Cuisine in Greece is much more sophisticated than it was in the early days of Greek tourism. It has come a long way from the days when every taverna served the same assortment of lukewarm moussaka, stuffed vegetables and unidentified fish smothered in tomatoes. You can even find Vietnamese and Mexican food in Athens these days.
But the true tastes of Greece are still to be found in its traditional tavernas and cafenion, in its street snacks and treats. Once you've sampled these 10 popular dishes, they will forever remind you of that table beside the beach, that taverna decorated with strings of colored lights, that shady breakfast terrace where you first tasted them.
This Mediterranean sandwich has spread all over the world and has been adapted to local tastes. But a Greek gyro has special characteristics that make it different from the others.
That gigantic vertical cone of ground meat you may have seen turning on a spit (and regarded with suspicion) isn't really Greek at all. It's probably Turkish or Turkish Cypriot. An authentic Greek gyro is never made with ground meat. It's made with slices or pieces of meat - always chicken or pork, never beef - layered on a special, vertical rotisserie spit. As it turns, the outside of the cone is exposed to an intense heating element or a gas flame that crisps and seals the outside while keeping the meat inside juicy.
Every gyro maker has his or her own "secret" combination of seasonings — usually a combination of garlic and onion powder, paprika, cinnamon, ground coriander, cumin and sometimes mild curry powder. The aroma of gyro seasoning is unmistakeable.
The crispy, juicy meat is sliced off the cone to order and then rolled in flat bread or pita bread with onions, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber slices and tzatziki - a white yogurt and cucumber sauce. Red sauces and hot sauces are European innovations but an authentic Greek gyro is always made with the cooling, white cucumber sauce. Make sure to ask for plenty of paper napkins because a fresh gyro is messy to eat.
Some people worry that the large quantity of meat turning on the rotisserie all day is an invitation to bacteria. But actually, the meat is continually turning in front of flames or a strong heating element, which acts, just as all cooking does, as a kind of preservative. At the end of the day, the unsold meat is discarded and a fresh cone made at the start of business the next day. If it worries you, though, make sure the gyro maker you visit is a busy one with a fast turnover.
Souvlaki are wooden skewers threaded with small cubes of marinated pork or chicken and grilled. Sometimes the meat is alternated with cubes of zucchini, tomato, small onions or mushrooms.
It can be eaten directly from the skewers, with the yogurt, mint and cucumber sauce known as tzatziki. Or the skewers can be unloaded into pita or soft flat bread, stuffed with tomatoes, cukes and onion and eaten like a gyro.
In some parts of Greece, street vendors sell souvlaki out of doors and at markets. They are also a popular element in a selection of meze.
Meze or Mezethes
Meze are small plates of savory foods — usually salads, meats, cheeses, nuts or olives — served to accompany drinks. While you may be able to order a selection of meze as a light meal or a starter in an American or English restaurant, in Greece they are rarely served in that way.
Instead, they fill the same role as antipasti in Italy or tapas in Spain. Dishes of one or two meze are meant to absorb strong alcohol like ouzo during a long café session. The dishes most often served as mezethes are:
- Octopus: Chunks of octopus, grilled over charcoal, are served in either a tomato sauce or plain, sprinkled with rigani (a strong dried wild oregano) and drizzled with olive oil and lemon.
- Loukaniko: This is the generic Greek word for sausage, but it is usually used to describe a sausage flavored with orange and leek, and served as a meze.
- Sardeles Pastes: Served in the north, these are raw sardines, cured in lemon or lime juice.
- Olives: Wherever you go, the olives you'll be served are almost always local and there are so many different kinds, it's always worth trying a few.
- Saganaki: A pan-seared, firm cheese dressed with olive oil and herbs.
- Kefthedes: Small, fried balls. They're usually made of ground lamb or pork but can also be made of zucchini or tomato and breadcrumbs.
- Melitzana: A salad of cubed, sliced or mashed eggplant with oil, lemon juice and herbs.
- Skordalia: This is one of the best dipping sauces in the Mediterranean. It is made of garlic mashed with bread, potato or ground almonds and served with slices of raw or fried vegetables, hardboiled eggs or boiled prawns.
No lunch or dinner in Greece seems complete without a plate of Greek salad on the table to share. It's always chunk and crisp and if it has lettuce (which won't always be included) it will be none of your limp, faddish mesclun. No, it will be iceberg or romaine.
Bright, sweet tomatoes, cubes of feta cheese, coarsely sliced onions or onion wedges, chunks of cucumber, huge Kalamata olives and sweet green peppers are the essential ingredients. You'll usually be served a cruet of fresh, virgin olive oil and some lemon quarters to squeeze over it. Fresh parsley and dried wild herbs will probably also be part of the mix.
