Yiayia Next Door: a story of love forged in tragedy, and food

Daniel and Luke Mancuso with their neighbour Yiayia who likes to remain anonymous. Picture: Mark Roper
Daniel and Luke Mancuso with their neighbour Yiayia who likes to remain anonymous. Picture: Mark Roper

Daniel Mancuso can remember the first day his neighbour passed a meal over the back fence.

"I was playing basketball in the backyard, mucking around with the dog, and I hear this 'Daniel, Daniel, are you home', and she's like 'I've got something for you' and she passed over some leftover chicken and rice," he said. "That's where it all started."

It was 2019, the boys had just moved into their mother Teresa's family home in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Six years earlier Teresa was brutally murdered by their father in the garage of the house. It was the elderly neighbour who called the police after she heard screams late one Monday night.

Teresa had always wanted the boys to live in her childhood home and they made the difficult decision to move in as a way of honouring her memory. They've done a few renovations since, freshly painted walls, some new floorboards. Once a crime scene, the garage is now a man cave where they hang out with friends and play table tennis or darts.

Yiayia and Pappou in their Melbourne Garden. Picture: Mark Roper

Yiayia and Pappou in their Melbourne Garden. Picture: Mark Roper

The one constant has been their neighbour, Nina, who prefers to remain anonymously "Yiayia", the Greek word for grandmother. When the boys moved in she, and her husband "Pappou", took the boys under their wings.

And food has always been a part of it. Daniel and Luke began posting videos on Instagram, of Yiayia passing different dishes over the fence; they quickly went viral. Everyone assumed they'd just been lucky enough to move into a share-house next door to a hospitable stranger. But as the true origins of the story unfolded more and more people became involved in the Yiayia Next Door phenomenon. There were newspaper reports, appearances on morning television, there are more than 79,600 Instagram followers @yiayianextdoor. And now there's a cookbook featuring authentic Greek recipes from Yiayia as well family dishes from other yiayias sent in by fans.

"If you had asked us five years ago if we thought we'd be doing what we're doing, the answer would be a firm no," says Luke. "We still have plenty of moments where we have to pinch ourselves and we're so grateful the whole thing has allowed us to champion the causes we believe in."

The book is dedicated to their mother, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Australian Childhood Foundation who work with the victims of family violence.

The first meal was a serve of chicken and rice. Picture: Mark Roper

The first meal was a serve of chicken and rice. Picture: Mark Roper

But it's also about the power of community, about keeping an eye out for people, and offering to help in any way you can. After a few years where the pandemic has kept us locked away in our neighbourhoods, the boys hope that we've all become more aware of those who live around us. And that we're reaching out.

"We're all living lives that are a bit more secluded," says Daniel. "Whether that's because of technology, even before lockdown, and we're hoping to break that trend. We grew up playing basketball in the street, riding our bikes with our neighbours, when there were issues, at home, or elsewhere, we'd just get out and enjoy our neighbourhood and try to forget it."

They don't dwell on the tragedy of the past, the Instagram feed is full of funny videos.

"We wouldn't wish this on anyone," says Luke. "For us it was important to find ways to get the message across that showed the positive side of it all was more important."

They both agree that sometimes asking for help can be hard.

Yiayia Next Door: Recipes from Yiayia's kitchen, and the true story of one woman's incredible act of kindness, by Daniel Mancuso and Luke Mancuso. Plum. $36.99.

Yiayia Next Door: Recipes from Yiayia's kitchen, and the true story of one woman's incredible act of kindness, by Daniel Mancuso and Luke Mancuso. Plum. $36.99.

"The thing about this is that we didn't ask Yiayia for anything, she was just there at the fence," says Daniel.

"Sometimes the hardest thing is being open to receiving help. We don't have all the answers. If you have a conversation with your neighbor, friends, family, whatever, like it's a good start, whether that's about mental health, domestic violence, whatever."

The boys help their neighbours as well, they might pick up groceries for them, get petrol for Pappou's lawnmower, share the vegetables from their own garden. How much cooking are they doing themselves?

"We'd like to think we're good cooks for men close to 30," says Daniel. "Mum was a great cook, we've been raised by a lot of beautiful women who are really good cooks, we kind of stick to what we know but we do all right."

