Greece has been for ages a land of rich ancient history, breathtaking landscapes, and a cuisine that captivates the senses. Discovering the rich history of Greek cuisine is a fantastic culinary journey through the whole country. Greek gastronomy is a majestic blend of flavors combined through centuries of tradition and influenced by the diverse cultures that have shaped the Mediterranean.
A Culinary Heritage of the Greek Gastronomy
Nowadays, Greece is famous for 3 things: the Greek history & mythology, the Greek islands & the Greek Mediterranean gastronomy.
Mediterranean cuisine is famous for a reason.
In the late 1950s, the American physiologist Ancel Keys conducted the famous “Seven Countries Study”. It was an exhaustive study of the dietary culture of the Mediterranean. The conclusions of this project were truly surprising and coined the term “Mediterranean diet”.
Indeed, the Ancient Greeks embraced the abundance of their land, cultivating olive trees for oil, tending to vineyards for wine, and creating the Mediterranean diet that would become renowned worldwide after all.
The Mediterranean diet has its origins in a portion of land considered unique in its kind, the Mediterranean basin, which historians call “the cradle of society”, because within its geographical borders the whole history of the ancient world took place.
The principal aspects of this diet include proportionally high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, and vegetables, moderate to high consumption of fish, moderate consumption of dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt), moderate wine consumption, and low consumption of red meat products.
The importance of the Mediterranean diet in enriching human health & well-being is so substantial that in 2010, UNESCO included the Mediterranean dietary tradition in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The Greek Mediterranean cuisine is not just a set of dishes. It’s a unsurpassed cultural activity, a sacred ritual, a celebration of life.
Key Ingredients of the Greek Cuisine
The Greek pantry is a whole treasure of essential ingredients that form the backbone of their culinary creations. Olive oil, often called “liquid gold,” is a ubiquitous presence. You will see Greeks to drizzle it over the salads and use it in every type of cooking like frying, baking, sauté, etc. In certain areas, such as Crete, the biggest island of the country, owning olive trees is a matter of pride and strong family tradition.
Feta cheese, with its crumbly texture and tangy taste, adds depth to many dishes, while yogurt and honey play starring roles in both savory and sweet preparations.
Herbs and spices play a vital role in the Greek gastronomy as well. Greek cuisine relies on a medley of herbs and spices, including oregano, mint, thyme, dill, parsley, spice, cinnamon, cumin and garlic. These impart distinctive flavors to dishes.
Legumes such as giant beans, lentils, and chickpeas are very often used in Greek cuisine. They are also featured in hearty soups, stews, and salads. Nowadays, Greek modern chefs are offering twisted versions of traditional greek dishes mixing legumes with meat and fish.
All these ingredients along with fresh veggies, read meat and fish, combined with a commitment to simplicity and freshness, contribute to the distinct and tasty nature of Greek cuisine.
Iconic Greek Dishes
No journey into Greek cuisine is complete without savoring its iconic dishes. Each one boasts a diverse array of ingredients, each with its own unique flavors and characteristics. The recipes may vary from region to region. Yet, the final dish is, in most of the cases, mouth watering.
Moussakas is a layered delight of eggplant, minced meat, potatoes and béchamel sauce that showcases the country’s love for hearty flavours. The paradox with moussakas is that it is not a genuine Greek dish but rather Arab with Middle East influences. What is more, the average Greek does not cook moussakas that often, simply because it is an extremely time consuming dish with lengthy preparations and lots of ingredients.
Souvlaki, a BBQ grilled skewer of usually pork or chicken meat, and Gyros, an astonishing wrap of pita bread stuffed with sliced suculent pork meat, tzatziki, fresh tomatoes, onions and french fries offer a taste of Greek street food culture.
Pastitsio is the Greek version of Italian lasagna. It is a baked pasta dish, featuring layers of tubular pasta, ground beef, tomato sauce, and béchamel sauce. It’s a comforting and hearty dish and sort of faster than moussaka (even both dishes have the same philosophy of layers).
If moussakas is the King, Spanakopita could easily be the Queen of Greek comfort food. A super popular savoury pastry filled with spinach, feta cheese, onions, and herbs, all encased in layers of phyllo pastry and make up a great snack that can be eaten cold or warm. Spanakopita is the most sought after starter in Greek tavernas, restaurants and bakeries.
Dolmadakia or simply dolmades are basically grape leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice, pine nuts, herbs, and sometimes ground meat. They are typically served as appetizers or part of a meze platter. In some parts of Greece, you will try them with rice and herbs only (called gialantzi or “fake” due to the absence of meat).
