A journey through the centuries
Greek cuisine is famous worldwide, due to its variety and amazing tastes. Restaurants and tavernas in Greece cater all flavors, while a vast variety of fusion cuisine is available everywhere.Greek cuisine is famous worldwide, due to its variety and amazing tastes. Restaurants and tavernas in Greece cater all flavors, while a vast variety of fusion cuisine is available everywhere.
Greek cuisine is characterized as the Mediterranean, while it also has some common features with the traditional Italian, Balkan, Turkish and Levantine kitchens (Middle East).
Greek food and gastronomy is part of Greek history and culture. Shipping, travel, wars, colonies, conquerors, campaigns brought the Greeks into contact with new cultures, new materials and techniques and influenced eating habits. In ancient times, along with trade, spices, sugar, new vegetables cause the Greeks to experiment with new recipes, new ways of cooking and more processed foods. Their diet was complemented by hunting, especially hares (eg hare with coriander and oil sauce).
History of Greek Cuisine
There is little doubt that the cuisine of Greece has been influenced by the East. This is because of its geographical position where it finds itself neatly positioned between East and West. Greece is therefore as much an Eastern country as it is a Western one. Its cuisine, though, tends to be almost entirely Eastern. Together with the Middle East, it shares a culinary tradition based on lamb as the staple meat and olive oil as the basic fat. Other similarities which are also basic to Greek cuisine are rice, figs, yogurt, meat kebabs, dishes of ground or minced meat mixed with spices, rice and herbs; and often stuffed into vegetables or wrapped in leaves.
Olives, grapes and the wine have been used 3000 years ago. An important parameter in the formation of gastronomy is the soil morphology, varied but barren in many areas of Greek land. Livestock farming is also important with pigs, sheep, goats and fewer cattle.
The oldest known plant in antiquity was the coriander. Ancient Greeks have used the mustard, the fennel, the cumin from seeds found in the excavations and in places that witnessed culinary activities. Well known and common was the sesame, the poppy, wild saffron, ancestor of today’s cultivated saffron.
Tuna was the first choice fish as it was always plentiful in the Greek seas. Other popular fish were the marsupials, the bass, the anchovies, sardines, squid, cuttlefish, and shrimp.
Byzantine cuisine was similar to the ancient Greek cuisine and is the natural physics of it, but with new ingredients that were not available in the past, such as caviar, nutmeg, basil, and lemons, while the fish continues to be an integral part of the diet. Byzantine cuisine benefited from Istanbul’s key geographic location, which was a global center of the spice trade.
Popular was the aromatized wine with anise, mastic or Retsina wine ancestors of today’s liqueurs. Muscat is cultivated from antiquity to the present days, and even on the same islands of Chios, Lesbos, Limnos and Samos. Their wines have been popular since then in Greece.
Innovations come in Byzantine times. Byzantine cuisine was similar to the ancient Greek cuisine, but with new ingredients that were not available in the past, such as caviar, nutmeg, basil and lemon, while the fish continues to be an integral part of the diet. Byzantine cuisine benefited from Istanbul’s key geographic location, which was a global center of the spice trade. The eggplant and the sunflower were the new ingredients too, and it is considered innovative to make vinegar with vine leaves.
In the Aegean as well as in the continental Greece experiments began in dairy products and so began the production of cheese and feta cheese.
In Byzantium, at the same time, the import of sugar begins. So they start to make sweets and liqueurs such as puddings, rice with honey, spoon sweets, fruit jam (quince or pear).
In Plato’s Republic, frugal Socrates proposes an ideal diet that would serve very well for your midday holiday meal: bread, olives, cheese, vegetables, and fruit. Epicurus, who held that the highest good is a pleasure, but not necessarily self-indulgence, declared: “Simple dishes are as satisfying as sumptuous banquets.”