They know Teresa would be extremely proud of what they've done.

"She'd be bringing it up every chance she had," Luke says. "She was always proud of anything we did but she'd be proud of the men we've become, that we're still friends with each other, that we're making the most of our lives."

They know the world can sometimes feel like a negative place, "but its true power can be measured in good", Luke says.

"Yiayia's actions are the definition of true selflessness and show how love really does generate love."

  • Yiayia Next Door: Recipes from Yiayia's kitchen, and the true story of one woman's incredible act of kindness, by Daniel Mancuso and Luke Mancuso. Plum. $36.99.
  • If you or someone you know needs help or support, call Lifeline's 24/7 national telephone helpline service on 13 11 14 or in an emergency phone 000.

Hilopites me keftedakia - Pasta squares with meatballs

Hilopites me keftedakia - Pasta squares with meatballs. Picture: Mark Roper

Hilopites me keftedakia - Pasta squares with meatballs. Picture: Mark Roper

Yiayia was fed up with cooking rice all the time, so one day she spiced things up by adding hilopites - Greek pasta squares - to this meatball dish instead. Everyone loved it. With one simple change, Yiayia had created a delicious new meal to share with family and friends.

Ingredients

  • 3 tbsp canola oil
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 350g mince (half beef topside, half pork fillet, minced twice; ask your butcher to do this for you)
  • 3 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 3 tbsp dried breadcrumbs
  • 1 heaped tsp ground paprika
  • 1 litre boiling water
  • 250g hilopites (Greek egg pasta squares)

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 210C (190C fan-forced).

2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat, add two-thirds of the onion and cook for five minutes or until soft and translucent. Increase the heat to medium-high, add half the mince and one teaspoon of the salt and cook, breaking up any lumps with the back of a wooden spoon, for five minutes or until well browned. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

3. Place the remaining mince and onion, the egg, parsley, breadcrumbs and one teaspoon of the remaining salt in a bowl and mix with your hands until well combined. Divide and shape the mixture into 12 small meatballs.

4. Spread the cooked mince mixture over the base of a 36cm 30cm roasting tin or flameproof baking dish and place over medium heat. Sprinkle over the paprika and remaining salt, then pour in the boiling water. Sprinkle in the hilopites and stir well, then top with the meatballs.

5. Carefully transfer the tin or dish to the oven and cook for 15 minutes. Give the mixture a stir, then cook for a further five to 10 minutes or until the hilopites and meatballs are cooked through.

6. Divide among plates and serve.

Serves 4.

Lahanohirino stifado - Cabbage and pork stew

Lahanohirino stifado - Cabbage and pork stew. Picture: Mark Roper

Lahanohirino stifado - Cabbage and pork stew. Picture: Mark Roper

Yiayia's parents grew cabbages in Florina, the village where she grew up. They were harvested in summer and stored in a cool place to eat over the following months. This stew brings back happy memories for her.

Ingredients

  • 3 pork loin chops
  • 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 small onions, cut into large chunks
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground paprika
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1.25 litres boiling water
  • 2 dried red chillies
  • 1/2 green cabbage, cut into 3cm chunks

Method

1. Begin by cutting each pork chop into three even pieces.

2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over high heat, add the onion and cook for about two minutes, until just starting to brown. Reduce the heat to medium, add the pork and cook, stirring occasionally, for two minutes. Add the paprika and salt and stir until fragrant, then add the boiling water and gently stir. Increase the heat to high and add the dried chillies, then cover and allow to boil for nine minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, leave the lid slightly ajar and continue to cook for a further 35 minutes or until the pork is cooked through.

3. Remove the pork from the pan and set aside to rest, covered with foil. Increase the heat to high, add three handfuls of cabbage and cook, pressing down, until starting to collapse. Continue to add the cabbage, pressing down aer each addition, until it's all added. Reduce the heat to medium, then cover and cook, pressing down every five minutes, for 10 minutes, until the cabbage is completely collapsed and tender. Return the pork to the pan for the final two minutes of cooking to heat through.

