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ARTICLES > NOURISH

HELEN TZOUGANATOS: IT’S ALL ABOUT FAMILY

Cookbook author, television host and mother of three Helen Tzouganatos invites us into her home to share childhood memories and her ideal summer feast. 

By Selina Altomonte
Gluten-free cookbook author Helen Tzouganatos offering a bowl of fruit to her young daughter, Ruby, who smiles up at her.
Helen Tzouganatos with her youngest daughter, Ruby. Photography: Andre Martin.

Helen Tzouganatos is a natural at making you feel welcome. Within moments of greeting us at her beautiful seaside home in Sydney’s Coogee, there are cuddles with her dog and the sound of her kids happily hanging out during the school holidays. Talk quickly turns to her favourite topic: food – and sharing it. Helen is the author of three gluten-free cookbooks, Hungry and Fussy, Easy Gluten Free, and Gluten-Free Mediterranean. She presented Loving Gluten Free on SBS and is a regular guest on cooking shows.

It’s likely you’ve been tempted by her gluten-free bakes on her Instagram feed – so it’s hard to believe she was once a complete novice when it came to gluten-free food. “Before I was diagnosed, I had never even heard of coeliac disease,” she admits. “I didn’t even know what gluten was.” 

Helen was diagnosed while undergoing IVF treatment in her early thirties. She had experienced all the tell-tale symptoms, such as stomach cramps and lethargy, since childhood but back then, she says, “nobody was diagnosing coeliac disease”.  As an adult, with a career in marketing, she was often fatigued and had brain fog. “By Friday night I was always exhausted,” she says, “But I put it down to my very demanding job.” She had anaemia and had been trying to conceive for three years.  

She saw a series of doctors, but never got an explanation for her symptoms. It took her IVF doctor to spot the red flags and she received the diagnosis that would change her life and career. After going on a strict gluten-free diet, her energy levels immediately skyrocketed and the stomach cramps went away. “I just felt so much better,” she says.  

But she needed guidance, and this came through Coeliac Australia. “I became a member, and relied on the Ingredient List Booklet to learn which gluten-free foods would be great substitutes for my old favourites.” Her IVF journey was also a success, and she fell pregnant with her son, Vasili, and then daughter, Sofia. “My IVF doctor told me it would take five years for my body to heal from the damage of coeliac disease, and five years later I fell pregnant with my third child, Ruby,” she says. “There’s no better proof than that.”  

But in the beginning, as a foodie from a Greek family, she was frustrated. “Food is such a big part of my life, and my mind immediately went to the foods I couldn’t have,” she says. “Back then there wasn’t much on offer in shops or cafes. That’s how my cooking journey started. I had to drive 20km to get a loaf of gluten-free bread and it was solid as a brick. I knew then that I had to start making my own.”  

Helen was determined to make gluten-free bread that was as light and fluffy as the breads she’d loved and began experimenting. “I think good bread is what people miss most when they go gluten free, but nowadays there are so many great options and recipes out there.” With three kids under four, Helen was looking for something to do from home; so she started posting her recipes online. 

Her career change and status as a go-to source for gluten-free recipes happened very organically. “There was never a plan; everything just fell into place,” she says. Along with creating great gluten-free baked goods, Helen made it her mission to convert her favourite Greek recipes. Her mother’s signature spanakopita was an essential, and Helen proudly mentions that her mum now uses her gluten-free pastry recipe when she makes this family favourite. Many of Helen’s triumphs have been shared on her website and in her latest book, Gluten-Free Mediterranean.  

Naturally, having grown up in Sydney’s multicultural Inner West, Helen has a global palate; her gluten-free recipes include the Asian flavours she loves, such as rich curries, and her take on an Aussie classic: pork sausage rolls with an apple and sage upgrade. What’s important to Helen across all her recipes is that they’re delicious, and easy to achieve in everyday life. “I want to make and share recipes that I know people are going to make.” Her focaccia recipe, she says, is now a favourite among her friends because it’s so easy.  

Sharing meals with family and friends is fundamental – and she does love to put on a spread. “Food is such a huge part of Greek culture. Everything revolves around food,” she says. “Mum taught me to always use fresh ingredients, make food from scratch and use plenty of extra virgin olive oil,” she laughs. Her childhood memories involve gatherings with family and friends over barbecues and tables bursting with salads, dips and cakes, as her mum was a talented baker. “It was all about abundance, sharing and ensuring nobody went home hungry.”  

As we approach the holiday season, Helen is already dreaming of get-togethers and good times. To get you in the mood too, she’s shared some of her favourite recipes here on Gluten-Free Living – including a colourful nectarine salad and classic Greek New Year’s Day cake – sure to star in her next summer spread. 

Cookbook author Helen Tzouganatos sitting on her balcony with the sea behind her, smiling and holding a drink

HELEN'S TOP 5 TIPS FOR ENTERTAINING

  1. For a big gathering with adults and kids, I can’t go past a barbecue with lots of salads and side dishes.
  2. My go-to dish is Greek lamb. Serve it with waxy potatoes roasted in olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and chicken stock (it’s the secret to adding flavour). 
  3. Serve a vibrant salad: go for a big Greek salad a crunchy fattoush salad or a black-eyed pea salad.
  4. One of my favourite desserts is loukoumades, Greek doughnuts drizzled with honey and walnuts. Make the dough ahead and fry at dessert time. 
  5. I make as much as I can ahead; I want to enjoy time with my guests on the day instead of spending all of it cooking. 

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