People are often worried about eating uncooked vegetables in warm climates, but Greek salads always seem to be freshly made, safe and refreshing.
If it grows and can be eaten grilled or baked, the chances are the Greeks have stuffed it. Stuffed vegetables of all kinds are a staple in Greek tavernas and restaurants. You'll see zucchini — either sliced in half or cut it thick chunks, the seeds removed; green and red peppers, and beefy tomatoes stuffed with combinations of onions, spices, rice and ground lamb. Squash blossoms are also stuffed — with fried onions, grated vegetables, herbs and spice. And the most popular stuffed treat is dolmas, also called domathakias. These are grapevine leaves, fresh or preserved in salt water, filled with rice, onions, pine nuts, parsley, mint and dill. They can be served cold or at room temperature and are popular as part of a meze or for a first course.
A Word of Caution
Except for dolmas (which are usually refrigerated) these are Greek treats that you may want to avoid unless you are absolutely sure when and how they have been made. It's not uncommon for stuffed vegetables to stand, only lightly covered, on a counter for hours. Even if they are kept in a shady spot, they are natural places for bacteria to grow. The locals may have built up immunity but the community of microscopic critters in your own gut probably has not. That, coupled with the common practice of serving these dishes at room temperature, makes them a risky bet.
Kalamari is deep fried squid and if you've never eaten squid before, this should definitely be your introduction. It arrives in crispy, golden brown rings piled up on a plate, and it's usually served with a wedge of lemon, salt and pepper for dipping and a dipping sauce — typically tzatziki or sweet chili. Sometimes kalamari is served with skorthalia - the Mediterranean garlic, bread or potato and almond dip, loosened with a bit of olive oil.
Spanakopita, Spanakopitakia and Tiropitakia
Spinach pie is a vegetarian standby — either as a main course or a side dish. It's a dense mixture of cooked and drained spinach, eggs, at least three kinds of cheeses — feta, kefalotiri (like parmesan) and cottage or farmer cheese — seasoned with parsley, nutmeg and dill.
The spinach mixture is sandwiched between several layers of filo pastry brushed with olive oil. Then it's baked and served in big squares or wedges.
The combination of flavors is just too popular to save for sit down meals and family dinners, so spanakopita can often be found as street food. Little triangular spinach pies, called spanakopitakia, are wrapped in layer after layer of flaky filo, to take away. Small cheese pies, similar crispy, savory triangles, without the spinach (and made with melted butter instead of olive oil) are called tiropitakia. Make sure to pick up plenty of paper napkins when you buy them because they are juicy and greasy (in the best way possible, of course).
A Heavenly Breakfast
Hotel and guest house breakfasts have become international. You can probably choose whatever you usually have at home at most luxury accommodations that are used to catering for Americans, British, Scandinavians, Germans and Italians.
But that was not always the case. Not all that long ago, Greek island guest houses made arrangements with neighboring shops and cafes who provided the breakfast basics. Anything more complicated than yogurt, bread and juice required a dash across the street to a neighbor's cafe to boil the eggs.
The classic, old fashioned Greek island breakfast consists of creamy, thick strained yogurt, drizzled with Hymettus honey and served with some fresh figs or cherries. It is still one of the most memorable tastes of Greece. The most common brand to look for is FAGE (pronounced Fah-Yeh). Outside of the United States, where there are other so-called Greek yogurts, this family-owned brand is the only one that has won the legal right to call itself that.
You need a sweet tooth — a very sweet tooth — to enjoy baklava. It's made of layers of filo pastry, brushed with olive oil and layered with finely chopped walnuts and almonds, flavored with cinnamon and cloves. Finally it is soaked in a thick sugar syrup.
It's made for special occasions and usually comes in a variety of shapes — cut squares and diamonds or finger sized rolls. You won't find it on many menus as a dessert. Instead it is eaten with strong black coffee as a special — and especially sticky — snack.
A variation of this theme is kataifi. Kataifi pastry looks a little bit like shredded wheat, but it's actually made by passing a batter through a funnel into a hot griddle. The kataifi pastry is shaped into nests and filled with chopped pistachio nuts before being soaked in rosewater scented sugar syrup.
Despite their taste for very sweet treats like baklava, desserts served at the end of a Greek meal are likely to be more comforting than sweet.
Galaktoboureko is a custard tart made by baking a thick layer of egg custard between several sheets of buttered filo pastry. After it's baked, a sugar syrup, flavored with orange flower water is poured over the top.
Other popular family desserts include rizogalo — a thick, creamy rice pudding, semolina cake and cheese pie. As a visitor, you're more likely to be served a slice of melon or a selection of seasonal fruits at the end of a restaurant meal.