4. Divide the pork and cabbage among plates and serve.

Serves 4.

Psomi spitiko - Homemade bread

Psomi spitiko - Homemade bread. Picture: Mark Roper

Psomi spitiko - Homemade bread. Picture: Mark Roper

Yiayia still uses the original dish she brought with her from Greece to Australia to make this simple bread. It was a gift from her mother, who packed it in Yiayia's suitcase among her clothing.

Ingredients

  • 30g fresh yeast or 3 tsp instant dried yeast
  • 900g special white flour or 00 flour, plus extra for dusting and kneading
  • 1 tsp canola oil
  • 3/4 tsp salt

Method

1. Fill a kettle with water, bring to the boil, then allow the water to cool to lukewarm. Place the yeast in a jug, add 80ml of the lukewarm water and stir until dissolved.

2. Sift the flour into a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the yeast mixture, oil and salt, then gradually add 500ml of the lukewarm water, while mixing together with your other hand. Continue to mix until well combined, then transfer the dough to a well-floured work surface.

3. Knead for about 10 minutes, dusting with more flour as you go, until the dough is soft and bounces back when you press a finger into it. Roll the dough into a ball.

4. Lightly flour a bowl that's just larger than the dough ball, then add the dough, cover with a clean tea towel and tuck in the sides. Wrap the entire bowl in another tea towel or small towel to keep warm, then set aside in a warm place for about 50 minutes, until the dough has risen to the top of the bowl.

5. Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced). Lightly flour a large baking tray with low sides.

6. Dust your work surface again with flour, then turn out the dough and knead for five minutes or until bubbles appear on the surface. Tear the dough into three pieces, then lightly knead each piece and roll into balls using well-floured hands.

7. If you have a patterned embossing tool, lightly press it into the top of the dough balls, then prick each ball with a toothpick at the top, bottom, left and right, then once in the centre. Transfer the dough to the prepared tray with space between each ball of dough. Cover with a tea towel and set aside for 10 minutes, then transfer to the oven and cook, rotating the tray occasionally, for 25-30 minutes or until the bread is lightly golden and there is a hollow sound when it's tapped on the bottom.

8. Allow to cool slightly and serve.

Makes 3 small loaves.

Koulourakia - Greek Easter biscuits

Koulourakia - Greek Easter biscuits. Picture: Mark Roper

Koulourakia - Greek Easter biscuits. Picture: Mark Roper

This recipe means so much to me as I no longer have my yiayia around, but every time I eat these biscuits it reminds me of her and, of course, my pappou. As a kid, I never really ate store-bought biscuits. My yiayia would make these koulourakia, along with other Greek biscuits, all year round and they were a staple in her pantry. To this day, my mum still makes Greek Easter biscuits and they are a treat served with coffee in the morning, or as my pappou would eat them: crushed up in a bowl with warm water. It was the Greek version of Weet-Bix! (Community recipe from Zac Antoniou.)

Ingredients

  • 125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 165g caster sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 tbsp full-cream milk
  • 2 tsp vanilla sugar
  • 500g self-raising flour, plus extra if needed
  • sesame seeds, for sprinkling (optional)

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C (160C fan-forced). Line a baking tray with baking paper.

2. Place the butter and caster sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on high speed for four to five minutes, until light and fluffy. Add two of the eggs, one at a time, and beat until well combined, then, with the mixer running, slowly pour in the milk and add the vanilla sugar. Gradually add the flour one cup at a time and beat until the dough comes away from the side of the bowl. The dough should be so and not sticky - if it is, add a little more flour and continue to mix.

3. Take one and a half tablespoons of dough and roll it into a long thin rope. From here, you can make any shape you like, but the traditional shape is a twisted braid with a loop at the top.

4. Transfer to the prepared tray, then repeat with the remaining dough to make about 20 biscuits, leaving enough space between each biscuit to rise.

5. Lightly beat the remaining egg, then brush the top of each biscuit to glaze. Sprinkle over some sesame seeds, if you like.

6. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until light golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool, then store in an airtight container for up to three weeks.

Makes about 20.

This story Yiayia Next Door: a story of love forged in tragedy, and food first appeared on The Canberra Times.