Travelers to Greece are usually unabashed in their intentions. Yes, they will marvel at the Acropolis in Athens, ruminate on Atlantis during Santorini sunsets, shop and party on Mykonos, and wander Crete. Above all, however, they will eat. The luscious Greek cuisine is an attraction, an island, in and of itself. Every meal, every morsel is a “can’t miss” destination. Eating in Greece takes on the unique dimension of a solemn decadence that nourishes body and soul.
Greek cuisine is simple in its ingredients, yet exquisitely refined to the taste buds. There are certain staples typical of a Greek meal, but regional flairs and distinct dishes permeate the culinary landscape of Greece’s mainland and islands. Visitors to Greece will leave with both an appreciation for the variety within the cuisine and grounding in the essence of it.
What first comes to mind when thinking of Greek food? Is it fresh vegetables and herbs deliciously and delicately bathed in olive oil? Perhaps it is the golden flaked pastries, sweet with sesame and honey or savory with spinach and cheese? Why not think of seafood straight from the Mediterranean or figs right off the tree? Travelers to Greece can revel in these treats and so much more, washing it all down with Greek coffee, wine, or ouzo.
It all starts with the olive oil. They have been producing it there since ancient times. Olive oil is the lifeblood of a Greek and central to the Mediterranean diet, widely regarded as the healthiest in the world. The island of Crete teems with 30 million olive trees that render oil with a protected mark of origin. The Cretan Olive Museum displays production machines from the 1800’s and beckons travelers who get olive oil in their blood.
Salad lovers will delight at the rustic elegance of fresh tomato, cucumber, onion, olives, and feta cheese dressed in olive oil. This is the traditional Greek salad. Horta, steamed or blanched greens with lemon juice and olive oil, is a popular Lenten meal often eaten by Greeks with potatoes. Then, of course, there is fasolada. This bean soup is often referred to as the national dish of Greece and features an extravagant use of olive oil.
Phyllo pastry is also synonymous with Greek cuisine. Many are already familiar with spanakopita, a spinach and feta cheese pie with scallions and eggs. Greeks will usually eat it or tiropita in the mid-morning as the first meal of the day. Tiropita is another pie made with feta, egg, butter, and yogurt.
Baklava, however, is what most people think of when phyllo pastries come to mind. The layered dessert of chopped nuts and honey is certainly a Greek favorite; but is it a Greek original? Evidence suggests the Ottomans first developed baklava. Resist the temptation to take up the debate though. Choose another mouthful of the Greek variety instead.
Seafood is not a Greek original either; but there is no better place on earth for it. Try grilled octopus in vinegar, oil, and oregano with a glass of ouzo or astakomacaronada, lobster with spaghetti. Meat eaters should opt for lamb. Kleftiko is lamb marinated in lemon and garlic, slow-baked on the bone. Authentic gyros are a familiar, yet succulent treat for the less adventurous. It is still a popular fast food in Greece.
Meals in Greece, however, are best lingered over. Have lunch at a mezedopolio for a steady stream of appetizers or mezes. Each region has its own distinct meze servings. Sip a glass of ouzo, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy lively conversation. Good food, like good vacations, cannot be rushed.