What to Eat in Greece

Greek cuisine has long been touted as one the world’s healthiest as the presence of vegetables and grains on the plate is as important as meat and fish. Using olive oil to cook adds to the health factor. Greece’s geographical makeup of the mainland and thousands of islands means that components and flavors change from one region to another but many aspects remain the same.

Greek cookery has a 4000 year old history that was influenced by other cuisines that the country came in contact with through the ages. Similarly, Greek cuisine spread to other parts of Europe via ancient Rome.

The most ancient element is olive oil, which is used in almost everything, while the prevalence of various herbs gives the food a distinct Greek flavor. The hilly terrain of the country means that sheep and goat are more common than cattle, while the islands and coastal regions have plenty of seafood. Greece produces various cheeses made from goat and sheep milk.

Unlike many western European countries, traditional Greek cuisine is meant to have a less refined spirit to it and reflects a heartier approach to cooking. This marries perfectly with the emphasis on casual meals shared with family and friends.

While there are lots of things that make Greece a top foodie destination, the following 11 make my list of foods not to be missed.

1. Meze

Meze in a Greek TavernaCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/heatheronhertravels/2975793796 - Mezes in a Greek Taverna by Heather Cowper, on Flickr, via www.heatheronhertravels.com

I’ve always been a fan of small plate meals shared with friends and family. In Greece they call it Meze and you can find these in lively tavernas all over. These small but lip-smacking dishes range from fried cheese to warm pita served with various dips to grilled octopus to small meatballs to dolmas. Gather your family or friends to order as many of these plates as you want and sample a little from every one. To round up the meal, you have to have the local ouzo, wine or beer.

The secret to a successful meze[1] meal is to take your time and not rush. After all, why would you?

2. Cheese

SaganakiCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/twohungrydudes/5098717846 - Saganaki by Hungry Dudes, on Flickr

Who needs parsley and cilantro when you can garnish with cheese? Throw a generous slab of feta into your salad or fry a Graviera or Halloumi for a crispy on the outside, melting on the inside piece of heaven called Saganaki[2]. You’d think that Greeks should be fat eating so much cheese but they are some of the healthiest people in the world so go ahead and indulge.

3. Greek Salad

Greek SaladCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/divya_/5463457440 - Greek salad by Divya Thakur, on Flickr

Feta isn’t the only ingredient in an authentic Greek salad[3] and it’s not crumbled and sprinkled delicately on top. It has to be a thick slab! Add red onion, tomatoes, cucumber, green bell pepper, dried oregano, olives, and pickled hot peppers and drizzle some fabulous olive oil all over. Oh and one more thing. Please don’t ask for lettuce. That’s NOT traditional and you’ll be insulting this king of salads.

4. Olive Oil

Old Olive Press in GreeceCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ronsaunders47/5851823737 - OLD OLIVE PRESSING MACHINERY .THASSOS.GREECE. by Ronald Saunders, on Flickr

Like cheese, olive oil[4] is another ingredient that should not be looked upon as fattening. The Greeks would bathe in it if they could but instead they use it in every dish. Bless them for giving us this healthy oil.

5. Wine and Ouzo

According to the Greeks, water is for swimming in. If you want to drink something it has to be wine or ouzo but preferably both. You can’t have Meze without wine or ouzo accompanying them.

OuzoCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/divya_/5756487307 - Ouzo yes by Divya Thakur, on Flickr

Ouzo[5] is an anise flavored aperitif that gained popularity in Greece in the 19th century after absinthe fell out of flavour. It is distilled using copper stills and is a clear liquid that turns cloudy white when mixed with water or ice cubes. You can drink this liquorice-like drink either straight or diluted.

Wine Tasting in SantoriniCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dknuth/258952950 - IMG_5088 by Doug Knuth, on Flickr

The history of Greek wine goes back 6,500 years and was at one time even more valued than Italian wine. In fact, Hippocrates used to prescribe wine as a medicine! There are several distinct wine growing regions across the country, so you can sample a local variety in almost every place you visit.

6. Greek Yogurt

Greek YogurtCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/geishabot/4579250516 - breakfast by Janine, on Flickr

This thick and creamy textured strained yogurt[6] made from sheep’s milk is delicious yet healthy and used to make Tsatziki, the staple sauce that’s served with meze or grilled meats. It is also commonly served as a dessert with honey or sweet sauce drizzled over it. 

7. Octopus

Octopuses Drying in the SunCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/forsterfoto/2994193889 - On the Rope by ForsterFoto, on Flickr

Whoever thought of grilling something this scary looking was a genius. Seafood tavernas on the Greek islands hang the just caught octopuses on a clothesline in the sun to dry – just like hanging laundry. This helps tenderize and dry them so that they grill well. Octopus braised in wine is more common where seafood straight off fishing boats isn’t readily available.

8. Greek Coffee and Frappe

Greek FrappeCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/telemax/5029725316 - good - better - best by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, on Flickr

Not only is Greek cuisine extremely healthy, so is Greek coffee (also known as Turkish coffee in other parts of the world) which is made from Arabica beans ground into a fine powder for a very concentrated amount of antioxidants in your cup of java. Rather than filtering, the coffee is boiled till foamy which makes it rich and creamy. This method extracts more heart-healthy nutrients from the coffee beans than what you get from brewing but reduces the amount of caffeine.

Did you know that the Frappe[7] comes from Greece? It was an accidental discovery in 1957 at the International Trade Fair in the northern city of Thessaloniki. This summer drink is served in almost all Greek cafes and is made with instant coffee, sugar and water and then shaken, not stirred. Milk can be added and you can also find variations of it with Baileys or Kahlua added for a bit of a kick.

9. Honey and Loukoumades

LoukoumadesCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/avlxyz/4590366342 - Loukoumades - Nikos Cakes AUD4 for 3 by Alpha, on Flickr

With so many citrus and other fruit trees around, honey bees are kept busy making honey round the year. Almost every dessert includes a drizzle of honey.

Speaking of dessert, want to feel like an ancient Greek Olympian? Forget donuts and try loukoumades[8]. These fried balls of dough drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and sesame seeds were served to the Olympian winners in ancient Greece.

10. Greek Pastries

Athens PastriesCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/glenmaclarty/6513811343 - Athens Pastries by Glen MacLarty, on Flickr

Buttery and gossamer thin pastry sheets layered on top of each other form the basis for many sweet and savory pastry dishes here. Try Spanakopita[10], a savory feta cheese and spinach pastry, or Baklava[9], a sweet offering made with a filling of chopped nuts and honey.

11. Souvlaki and Gyros

Pork Gyros on the SpitCredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/twohungrydudes/8175433702 - Pork gyros on the spit by Hungry Dudes, on FlickrThese represent the oldest forms of fast food in the world. Souvlaki[11] is a kebab made from ground meat or cubes of meat, while gyros refers to the meat shaved from large pieces of meat on a long vertical rotisserie that turns slowly around while roasting. Both are served wrapped in warm pita bread with some toppings like tzatziki, tomatoes and onions and both are absolutely delicious. The big cities like Athens are best to savor this food.

 

 

 

 

Head to a local taverna for authentic Greek cuisine