It is no secret that Greek food is tasty. What visitors often miss, however, is the abundance of small things that define Greek food. Read on to learn more about the dishes and ingredients I consider to be the most important!
Greek salad – the epitome of Greek food
I strongly believe that nothing can compare with a Greek salad, preferably enjoyed by the sea. This could be our most popular dish, and millions of visitors can’t be wrong.
The best thing? A Greek salad is very simple to make, if you’ve got the right ingredients. Heres’ what goes into a real Greek salad:
- green bell peppers
- feta cheese (see the definition of feta cheese below)
- extra virgin olive oil
- salt to taste.
Occasionally, it may contain capers and, in some areas of Greece, lettuce. Some people add vinegar too, but I think tomatoes and vinegar don’t go that well together.
Typically, the salad is served with lots of fresh bread to soak up the olive oil. The latter might not be considered entirely good manners in your country. But hey, you are on holiday! Most visitors like to accompany their salad with a glass of ouzo, raki or a cold beer.
Note – I have seen many versions of a “Greek salad” in other countries. I’ve seen ingredients such as avocado, corn, carrots, anchovies, boiled eggs, yellow cheese, ham, black pepper, and even chef’s island dressing! Well… no.
In recent years, more gourmet versions of the Greek salad have appeared in several restaurants in Greece. Herbs like parsley, basil, dill or mint and other ingredients like rusks, yellow tomatoes or pickled peppers are added. While I can’t argue with top chefs in Greece, I much prefer the real Greek version myself.
Souvlaki and gyros – Not just “a kebab”
Your Greek food experience will not be complete unless you try a souvlaki at least once! This is our most popular street food, and it’s great for people on a budget.
Many people describe souvlaki and gyros as “a Greek kebab”. Though it’s a clever way to describe them, it’s not exactly accurate.
A souvlaki consists of small pieces of grilled meat on a stick. You will usually find pork or chicken, and less often lamb or beef.
Gyros, on the other hand, is meat (mostly pork, chicken or lamb) grilled on a big spinning vertical rotisserie. As soon as the outer layer is cooked, pieces are then shaved off.
Both souvlaki and gyros can either be eaten on a plate, or wrapped in a pita bread. They are typically accompanied with fries, tomatoes, lettuce, onion and tzatziki. This is a thick sauce made out of yogurt, cucumber and garlic.
In some places, you can also get vegetarian versions of the above, where the meat is replaced with mushrooms or cheese. When those are not available, you can always have a vegetarian version without the meat.
Bakery snacks – a lot more than bread
Traditionally, bread is one of our staple foods. It is often combined with cheese, tahini or honey to create a quick snack. We also use it to soak up the delicious sauces, like other cultures use rice.
One of my favourite childhood memories, was getting a fresh loaf of bread from the bakery. At that time, there was probably only one type of bread – white, fluffy and very chewy. It was very difficult to resist having the crusty end of the bread before even getting home!
These days, bakeries in Greece offer a huge variety of breads, snacks and cookies. Here are some names you might come across:
- Tiropita – cheese pie, made with many different types of pastry, cheese and eggs
- Spanakopita – spinach pie, usually containing eggs and cheese, but vegan versions are often available
- Voutimata and koulourakia – various types of cookies with different flavours such as chocolate, cinammon, orange etc.
- Kritsinia – crispy bread sticks of various types
- You can also find all sorts of cakes and many other yummy snacks. I just hope you are not sensitive to gluten!
My favourite bakery snack is the koulouri, a round, bread-like snack covered in sesame seeds. The koulouri is really popular and you can also get it on the street. A plain koulouri costs between 30 and 60 cents.
You can probably find the best Greek koulouri in Thessaloniki. In Athens, the most famous place to get a koulouri is “To koulouri tou Psirri” on Karaiskaki 23, close to Monastiraki metro. Tip – they are open 24/7!
I also like Koulourades, a franchise in several areas in Athens. These guys add more sweet and savoury ingredients in their freshly-made koulouri, like Philadelphia cheese. Opening times vary, but they tend to close around 15.00, when they sell out. Don’t get discouraged by the queues!
Real Greek yogurt – Not your usual yogurt
One of the most famous types of Greek food, is Greek yogurt. You might have even tried it in your own country. “I really like Greek yogurt”, I hear you say, and I can’t agree more! But we probably have a slightly different thing in mind.
