Greeks have been ‘green’ for centuries. The age-old habit of growing vegetables, harvesting olives and preparing silky oil, and cooking up a storm with tomatoes, fresh fish and wild greens is the norm for most folk whether they live on an island or the mainland. As such, Greek cuisine is renowned across the globe for its wholesome, hearty dishes and philosophy of simple, but superior-quality raw ingredients, making it one of the most nutritious (and delicious) in the world.
Unrushed dining is an integral part of the country’s culture, as the Greek table is the centre of many time-honoured social and family rituals and traditions. And although Greek recipes can be enjoyed in thousands of Greek restaurants in every city of the world, the locale and ambiance of eateries in Greece are the special ingredients that make dining out when visiting the country an extra-special experience. Whether you’re eating seafood at a waterfront table or sampling contemporary Greek cuisine under the floodlit Acropolis, dining out in Greece is never just about what you eat, but the whole sensory experience.
Take a cue from the locals and go straight to the source, heading to seaside fishing hamlets for fresh fish or mountain villages for local meat. Seek out tavernas that produce their own vegetables, wine, and oil, where the fried potatoes are hand-cut and recipes are passed down through generations. Regional variations are a delight to explore – no two meals will be the same – and here are our favourite dishes to get you started:
Greece’s adored fast food, souvlaki, comes as either gyros (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie) or skewered meat versions wrapped in soft pita bread, with tomato, onion, and lashings of tzatziki. They often throw in some French fries, to give it a little extra heft. Usually, you’ll be choosing between pork or chicken, but once in a while, you might encounter lamb. If you’d like to eat it right there and then, ask for it “sto heri” – in hand.
HORIATIKI (GREEK) SALAD
Horiatiki salad is another classic and can be enjoyed as a side dish or full meal. The essential ingredients here are tomato, cucumber, onion, and feta, but more can be added according to taste. You might find it made with green peppers, olives, capers, oregano, or parsley. Regardless of what’s in it, the salad must be topped with copious amounts of extra virgin olive oil – the blessing of the Greek soil.
FISH AND SEAFOOD
What’s a trip to Greece without seafood, in all its variations and glory? Fish is often grilled whole and drizzled with ladolemono (lemon and oil dressing). Smaller fish such as barbounia (red mullet) or maridha (whitebait) are lightly fried and you can eat the whitebait or anchovies whole. Octopus is grilled, marinated, or stewed in wine sauce.
Other popular seafood dishes in Greece include soupies (cuttlefish) or calamari stuffed with cheese and herbs, and psarosoupa (fish soup) – which comes in as many variations as there are kitchens. Best of all, eat it on the shore.
Greeks are masterful with grilled and spit-roasted meats. In addition to souvlaki, enjoy païdakia (lamb cutlets) and brizoles (pork chops). From Tsiknopempti – a holiday when grilled meat is eaten before Lent – to the Easter celebrations where lamb is either grilled or spit-roasted to break the fast, and even a basic meal in a psistaria (restaurant serving grilled food), be sure to pick the skewers or chops up with your hands. No dainty silverware needed. Sides are often simple: potatoes, vegetables and dips.
Home-style, one-pot, baked or casserole dishes, mayirefta are a staple of taverna life and therefore in the pantheon of typical Greek dishes. Stroll back into the restaurant to peruse what’s on offer. Prepared early, these dishes are left to cool to enhance the flavors and a good glance will whet your appetite as you choose.
Moussaka is the king of the mayirefta dishes. It’s often sought out by tourists, but the mouth-watering layers of creamy sauce, minced meat, eggplant, and potato also bring memories of home cooking and Sunday lunches to every Greek mind.
If Moussaka is the king, then Pastitio is the Queen. Pastitio is the Greek version of lasagne with layers of pasta, a ground beef and tomato sauce, and creamy bechamel. It is a must-try!
Other well-known mayirefta include yemista (vegetables stuffed with rice and herbs), lemonato (red meat or chicken with lemon and oregano) and stifadho (sweet, stewed meat with tomato and onion). But there are endless varieties, some vegetarian or vegan; others hearty meat, often served over rice or pasta.
These small dishes are usually shared and can serve as a full meal or simply appetizers to dishes yet to come. Classics include tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber and garlic), melitzanosalata (aubergine dip), taramasalata (fish roe dip), fava (split-pea puree with lemon juice), and saganaki (fried cheese). Also watch for keftedes (meatballs), loukaniko (pork sausage), grilled gavros (white anchovies), and dolmades (rice wrapped in marinated vine leaves). Classic pairing? Ouzo!
