local Chef Chris Kajioka at Café Miro on Wai‘alae Avenue. So maybe Japanese, French and Moroccan cuisine will influence the new menu.

Falafel plate from Yamas Mediterranean Cuisine.
Falafel plate from Yamas Mediterranean Cuisine.

La Mediterranee’

Since 1987, we often enjoy meals at La Mediterranee’ whenever we’re in San Francisco as their Levantine cuisine features a wide range of cuisines from the Middle East. They are very affordable with the most expensive item being the Mediterranean Meza for $21.95 per person, featuring 10 house specialties, and the food tastes so good! Also, since one of their four locations in the Bay Area is just a short walk from Japantown (where we normally lodge in San Francisco), dining is as convenient as it gets.

The Greek Experience

I was at a loss when the Greek Island Taverna closed many years ago, as it was our go-to place for Greek food. Olive Tree Café was (and still is) good but a drive to Kahala from Kaneohe is almost like driving to Ewa Beach. The same applied to the Greek Marina in Hawai‘i Kai. Yanni’s at the original Restaurant Row was also okay but they weren’t open for very long. Then we found Yamas Mediterranean Cuisine right in the Enchanted Lake Shopping Center.

Mixed appetizer plate from Yamas Mediterranean Cuisine.
Mixed appetizer plate from Yamas Mediterranean Cuisine.

Yamas serves standard classics like hummus, baba ghanoush (roasted eggplant spread), spanakopita (spinach wrapped in phyllo dough) and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) along with gyro, shawarma (grilled ground lamb and beef), falafel and souvlaki (grilled chunks of lamb, chicken or fish). They even cook their Greek french fries perfectly! And because it’s BYOB, we can enjoy our own bottle of wine with lunch or dinner.

Yamas Mediterranean Cuisine
Enchanted Lake Center
1020 Keolu Dr.
Kailua, HI 96734

Hours of operation: Wednesday through Monday,

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Closed on Tuesdays.

“Opa” on your Own!

Sometimes, I try to create my own Greek dishes with that ubiquitous Greek seasoning found in most local supermarkets, Cavendar’s All Purpose Greek Seasoning. The Cavendar family created the seasoning in 1969 in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.

Shawarma plate from Yamas Mediterranean Cuisine. (Photo courtesy Ryan Tatsumoto)
Shawarma plate from Yamas Mediterranean Cuisine. (Photo courtesy Ryan Tatsumoto)

Didn’t you know that the Ozark’s are the hub of Greek culture? Neither did I. But to create my own version of gyros, I add about a tablespoon of the Cavendar’s seasoning to each pound of ground lamb with about a 3/4 cup of breadcrumbs then shape it like a meatloaf and bake it in a roasting bag for 35 to 45 minutes. After cooling the loaf overnight, I thinly slice it and finish the slices by browning in a frying pan. Once the slices are brown, they resemble meat carved from an authentic gyro and believe me, if our kitchen could accommodate a gyro (and I could sneak it pass the Mrs.), I would have procured an authentic gyro years ago. The browned slices are placed on warm pita bread with thinly sliced sweet onions, sliced ripe tomatoes and tzatziki sauce which I create with Greek style plain yogurt; a clove of fresh, minced garlic; roughly chopped fresh dill; and peeled and cubed cucumbers with salt and black pepper. Enjoy with a glass of Agiorgitiko wine and proclaim “yasou!

Or try this combination of Greek dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves, and Italian risotto, which is a traditional Greek spinach and rice dish. However, I added my own twist using grape leaves instead of spinach. Just make sure to soak and rinse the bottled grape leaves, as they can be quite salty if not rinsed. If you prefer a simple one-pot meal instead of just a side dish, you can also first brown about ½ a pound of ground lamb before the onions for Greek style “jamabalaya.”


2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium/large sweet onion, chopped

1 bottle of brined grape leaves, drained and rinsed then roughly chopped

About 1/3 cup wine (or broth)

1 can tomato sauce

Water to make 2 cups with tomato sauce and wine

1 teaspoon dried dillweed

1 teaspoon dried parsley

½   teaspoon dried oregano

¼   teaspoon dried mint

1 cup uncooked brown rice

Salt and black pepper to taste

¼   cup crumbled feta cheese

Sauté chopped onions in the olive oil until softened and beginning to brown. Add the grape leaves to the onions and cook, stirring often, for a few minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce, wine, water, dill weed, parsley, oregano, mint and brown rice and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to a simmer, cover skillet or saucepan, and simmer until the brown rice is tender (about 45 to 50 minutes). Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Serve with a sprinkling of the feta cheese over each serving.

Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”


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