A Guide to Classic and Traditional Greek Foods

Introduction to Greek Cuisine

Greek cuisine has a long history and is known for its wide range of dishes, from tender grilled meats and zesty salads, to fresh fish and syrupy pastries. As the southernmost country in Europe, mainland Greece and the islands generally experience a Mediterranean climate ideal for farming and viticulture.

seafood platter_classic and traditional greek dishes

Traditional Seafood Platter

Additionally, its position in the Aegean has provided direct access to fresh seafood for the last 10,000 years. Traditional Greek food is characterized by high quality ingredients, fresh herbs, and closely guarded family recipes. Greek gastronomy is one of the healthiest and well-rounded of the world’s classic cuisines – a foodie’s heaven.

Classic Ingredients

Core ingredients classic and traditional Greek foods include olive oil, herbs (oregano, rosemary, and thyme are the most common), tomatoes, cheese, beef, pork, lamb, fish, shrimp, and wine. Other Greek specialties include yogurt, honey, olives, cheese, sausage, baklava, and olive oil. Below are some of the fresh seafood products you can find in places like the Athens Central Market.

classic and traditional greek dishes_Garida

Fresh Shrimp

Lamb_raw_classic and traditional greek dishes

Easter Lambs

Octopus_raw_classic and traditional greek dishes

Fresh Octopus

Kabouri_classic and traditional greek dishes

Live Crabs

Meze (Appetizers and Shared Starters)

Meze is short for “mezedes” and these are essentially small shared plates similar to tapas in Spain and the meze of Cyprus. A spread of meze can be ordered as starters, or paired with wine or ouzo and eaten as a casual meal. Meze are generally a means to drink with a full stomach, and to prepare you for the rest of the meal to come. Meze are usually accompanied by bread for dipping and served on small plates. Below are a few classic meze dishes.

Spread Telendos_classic and traditional greek dishes

Classic Meze Spread

Seafood spread_telendos_classic and traditional greek dishes

Meze with a view

Melitzanosalata_classic and traditional greek dishes

Eggplant Salad Dip

fried sardines_classic and traditional greek dishes

Fried Sardines

tzatziki_classic and traditional greek dishes

Tzatziki

Octopus balls_classic and traditional greek dishes

Fried Octopus Meatballs

Keftedes_Kos_classic and traditional greek dishes

Meat Keftedes

Traditional Greek Foods

When the meze portion of the meal is finished, the main courses will roll out. Depending on where you are in Greece, traditional dishes can range from fresh-caught mullet and octopus, to roasted pork and grilled lamb chops. While the islands enjoy access to fresh seafood throughout the year, northern Greeks integrate more red meat and pork into their diet. Most good restaurants and tavernas will incorporate seasonal ingredients into their menus to ensure that customers are getting the freshest food possible.

Moussaka_classic and traditional greek dishes

Moussaka

Papoutsakia_classic and traditional greek dishes

Stuffed and Baked Eggplant

Souvlaki_classic and traditional greek dishes

Souvlaki Platter

Shrimp Saganaki_Kos_classic and traditional greek dishes

Shrimp Saganaki

Yemitsa_classic and traditional greek dishes

Stuffed Tomatoes

Zouzoukakia_classic and traditional greek dishes

Zouzoukakia Meatballs

Kalamari_classic and traditional greek dishes

Fried Kalamari

Orzo shrimp_classic and traditional greek dishes

Orzo Pasta

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Gyro, photo courtesy of TwoWanderingJews.com

Regional Specialties

Every city, town, village, and island in Greece has its own culinary specialties. Regional dishes are perhaps the best way to taste the local ingredients. Santorini, in particular, incorporates unique local products such as cherry tomatoes, fava beans, and the assyrtiko grape, into its gastronomy.

Spread_Rhodes_classic and traditional greek dishes

Typical Rhodes Island Sausage with honey (bottom right of above photo)

 Symi Shrimp_classic and traditional greek dishes

Symi Shrimp

Tomatokeftedes_santorini_classic and traditional greek dishes

Tomato Fritters in Santorini

Salad_Favada_classic and traditional greek dishes

Santorini Fava Bean Dip

Seafood salad_santorini_classic and traditional greek dishes

Squid Salad Santorini

Salad_Kamari_classic and traditional greek dishes

Mackerel and Black Eyed Peas Salad Santorini

Greek Salads

Greeks love their meat, but they also understand the value of a well-balanced meal. No traditional Greek meal is complete without a large, zesty salad. The most classic Greek salad is known as the “xoriatiki salata “or village salad. This salad usually contains tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, onions, oregano, and olive oil. Although the village salad is generally the go-to choice, Greece has endless vegetarian-friendly options.