Seafood dishes like shrimp saganaki (a tasty dish where shrimps are cooked in a rich tomato-based sauce with garlic, mustard, herbs and kefalotyri, a hard salty cheese or feta cheese), deep fried calamari with lemon, grilled octopus served with olive oil and usually dumped into a glass of ouzo or tsipouro (one little piece) are also popular and not hard to be found in most parts of Central Greece.
Starters like zucchini friters (or kolokythokeftedes in Greek), fava beans spread, tzatziki, spicy cheese dip (or tyrokafteri in Greek), french fries with fried meatballs and grilled sausage are all typical dishes not to be missed when ordering at a Greek traditional taverna.
While venturing into different regions of Greece, you will discover a spectrum of flavours and culinary styles. The Greek islands boast a bounty of seafood, with dishes like grilled octopus, seafood stews and tons of fresh fish cooked in several ways like deep fried red mullet, grilled sea brim, sea bass, or red snapper, fried anchovies, etc. The coastal towns of Volos and Chalkida are the most popular destinations for Greeks who want to enjoy an ouzeri by the seaside (a type of Greek local taverna which serves ouzo and seafood meze -small finger foods).
In the mountainous region of the province of Epirus (West Greece), hearty meat-based stews and pies take center stage like. Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, boasts a unique and diverse cuisine that reflects its rich history, unique geographical features, and a dedication to using fresh, locally sourced ingredients, as well as herbs and spices.
Dining Culture of Greek people
Greek dining is not just about the food; it’s an experience. Meals are a communal affair, a time for family and friends to come together. Mezedes, small finger food -usually appetizers- similar to what Spanish call tapas, are put in the middle of the table and shared before the main course, creating a fun relaxed atmosphere. The Greeks take their time, relishing each bite, and savoring the moment.
The main course of the day is lunch and it is usually served between 13:00 and 16:00 depending on what time people get back from work. You will hardly see Greeks having a typical breakfast at home. They rather flock outside bakeries and pastry shops to grab a a koulouri (a circular bread, typically encrusted with sesame seeds), cheese pie (tyropita), spinach pie (spanakopita) or bougatsa stuffed with milk custard or cheese (a very typical quick snack in North Greece).
Dinner in Greece varies heavily and depends on the workload, the location and the dynamics of the family or the group of friends. When at home, most Greeks will not cook again but rather have either leftovers from the lunch, or some light snacks like yogurt with honey or rusks with tomatoes and olive oil. However, it is very common to see full tavernas and restaurants with Greeks who decide to eat out after 21:00 in the evening on a Wednesday night in the center of the town.
Traditional Greek Desserts
Greek desserts are a sweet conclusion to a rich and flavorful meal, often featuring a combination of honey, nuts, phyllo pastry and dairy products. At the end of the day, no Greek meal is complete without a sweet touch. Here are some delightful Greek desserts that showcase the country’s sweet culinary traditions:
Baklava, (even if it is not originally from Greece but stems its origin from Middle East and Turkey) with its layers of phyllo pastry, nuts, and honey syrup, is a dessert fit for the Gods.
Loukoumades (or the Greek donuts), deep fried golden and crispy dough balls drenched in honey and topped with walnuts or Nutella, provide a delightful end to any feast.
Galaktoboureko, a divine milk custard-filled pastry topped with sugar syrup, simply showcases the Greeks’ mastery of phyllo dough. The custard is typically made from semolina, milk, eggs, and sugar. After baking, the dessert is soaked in a sweet syrup, creating a luscious and sweet experience.
The festive delights of melomakarona (=honey-dipped cookies made with a mixture of flour, olive oil, and semolina, flavored with cinnamon and spice and topped with chopped walnut) and kourabiedes (=shortbread like cookie, perfectly sweet and satisfying, filled with almonds and topped with fine sugar) make up for an eternal battle and let the Greeks fighting which is the best every Christmas. These two seasonal desserts have also most foreigners asking why they are not made all year round!
Greek Beverages & Drinks
To complement the array of flavors, Greece offers a selection of distinctive beverages and drinks. Greek beverages are diverse and often reflect the country’s cultural and regional influences.
Starting with the basics, Greek wines, produced from indigenous grape varieties, are celebrated for their quality and diversity. Greece has a long history of winemaking, and its wines are gaining international recognition. Notable Greek grape varieties include Assyrtiko (white), Agiorgitiko (red), and Xinomavro (red). Each region has its own unique terroir, contributing to diverse wine profiles. Evia, our birthplace, takes extreme pride for Mavrokountoura (red) & Savatiano (white) varieties that grow locally and give some distinct blends.