Archestrate, the first gastronomy critic (4th century BC), traveled from his native Gela in Sicily throughout the Mediterranean world and composed an epic poem on his findings, named Hedypathia (Voluptuousness). Among the few fragments of his work that survive are descriptions of dog’s or sow’s belly cooked in olive oil and powdered with cumin, eel in Chinese cabbage, and an enthusiastic endorsement of Rhodes sturgeon.
For a short time, it became the fashion to disguise the food and have the guests guess what they were eating. At one banquet, they argued about whether they had eaten chicken, fish or veal; and it turned out to be vegetable marrow. Some of the more respectable ancient Greek legacies to world cuisine are fried scampi, turbot with herbs, blood sausage (black pudding), thrush in honey and grilled frogs’ legs.
So Roman cuisine was indeed essentially Greek. That is what Constantine and his court brought with them when the Eastern Empire was established in Byzantium. What the Venetians brought in also came from the Greco-Roman tradition. And, the Greeks argue, the Turks took over the Byzantine tradition – richer and sweeter perhaps, but still fundamentally Greek.”
Classical Greek cooking had much in common with French nouvelle cuisine: finesse, simplicity, authentic flavors, meats roasted and grilled rather than stewed in rich sauces, using just herbs and a very few basic ingredients.
Modern Greek cooking has a wide use of vegetables, olive oil, cereals, fish, wine and meat (white & red). Also, other important products are olives, tomatoes, cheese, aubergines, zucchini, onion, garlic and yogurt.
Typical herbs were basil, oregano, mint and thyme that pleasantly flavor the dishes as well as lemon and the olive oil that was found everywhere.
Another important parameter of Greek cuisine is the so-called Mezedes that is a collective name for a variety of small meals, usually served with wine, ouzo or tsipouro in taverns but also served to a visitor who may have someone at his home.
Some of the most known Greek dishes are:
- Dolmades, stuffed vine leaves,
- Moussaka, eggplants with minced meat, cinnamon olive oil and wine,
- Souvlaki, spit roasted meat in pita bread with tomato and tzatziki,
- Horiatiki, the famous Greek Salad, and
- Fresh fish or seafood in all possible variations and mixtures with herbs and spices.
The traditional drinks of Greece are:
- ouzo, a fiery spirit made of distilled grapes and anise,
- retsina, a variation of wine with pine resin
- raki, the sharp drink of Crete
- tsipouro, similar to raki but with a strong flavor of anice. Tsipouro is produced in Northern Greece.
- Greece is a much known wine producing country, featuring some of the best European wines, both red and white.
Pronunication of Common Foods
Approximate pronunciations of common foodstuffs used in Greek Cooking…
Aubergine – Melitzana
Beef – Vodino Xreas (Beefsteak – Brizola / Bifteki)
Bread – Psomi
Cheese – Tiri
Chicken – Xotopoulo
Cucumber – Aggouri
Egg – Avgo
Eggplant – (see Aubergine)
Fish – Psari
Ham – Xoiromeri
Lamb – Arnaki / Xreas Arnisio / Xoirodo
Lettuce – Marouli
Octopus – Xtapodi
Pork – Xoirino
Potato – Patata
Sardine – Sarthela
Shrimp – Yiaritha
Spinach – Spanaki
Squid – Soupia
Tomato – Tomata
Tuna – Tonos
Notes on the Greek alphabet : Beta should sound more like an English V, Delta is sounded on, rather than behind the teeth more akin to English TH (which in both instances have been substituted in pronunciations above), X has a sound similar to an English K.
Types of Eateries in Greece
Place to Dine Out in Greece
As Greeks firmly believe that it is essential to eat whilst drinking visitors will find that even the most modest out of the way establishments that serve alcohol will also have some form of food on offer. This may be limited to just a few small Meze dishes of olives, bread, cheese, and the likes but almost nowhere in inhabited Greece will you find yourself far from somewhere that can provide at least some form of nourishment. From the basic village kafenio through to upmarket city center cosmopolitan restaurants visitors will be able to eat, no matter which location they may find themselves in.