Salad_classic and traditional greek dishes

Santorini

Salad_Symi_classic and traditional greek dishes

Symi

Salad_Santorini_classic and traditional greek dishes

Santorini

Salad_Rhodes_classic and traditional greek dishes

Rhodes

Salad_Lindos_classic and traditional greek dishes

Rhodes

Salad_Kos_classic and traditional greek dishes

Kos

Salad_couscous_santorini_classic and traditional greek dishes

Santorini

Salad_epikouros_classic and traditional greek dishes

Delphi Town

Sweets

A traditional Greek meal will end with a dessert to cleanse the palate. Many are simple, but others are labor-intensive and require a certain degree of skill, especially when working with fastidious phyllo dough. Greek bakeries each have their closely guarded secrets for preparing decadent pastries and classic Greek sweets. Desserts are usually sold by weight and beautifully packaged in cardboard takeaway boxes. Tip: if you’re invited to someone’s home for dinner and you want to make a good impression, show up with a box of fresh bakery sweets.

Baklava_kalymnos_classic and traditional greek dishes

Baklava

Koulourakia_classic and traditional greek dishes

Koulourakia Cookies

Sweets_kalymnos_classic and traditional greek dishes

Box of sweets from a Kalymnos Island bakery

frappe_classic and traditional greek dishes

Ice-cold frappe: the perfect compliment to any dessert break

Traditional Foods for Holidays and Special Occasions

The Greek Orthodox Church is a major institution in Greece, and it is estimated that over 90% of the country’s population belongs to this faith. Most Greeks will adhere to the dietary requirements of major religious feast days and Fridays during Lent that prohibit meat and cheese. Easter Sunday is the most important day in the Greek Orthodox faith. After solemn church services on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday is a festive day of eating and celebrating. Typical Greek Easter foods include tsoureki (sweet bread) and arnaki (spit-roasted lamb).

 Kokoretsi_classic and traditional greek dishes

Uncooked Easter Kokoretsi (lamb innards wrapped in intestines)

kokoretsi_classic and traditional greek dishes

Cooked Kokoretsi is delicious!

Tsoureki_classic and traditional greek dishes

Tsoureki, the perfect post-Easter breakfast

Typical Greek Food Glossary A-Z

Check out these delicious classic Greek recipes.