Real Greek yogurt is made of either cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk and it has a thick creamy layer on top. Its fat content is roughly between 4 and 6,5%, it has no added sugar and it’s actually a little sour in taste.
Real Greek yogurt comes in either a plastic pot, or a claypot. You can get it at most supermarkets and food markets.
If you are in Athens, I recommend Stani, near Omonoia metro, where you can have your yogurt with honey and walnuts.
Greek cheeses – A lot more than feta
Think about Greek cheeses and chances are, one name will come to your mind: feta! Indeed, feta is a world-famous Greek cheese, though few people know in which circumstances a white cheese can be called feta.
In order for a cheese to be legally called feta in the EU, it must be made from sheep’s milk, or from a mixture of sheep’s and up to 30% of goat’s milk, coming from the same area in Greece.
Since feta has a unique texture, it can not be replaced when used for cooking. I’ve tried to cook with a so-called “feta” I’ve found in different continents – and failed miserably!
Apart from our national cheese, however, there are hundreds more types of white and yellow cheese in Greece. They are made from goat, sheep and cow milk, or their combinations.
Greek cheeses are nowhere near as famous as their French, Italian and Dutch counterparts. In our (biased) opinion though, they are equally tasty.
Cheeses like kaseri, graviera Kritis, katiki, kefalograviera, ksinomizithra and metsovone must simply be savoured!
The best place to taste Greek cheeses is any food market that offers cheeses, or any large supermarket where you can get cheeses over the counter.
If you are in Athens, you can also try the shops around the food market on Athinas street. In many areas of Greece, there are also specialised cheese shops where you can taste the local varieties.
Meat dishes – Strictly for meat lovers
If you are a meat lover, you are in the right country. Apart from souvlaki and gyros, which most visitors seem to adore, there are plenty of other meat-based dishes.
Generally speaking, meat is grilled, stewed or cooked in the oven. A few Greek meat dishes worth looking out for are
- stifado, a slow cooked stew with lots of onions
- kokkinisto, meat cooked in tomato sauce
- lemonato, meat cooked in lemon sauce
- soutzoukakia, meat patties with an aromatic red sauce.
If you are feeling adventurous, there is a lot more. Dishes with obscure names like kokoretsi and gardoumpa might not be an everyday snack, but meat lovers should definitely go for them. They are made out of the inside parts of lamb or other animals, and you will either love them or hate them. A soup made out of similarly obscure ingredients, named magiritsa, is traditionally served after midnight on Good Saturday.
You might also want to try patsas, a thick soup containing animal parts that are probably banned in several European countries. This working-class dish has been described as a cure for a hangover, and is definitely not light on the stomach.
Fish and seafood – Not only in summer
Even if fish and seafood are not part of your diet, chances are you will come across restaurants serving mostly fish and seafood dishes. I totally suggest that you try them out!
In general, the smaller the fish, the lower the price, and small fishes like grilled sardines or gavros are extremely popular.
Don’t hesitate to be a little adventurous and try seafood-based dishes, such as grilled octopus, garides saganaki (shrimps cooked in red sauce and feta) and fried kalamarakia.
Greece is definitely not a tropical country, but it is one of Europe’s most southern countries. As a result, most fruits and vegetables in Greece are really tasty! They are also a lot cheaper than in many other European countries.
Fruits like cherries, apricots, peaches, watermelons, grapes and oranges are a staple in a Greek diet. Apart from fruit, we enjoy many fresh vegetables, like tomatoes and cucumbers.
To get fresh fruit and veg while in Greece, I suggest avoiding supermarkets and shopping at street markets instead. If you are in Athens, visit the big Varvakios food market on Athinas street. Check out the bakeries as well – my favourite is on Athinas 39.
Vegetarians will be happy to know that there are plenty of Greek dishes based on zucchinis, aubergines, carrots, peppers, spinach, leeks, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and all sorts of beans. This might be the reason why vegetarian restaurants are still scarce around the country.
So, if you are a vegetarian, your best bet is to go to a local taverna and ask for the vegetarian dishes of the day. You will be surprised with the variety!
I’ll be very happy to answer any questions you have about Greek food! Just leave your comment below!
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