KAFENIO – Anyone who has visited Greece or its islands will know what is meant by the word ‘Kafenio.’ Often forming the social heart of a small village its typical image is one of spartan decor, simply furnished with old chairs and mismatched tables, heavy with cigarette smoke and exclusively male occupied. With chat, backgammon, cards, and the ubiquitous Greek coffee in abundance, it may not be the first place a tourist thinks of to find food. Some might feel intimidated by the impression of it being the meeting place for the village elders, their lively discussion over a political article in the local newspaper and the thought of them as places exclusively serving coffee. They are, however, places where the welcome will generally be a courteous one to tourists, especially those who try out a little local language, where nowadays beer, ouzo, and other spirits may be found and frequently with a small area where food can be prepared. There will rarely be a menu as such (and even if one does exist, far less likely to be in any language other than Greek) and those wanting food will be best served by just asking for Meze, unless their language skills extend to discussing the various dishes that the proprietor can (or is willing) to prepare. Upmarket they most certainly are not but they are authentic, often relatively cheap and provide a great window on the world walking by.
OUZERIA – Ouzeria, as the name would suggest, are establishments where traditionally the main refreshment on offer was Ouzo. This would come with various small Meze dishes such as feta cheese, horta, olives, and bread. In the twenty-first century, however, many of these now offer a far more comprehensive range of drinks and food. A menu may be anything from a chalkboard to printed copies at each table and it is far more common nowadays, especially in or close to tourist areas, to find Ouzeria providing both the traditional Meze appetizers and full main meals. Those looking to eat out at lunch or in the evening may well find the local Ouzeria satisfies all their needs.
TAVERNA – The local Taverna is the traditional place to dine out for most Greek families wanting decent, nourishing and appetizing food and although some may not be particularly modern or appealing from the outside the food is invariably well prepared using fresh ingredients to create good meals at reasonable prices. Menus may not always be available at the table, often on a board on the wall, and some staff may just tell you what is on offer on any given day. As the preparation of many dishes in Greece varies from one cook to another it isn’t uncommon to be invited to peer over the day’s various offerings as they are being prepared in the kitchen. Tavernas very often stay open until late and many are at their busiest from 10.30pm onwards. They will generally offer a range of cold salads, hot meat, fish and vegetable dishes that may be eaten on their own or combined in smaller portions to create a filling meal of Meze plates. Accompanied by a carafe of local wine and ouzo or raki to finish they more than adequately fulfill their role to provide a relaxing ambiance where one can enjoy a varied and substantial meal without breaking the bank.
ESTIATORIO – Literally translated as ‘Restaurant’ and covering a multitude of establishments from the downright poor quality through to some of the finest food to be found in the country. In popular tourist areas, many restaurants will often employ a ‘Kamaki’ on the street in front to draw people in. Literally meaning to harpoon or spear, the job of these well-dressed front of house staff is to encourage prospective customers to enter and dine and their patter will extol the superlative quality of the food inside, good prices and best service etc. In areas where competition is fierce their approach can be almost intimidating and if you are unsure then always ask to see a menu before allowing them to seat you at a table. Estiatorio (Restaurants) may serve a variety of dishes alongside a comprehensive wine and drinks list. Some may specialize in Greek food, some may model themselves on Pizzerias / Spaghetterias, some may pride themselves on their seafood or steaks and many attempts to offer all things to all people. Prices and quality will vary wildly and the best option is to ask around and form your own opinions by visiting some of those that sound most promising to you, your palette and budget.
TAKE-AWAYS, SANDWICH SHOPS etc – Greece, as with anywhere in Europe, has not escaped the explosion of ‘fast food joints’ although they are by their very nature predominantly confined to towns and tourist resorts. Many offer a range of fast-food from early until late and typically you may find croissants, cheese pies and pastries available in the morning and everything from pizza slices, sandwiches, burgers, crepes and cakes throughout the day. The quality is probably no better and no worse than any other similar small business throughout the EU and in all fairness better value, more appetizing and nourishing than the large multinational burger joint chains.