  • Arni: Also referred to as “arnaki,” this is the word for lamb – a staple in the Greek diet that is prepared in several ways
  • Avgolemono: Egg and lemon broth commonly used as a sauce for meats and fish, but sometimes served on its own as a soup
  • Baklava: A delicious and common dessert found throughout Greece, Turkey, and eastern Europe, tasty baked phyllo pastry stuffed with chopped nuts and syrup
  • Barbounia: Red mullet fish, typically fried whole (seasonal)
  • Biftekia: Beef hamburgers, commonly stuffed with cheese
  • Brizola: Beef steak
  • Dolmades: Stuffed grape leaves with meat and rice
  • Domatokeftedes: Tomato fritters, a specialty from Santorini
  • Fasolia: Refers to many types of bean soups, vegetarians should ask before ordering since they are oftentimes flavored with beef or chicken chunks and broth
  • Frappe: Greek “crack” aka an ice cold, super strong coffee that is available just about anywhere
  • Galaktoboureko:  A semolina-based custard dessert wrapped in phyllo dough and topped with a sweet syrup
  • Gyro: Meat roasted on a vertical spit, commonly served in a rolled up pita bread with tzatziki sauce and French fries
  • Halloumi: A Cypriot brined goat and sheep’s cheese appetizer that is almost always served pan-fried with a side of lemon wedges
  • Halva: A traditional, simple dessert made of semolina flour, water, and sugar
  • Hortosoupa: Basic vegetable and orzo pasta soup
  • Kabouri: Crab
  • Kalamari: Squid, usually served fried or grilled with a side of lemon wedges and tzatziki sauce
  • Karabida: Spiny lobster
  • Katsikaki: Refers to a young goat, which can be prepared in several ways: “sto fourno” (oven-roasted), “souvla” (spit roasted), “fricassee” (sautéed), and “stifado” (stew)
  • Keftedes: Small round beef pan-fried meatballs spiced with garlic and fresh herbs
  • Kleftiko: Slow-roasted lamb stew with garlic, lemon, and herbs, typically served with potatoes
  • Kolokithokeftedes: Zucchini fritters
  • Kotopoulo: chicken
  • Koulourakia: A sweet Easter cookie made with vanilla extract and glazed with butter, since koulourakia are so labor-intensive they say if someone makes koulourakia for you, they really must love you
  • Kourabiedes: Almond sugar cookies coated in powdered sugar, traditionally served at special occasions and during the holidays
  • Magiritsa: Lamb innard soup, a traditional Easter time dish
  • Makaroni me kima: Greek version of spaghetti Bolognese
  • Melitzanosalata: Roasted eggplant salad, usually served cold as a meze and eaten with bread
  • Moussaka: An iconic Greek comfort food, layers of eggplant, beef, and béchamel baked in the oven
  • Octopodaki: Grilled octopus tentacles, served with lemon wedges
  • Orzo: A short-cut pasta sometimes served as a side or in traditional dishes such as youvetsi stew
  • Ouzo: Anise-flavored alcoholic drink that is typically mixed with water and slowly sipped throughout a meal
  • Paidakia: Grilled lamb chops
  • Pastitsio: This is Greece’s version of baked lasagna, with layers of beef, pasta, béchamel, and a cheese
  • Patsa: Pork trip soup, said to be a good cure for hangovers
  • Psari: Refers to any type of fish, but if you want fresh fish make sure you say “fresco”
  • Saganaki: Refers to a salty cheese common throughout eastern Europe, but literally translates into “little frying pan” – the cheese is usually served pan-fried or incorporated into seafood casseroles with a rich tomato-ouzo sauce
  • Sardeles: Sardines, usually fried and served whole (seasonal)
  • Souvlaki: Skewered meats, cooked on an open grill, are also served de-skewered with pita bread and tzatziki
  • Spanakopita: Crispy baked spinach pies wrapped in phyllo dough
  • Taramosalata: A tasty pink caviar spread, usually served as a meze and eaten with bread
  • Tirokafteri: Spicy cheese spread, usually served as a meze, is also sometimes available as a condiment in sandwiches
  • Tiropita: Crispy baked cheese pies wrapped in phyllo dough
  • Tsoureki: Sweet Easter-time bread
  • Tzatziki: Often referred to as “Greek ketchup,” this is a common meze, side dish, and dipping sauce made with plain Greek yogurt, garlic, cucumber, salt, lemon juice and dill
  • Xoriatiki Salata: Translates into “village salad,” main components are tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, and olive oil, but many restaurants will add their own ingredients such as bell peppers, olives, and onions
  • Yemitsa: Traditionally refers to baked peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, or zucchinis stuffed with minced meat and rice

We have no doubt that your gastronomic adventures in Greece will leave you more than satisfied. All the images in this post, with the exception of one, were of meals we ate during our travels throughout Greece. During the summer of 2013, we visited Athens, Peloponnese, Rhodes, Kos, Kalymnos, and Santorini. As you can see, we sampled a bit of everything, and we encourage you to do the same! When in doubt, ask locals for the places they recommend. Squeeze some lemon juice on it, order a pitcher of house wine, and enjoy!

Meat platter

Καλή όρεξη! – Kali Oreksi!

What did you think about our guide to classic and traditional Greek foods? Tell us about it! Leave a comment below.

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8 thoughts on “A Guide to Classic and Traditional Greek Foods”

  1. Edward Wylie says:

    Oh my goodness! All the food look so good. I
    can’t wait to visit Greece for myself. Thank you so much.

    1. David says:

      Hi Edward,
      Yes the food is amazing! Thanks for your comment and I hope you can visit sometime in the near future. You will love it!

  2. Jack says:

    The only one of your list of Greek food that I’d strongly disagree with is hallomi – as stated it’s Cypriot and it’s very rare to find it in restaurants that are not geared to tourists. I doubt that 98% of Greeks have actually tasted it! I know I haven’t, nor have I seen it on menus in 30yrs of living here. I have only seen it once in a supermarket!

    I also suggest you try Epirus on your next trip to Greece.

  3. Jack says:

    and karavida is crayfish 😉

  4. Michelle says:

    Splendid! Looks like a great summary of the nation’s food culture, and all those photos help make it clear. Thanks!

    1. David says:

      Thanks Michelle!

  5. Arya Smith says:

    It made my mouth water when I read about the calamari. As you mentioned, it is a fried or grilled squid with a side of lemon. This has made me want to eat out tomorrow night with my husband in a Greek restaurant. Squid is one of my favorite dishes in my entire life, but I can’t explain why. I just love it, and that is why I am now craving for it.

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