Ouzo, an anise-flavored spirit, is a popular aperitif. This famous spirit turns cloudy when mixed with water or ice and is often enjoyed alongside mezedes (appetizers). It has a distinct licorice flavor and is a traditional Greek drink that fits great with seafood and fresh fish. Be aware that the hangover that ouzo gives can be at least off-putting.
Tsipouro or Raki or Tsikoudia (the latter is the local name of the spirit in Crete) is a quite strong double or tripple distilled spirit made from the grapes and stems that have been left over from winemaking. Tsipouro is similar to Italian grappa and is often enjoyed with seafood. It can be plain or flavored with anise. The coastal town of Volos is perhaps the most famous location to enjoy abundant tsipouro along with creative mezedes.
One more thing that makes Greeks famous for the high consumption is coffee. The three most popular types of coffee that are served are: the traditional Greek coffee (you might also ask it as Turkish coffee), a strong and finely ground coffee, often served in small cups that is prepared by boiling coffee grounds with sugar (optional) and water. The grounds settle at the bottom of the cup, creating a rich and robust brew that is not edible though. Second is the Freddo Espresso or Freddo Cappuccino, an extremely popular and refreshing coffee beverage for Greeks, especially during the hot summer months which is a variation of traditional espresso that is served over ice, creating a cool and invigorating drink. Finally, the Greek frappe which is basically made with instant coffee, sugar, and water, it is shaken or blended with ice to create a frothy and refreshing drink and often enjoyed during summer.
Another worth checking Greek spirit is Mastiha liqueur. It is a very distinct liqueur made from mastiha, a resin obtained from the mastic tree that only grows mysteriously at the southern part of Chios island in the Northeast Aegean Sea. The liqueur has a unique and slightly sweet flavor and is often enjoyed as a digestive.
Finally, mountain tea is a very popular herbal tea made from the dried flowers of the Sideritis plant, which grows in the mountainous regions of Greece. It is known for its mild flavor and is often consumed for its purported health benefits.
Greek cuisine is more than just food; it’s a celebration of life, it is live history, and it is a rich culture on a plate. Whether you’re indulging in the simplicity of a Greek salad or the complexity of a slow-cooked stew, each bite has a story to tell.
So, embark on a gastronomic odyssey through the flavors of Greece, where every meal is a new culinary journey, and every dish a chapter in a tale that spans millennia.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Stay in Greece
Experiencing a culture’s food is just one of the many fun perks of vacation mode. With all of the above options, you can make sure to get your fill of delicious Greek food and learn something new along the way.
When looking for food tours, priority should be given to those that incorporate local production processes. This ensures that you’ll get an authentic experience and a chance to connect with locals who bring their unique flavor to the experience.
It’s also important to be mindful of what you eat and drink. Pairing wines with dishes, sampling fresh produce from markets, and learning about traditional recipes will give you a greater appreciation for the area and its culture.
In addition to food tours, which traditionally involve visiting various eateries and sampling dishes, there are other unique options that you can try related to Greek Food. These include:
- Tour Local Farms and Food Processors: Get first-hand insight into local food production techniques. Learning about these processes can be an interesting way to appreciate the area’s delicious cuisine even more.
- Visit Local Markets: Visiting a market gives you insight into what locals eat and the array of fresh ingredients they use in their dishes. It’s also a great chance to practice your bartering (or watch your guide barter for you).
- Cooking classes: Offer a great opportunity to learn how to cook traditional Greek dishes from scratch, using family recipes passed down through generations.
- Wine tasting & food pairing: Greece is also renowned for its wine production. You’ll get to sample some of the best local wines and learn how they are made. Plus, you can pair some amazing food with it.
The ultimate goal here is simple. Get an authentic taste of local life (literally and figuratively).
Greek Cuisine is Great for Everyone
Greek cuisine is great for foodies, solo travelers, couples, and families alike. Food tours, local products sampling, wine and olive oil tasting and cooking classes provide an excellent opportunity to explore, learn about the culture and cuisine, meet locals, and indulge in delicious food.
So go out there and enjoy!
Book a Private Food Tour and Try Something New
No matter what season or type of experience you’re looking for, there’s a perfect food related activity in Greece waiting to be discovered. With the tips we’ve provided, you’ll have all the information needed to choose and book your unique tour easily. All you’ll have to do is show up and enjoy all Greece has to offer.
If you still have any questions about how to get the most out of your trip, we are here for you 24/7. Just send a message or text us at +306943264350 (WhatsApp, Viber, Signal, iMessage), and we’ll be happy to assist and make we answer all your questions.