Seasonal Foods and Feasts
Seasonal Food – Traditional Meals and Dishes for Festivities, Celebrations and given Times of Year – Various times of the year will see the same dishes being served up in households across the whole of the country. The most noted of these are related to the church calendar although some are related simply to the availability, or abundance, of certain foodstuffs at a given time of the year.
NEW YEAR – The year opens on the 1st January with the Feast of Agios Vasilios. New Year is an important time in the Greek calendar and, after the traditional Greek church ceremony, gifts are exchanged and families and friends enjoy a convivial meal and social get together. The highlight of the meal is the Vasilopitta (Vasilios Pie or New Year’s Pie) made with flour, milk, sugar, lemon, butter and assorted nuts which are served up sliced. Much as with an English Christmas pudding a coin is hidden in the pie and the recipient of the slice containing it is deemed to be blessed with good luck for the forthcoming twelve months.
APOKRIES – This is the three weeks of celebrations or Carnival preceding Lent and is punctuated by parties, family feasts and general merriment before the increasingly austere 40 days that make up Lent. Whilst there is no particular set meal or type of food served up during Apokries the food is generally rich and indulgent with plenty of rich food, sweets and cakes accompanying the party. Visitors will see signs up around Greek towns and villages during this period for parties, often depicting people in masks, and fancy dress is the norm at such events.
CLEAN MONDAY – This is the Monday preceding Ash Wednesday or the start of Lent and will float around the calendar as with the whole of pre-Easter markers. It is punctuated by (weather permitting) open-air barbecues and picnics across the whole of Greece and at the time the skies are traditionally filled with kites being flown by old and young alike.
LENT – As Easter nears the dietary constraints for the more devout adherents to the Orthodox faith become increasingly strict and by the week preceding the Easter weekend, many foodstuffs are forsaken altogether. Meat, wine, and even oil become an off-limits giving way to simple, austere food based on pasta, bread, vegetables and other basic foods.
EASTER WEEKEND – Following midnight mass on Easter Saturday families traditionally head home for a bowl of offal soup marking the end of the preceding dietary restrictions. The offal comes from the lamb that on a spit roast will form the central part of the family meals that occur the following day on Easter Sunday. Large gatherings are punctuated by music, dance, food, and drink during the afternoon and into the night as the smell of spit-roast lamb lingers on the air. Easter Sunday is arguably the most important meal in the Greek calendar
MAYDAY – The 1st of May marks another public holiday in Greece, with families heading into the countryside to enjoy open-air picnics. Flowers are gathered and turned into wreaths or bouquets which are kept and then burnt on the 24th June, the Feast of St John the Baptist.
ASSUMPTION DAY – The 15th August witnesses a mass movement of people in Greece to celebrate the Assumption with family gatherings centered around a reunion meal
GENESIS TIS PANAGIAS – The Virgin’s Birthday is celebrated on the 8th September with religious ceremony and the family feast.
OXI DAY – 28th October. Translated as ‘No!’ Day this marks the refusal by Metaxas to allow passage through Greece to Mussolini’s troops in the Second World War. It is marked with services of remembrance, military, and civil ceremonies and naturally, feasting.
CHRISTMAS DAY – Although Easter is by far more important in the Orthodox calendar, Greeks do celebrate Christmas Day with church services and family gatherings
Common Herbs and Seasonings
Herbs and Seasonings – Although Greek food may not employ the diverse range of spices that can be found in Indian and Far Eastern cooking, the herbs and seasonings that are used in most of the dishes are relatively common and easy to get hold of both in Greece and most countries abroad too. Some widely available and popular herbs used in the cooking of Greece include Oregano (essential for any Greek Salad), Rosemary and Pepper