Bakeries make endless variations of tyropita (cheese pie) and spanakopita (spinach pie), plus other pies, usually based on regional ingredients. In Crete, there is the luscious custard-filled bougatsa, as well as a seemingly endless variety of cheese pies with different herb and flavor accents, from honey to anise.
For those that eat dairy, Greece’s regions produce many different types of cheese, most using goat’s and sheep’s milk, with infinite variations in taste. Apart from feta, local cheeses include graviera (a nutty, mild Gruyere-like sheep’s-milk cheese), kasseri (similar to provolone), myzithra (ricotta-like whey cheese) and manouri (creamy soft cheese from the north). Not found elsewhere in Greece, Santorini’s chlorotyri is a soft, creamy goat’s cheese that gives a local twist to the traditional Greek salad or else turns up in dolmadhes in the island’s restaurants.
VEGETARIANS AND VEGANS
Vegetarians are well catered for in Greece since vegetables feature prominently – a legacy of lean times and the Orthodox faith’s fasting traditions. The more traditional a restaurant you go to, the more vegetable options you get, because they follow more of these fasting rules. If you come during Lent, it’s a vegan bonanza at these places.
Look for popular vegetable dishes such as fasolakia yiahni (braised green beans), bamies (okra), revythia (stewed chickpeas), briam (oven-baked vegetable casserole) and vine-leaf dolmadhes. Of the nutritious horta (wild greens), vlita (amaranth) is the sweetest, but other common varieties include wild radish, dandelion, stinging nettle and sorrel.
Do ask, though, to be sure that the vegetables have not been prepared in a meat-based broth.
NOT TO BE MISSED
The equivalent of the New York bagel, Koulouri is a round circle bread. They are eaten before going to work, on lunch break, or even after work, on the way home. While there are various versions of it, in its simplest form, a koulouri is covered with sesame seeds. And yes, a cup of frappe usually accompanies the snack.
Fried cheese or saganaki is a dish best enjoyed warm – exactly when it comes to the table – and as part of the shared mezedes (or mezes) drizzeled with a little fresh lemon juice. Saganaki means “little frying pan”, so it’s not a type of cheese. But to obtain the perfect saganaki, only a handful of cheese are used, and they include kasseri, graviera, and even Feta.
The Greek honey balls are commonly spiced with honey and cinnamon. The puffy dough is deep fried and the golden balls are served piping hot. They are a very popular dessert and one of those foods that need to make your bucket list.
Alongside baklava, Kataifi is one of the most popular Greek desserts. It contains walnuts and cinnamon wrapped in buttery kataifi dough and bathed in syrup.
Stafili Gliko (Spoon sweets)
Spoon sweets are exactly what they sound like – fruits preserved in syrup and served on a spoon as a gesture of hospiality.
Yogurt and honey
On the islands, this is your typical Greek breakfast: yogurt and local honey, together with Greek coffee, of course. But the dish also morphs into dessert, often offered on the house. And no, there is no such thing as “Greek yogurt”. The yogurt in Greece is thick, creamy, and made from a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk.
WINES AND SPIRITS
Wine has been produced in Greece since ancient times, and thanks to a new generation of winemakers, Greece is re-emerging as a high quality wine producer, asserting its place in the worldwide vinicultural stage. Almost every region boasts its local “Protected Designation of Area” varieties, but some (like Santorini, Crete, and Thessaly) are especially popular for their wines.
White varieties include moschofilero, assyrtiko, athiri, roditis, robola, and savatiano. The most popular Greek reds include xinomavro, agiorgitiko and kotsifali. House or barrel wine varies dramatically in quality and is ordered by the kilo/carafe or glass.
Greek dessert wines include excellent muscats from Samos, Limnos, and Rhodes, Santorini’s vinsanto, mavrodafni wine (often used in cooking) and
Retsina, white wine flavoured with the resin of pine trees, became popular in the 1960s and retains a largely folkloric significance with foreigners. It’s something of an acquired taste but some winemakers make a modern version. It’s popular in Thessaloniki (where the main brand, Malamatina, is made) and it goes great with salty mezedhes and seafood.
Exceptional spirits are also distilled all over the country, with ouzo being the most notable embodying a way of eating and socializing, enjoyed with mezedhes during lazy, extended summer afternoons. This strong, anise-flavored liquor is usually served chilled as an aperitif with ice or water.
Tsipouro is the grandfather of ouzo and is made only in Greece. It is a fierce clear spirit that is sometimes flavoured with anise and is consumed almost everywhere on the mainland. Tsikoudia, also known as raki, is essentially the Cretan version.
And if you make your way to Chios, look for Masticha, a delicious, sweet, and aromatic liquor produced exclusively on the island.
Hungry for more? Why not download your favourite app and you’ll learn a lot more about delectable local dishes.