In the midst of Greece’s financial crisis, Zisis Papazisis’ ‘fish in a cone’ is helping keep busy Athenians well-fed on the run. Just like his grandparents did. The chef, a nominee in Urban Adventures’ first ever global street food awards, talks to Alex King.
The best stories often come from the hardest days. Growing up in Volos, a busy fishing port on Greece’s west coast, Zisis Papazisis was always fascinated by his grandfather’s tales of life in the cash-strapped 1950s, before his parents were born.
“Nowadays you have to pay for everything,” Zisis explains, wistfully. “In those days it was simple; you didn’t have to pay because there was no money. You were forced to share and exchange things. ‘I give to you, you give to me and we are equal.’”
“Everyone sat together at the table and brought whatever they had,” he continues. “The fishermen brought fish, the shepherd brought the meat, somebody would bring vegetables, and another would bring bread. My grandparents would cook and everyone would eat. If someone brought a guitar, or a bottle of wine, ouzo or tsipouro, then they had a really great time.”
“Our food is takeaway, but it’s not junk food. There’s an important difference. For the same price, I want to give people healthy, nutritious food.”
Today, amid a severe economic crisis, Greece is once again going through difficult times. For a nation that loves to socialize over food and drink, having less money in the pocket has had a palpable impact on the local way of life. So, to give Athenians a way to come together and eat healthy, high-quality, affordable food, Zisis has resurrected an idea his grandparents first devised all those moons ago: fish in a cone.
‘Zisis: Fish in the Cone’ is an original street food concept in the heart of Athens, named in honor of Zisis’ late grandfather, Zisis senior. It provides a choice of six delicious seafood options, served in a brightly-printed cone inspired by old newspapers, to eat on the go. Served from a welcoming, neoclassical spot, surrounded by derelict fabric shops on a street in Athens’ bustling old garment district, ‘fish in a cone’ is taking Athens by storm.
In days gone by, workers would have taken a relaxed (and likely boozy) lunch at a local taverna, before wandering back to work. Today, time is money and for most people—certainly at lunchtime—food is fuel. “You can get everything takeaway now,” says Zisis. “So I thought, why can’t you take fish with you? It’s healthier and not so difficult. Our food is takeaway, but it’s not junk food. There’s an important difference. For the same price, I want to give people healthy, nutritious food.”
As lunchtime approaches, the energy in the small, tightly-packed kitchen rises. The deep fat fryers bubble on full blast and the trickle of customers soon becomes a stream. Businesses on this street may have changed, but the frenetic pace hasn’t.
Customers make their selections from the menu and the fish goes straight into the fryer. The intense hissing grows louder every time another batch of wet, salty fish hits the hot oil. It’s like being in a frantic old factory, with workers scuttling around a hissing steam engine. “The food is healthier because we fry at a high temperature,” Zisis says. “The fish stays in the fryer for the shortest possible time so it absorbs as little oil as possible. That keeps the food lighter and it keeps things moving. Fast, friendly service is our way.”
We greedily work our way through the menu, and Athens’ Urban Adventures guide and food expert Nikoleta Zavou explains that she included Zisis on her Extreme Bites tour because it’s brought a fresh and innovative approach to street food in the city, one which has been passionately embraced by locals.
The small fish, such as sand smelt and anchovies, come out of the fryer almost straight away, while the bigger chunks, like the cod strips or fish balls, take a touch longer. Either way, as soon as the customer receives their order, they smother the fish with juice from the lemon perched at the mouth of the cone, and then they’re gone—back to the grind, or, if they’re lucky, to sit down and eat in the square outside the Agias Eirinis Orthodox church across the road.
“Street food is really common now, it’s the best choice if you’re working downtown,” says Nikoleta, adding that more and more locals are trying new things, such as going vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free. “People are trying to find different food ideas, and street food is able to react fastest, changing with the times.”
“We need to remember that giving benefits the giver more than the receiver. If I cook you something you really like, and in return you give me a Euro or 50 cents less than it costs, I’m still winning.”
Surveying Athens’ food landscape, Zisis noticed that the crisis had forced people to work longer hours and yet left them with less cash at the end of the day—so they were drifting towards fast, low-quality and unhealthy food. Zisis began to feel there was a growing need for the nutritious cones that had brought so much joy in his grandparents’ era.
Back then, Volos was a very different place. When Zisis’ grandparents met, Greece had just endured the Second World War, fascist occupation and a brutal civil war. By the early 1950s, peace had returned but the country was struggling to rebuild. These were times of hardship and sacrifice, but the stories about people being forced to come together to get through were the ones Zisis junior asked to hear over and over again.
There are competing theories about where the ‘fish in a cone’ idea came from. Nobody disagrees that Zisis senior and his wife, Ourania, had a house on Velissariou Street behind the fish market in Volos. Both grandparents were passionate about cooking—especially seafood—and they’d cook each day for friends and family in their colorful, flower-lined courtyard. It wasn’t an official restaurant, but it was Zisis grandparents’ way of ensuring everyone ate during those lean times.
The most plausible origin for the ‘fish in a cone’ concept is tied to the history of the sailors and fishermen who were frequent visitors to Velissariou Street back in the day. They came to shore to enjoy the music, alcohol and good times and, when the time came to return to their ships, they’d take away their food wrapped in a cone. It was their way of keeping the party going at sea.
When it comes to making sure his food is as fresh and affordable as possible, Zisis exerts Herculean levels of effort, carefully buying from local producers at a price that will translate well for his customers. “I try and find the best stuff as cheaply as I can,” he says. “My price is low. I want to buy things cheap and sell them cheap. I don’t want my customers to pay too much.”
After a spell in the army, then studying art conservation, graphic design and tourism, before working everywhere from dive bars to Michelin-starred restaurants, Zisis opened his own spot—as an experiment initially—in 2017, and is finally doing things his way. The warm and bubbly 43-year-old is ecstatic about busting a gut each day, because people appreciate the effort and good value—and even more so in hard times.
Beneath each portion of Zisis’ fish, there’s a carrot and cabbage coleslaw to refresh, rehydrate and cleanse the palate. Washing it all down with a local spirit from Volos is highly recommended, but whether you’re left feeling the effects of tsipouro for the rest of the day really is up to you—and how much you choose to (over)indulge.
“Sharing food is a way we can communicate with each other,” Zisis says. “We need to remember that giving benefits the giver more than the receiver. If I cook you something you really like, and in return you give me a Euro or 50 cents less than it costs, I’m still winning if you are happy with the food that I give you.”
As the lunchtime rush subsides, Zisis begins to wind down. The food may not be free like it once was in his grandparents’ courtyard, but the love for hospitality and bringing people together through food continues. As we’re digging through our cones, we watch others picking up their takeaway fish and rushing away. They may not stick around long enough to show their appreciation, but everyone leaves Zisis satisfied.
Alex King is a British freelance journalist based between Athens and London. Before moving to Athens, he was staff writer at Huck Magazine. He now contributes regularly to Huck, Vice, Noisey, Dazed & Confused, VolteFace, If You Leave, Bikevibe Journal & more.