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.
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.
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.
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.
Classic Meze Spread
Meze with a view
Eggplant Salad Dip
Fried Octopus Meatballs
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.
Stuffed and Baked Eggplant
Gyro, photo courtesy of TwoWanderingJews.com
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.
Typical Rhodes Island Sausage with honey (bottom right of above photo)
Tomato Fritters in Santorini
Santorini Fava Bean Dip
Squid Salad Santorini
Mackerel and Black Eyed Peas Salad Santorini
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.
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.
Box of sweets from a Kalymnos Island bakery
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).
Uncooked Easter Kokoretsi (lamb innards wrapped in intestines)
Cooked Kokoretsi is delicious!
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!
Καλή όρεξη! – Kali Oreksi!
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