Greek cuisine? Isn’t that souvlaki, moussaka and Greek salad? Well, if you stay in one of the resorts catering mainly to foreign tourists, you may end up believing that this is more or less what the Greek kitchen about.
The real Greek cuisine is among the richest, tastiest and healthiest in the world. Stay away from the typical tourist tavernas and try places where you can try some genuine, home-cooked Greek dishes. You will be amazed how simple fresh ingredients (lots of seasonal fruit and vegetables, virgin olive oil, cereals, herbs, honey and measured amounts of dairy products, meat and fish) are combined and transformed into true feasts, accompanied by some of the best wines.
I am sure the owners of the hotels featuring on this website will happily direct you to the best places to eat, but you can also simply pick restaurants/tavernas where you see most Greeks having a meal. If you don’t see anyone Greek eating anywhere, you’re probably too early: Greek people rarely have lunch before 14h00, or dinner before 21h30-22h00.
Generally, one of the best things about eating in Greek tavernas is that everything is very relaxed and flexible. There are no strict meal hours – basically food is served from 11h00 or so in the morning till very late at night. Whether you go for lunch at 12h00 or at 17h00, it’s fine. Nobody minds kids eating in their own, messy way. And perhaps best of all, you don’t have to stick to the starter-main dish-desert formula; you can order whatever you are in the mood for. Nobody will frown if you take starters only, if you order very little or if you order way too much.
Now how do you know what to order? Many places have menus translated into something that resembles English, but the traditional Greek way of choosing and ordering is done orally. Someone will tell you what the choices of the day are and you say “yes” to whatever sounds good. It’s a sure way to get too much food on the table, but that’s more or less the Greek way to go about it. Also, you don’t order ‘per person’, but for the entire table. Everything (a lot!) is put in the middle and everybody shares. In some places they don’t even give you plates. (But you can always ask.)
I cannot claim to be a specialist on Greek food, but I’ll try to give you some guidance and ideas, so you won’t miss out on the good stuff.
Starters (orektiká) are an important part of the meal and include dips, seasonal salads and vegetables, fried potatoes, veggies and cheese, pies, small grilled or marinated fishes, soups... and a lot more. They can also be a full meal, or just a snack you have with your drink, at which point you call them mezédes. There are restaurants (mezedopolía) that serve only mezédes, offering sometimes an amazing variety of small delicacies.
The most common dips are tzatzíki (made of cucumber, thick yoghurt and garlic), fáva (split pea purée), taramasaláta (fish roe salad) and melitzanosaláta (smoky aubergine purée). Order the latter two only if they are homemade (spitikós).
Salads are made from whatever is fresh, so you can expect lots of tomatoes and cucumber in the summer, and cabbage and grated carrot in the winter. The famous Greek salad (choriátiki) in its purest form consists of onions, tomato, cucumber, olives and féta cheese sprinkled with salt, oregano and olive oil, but often also includes some extras like sweet pepper, salad leaves or capers.
Some vegetables (courgettes, broccoli, cauliflower…) are simply boiled and served with lemon and olive oil; others are cooked in a sauce, for instance fasolákia, green beans, are usually served in a tomato sauce. Beetroot salad (pantzária) sometimes comes with a delicious garlic dip. Try also chórta, usually translated as “boiled greens”, the collective name for a number of green leafy vegetables usually collected in the wild.
You can also go for something fishy (as in from the sea!) for starters. Octopus (chtapódi) come charcoal grilled (tis scháras) or boiled (vrastó) and served in a vinegar-based sauce. Squid (kalamarákia) is served deep-fried. Gávros marinátos (marinated anchovies) are to die for. Marídes are tiny deep-fried fish that you eat head, bones and all.
Pies (pítes) are made of phyllo dough and come with a variety of fillings. They are generally served as a starter, but if you stay in a nice place you may also get them as a breakfast extra, and of course many people have them as a snack any time of the day. There are many types: cheese pies (tyrópita) are the most common, but there are also pies filled with spinach (spanakopita), courgette (kolokythópita), meat (kreatópita), leaks (prasopíta) or whatever the cook thinks will taste good!
Just like there are many pítes, there’s also a variety of keftédes. Keftédes ‘pure’ are small fried meatballs made from mince beef, old bread, eggs and herbs, but there are also patatokeftédes (with potato instead of meat), revithokeftédes (with chickpeas), kolokythokeftédes (with courgettes) and domatokeftédes (with sun dried tomatoes).
There are three soups that I recommend you try: fakes (a rich lentil soup; put a little vinegar), psarosoupa (fish soup that can be eaten as a main course too) and fasolada (white bean soup, usually eaten in winter). I also love revíthia, which is a cross between a soup and a side dish made with chickpeas.
Main courses can be stews (stifádo), oven cooked dishes (tou foúrnou), grilled meat (psitó, tis óras), pasta (macarónia) or fish (psári). I usually skip the grilled meat which I often find a little dry, and order pasta only for the kids. (They love it because it’s always overcooked.) To help you order, if you have children who are not so adventurous when it comes to food, you can get macarónia with meat sauce (me kimá), with tomato sauce (napolitén) or with cheese only (me tirí). Many places serve a creamy carbonára as well. Children also love pastício, the Greek version of lasagne. The grown-ups will appreciate spaghetti with lobster (astakomakaronáda), which, if prepared well, is absolutely delicious. Keep in mind though that lobster is generally overpriced, and not necessarily from local waters!
To help you with the meats: chicken is called kotópoulo, lamb is arnáki, porc is hirinó, beef is moshári (ask for brisóla if you want a steak) and then we also have goat (katsíki) and rabbit (kounéli). Other dishes to keep in mind include:
dolmades – grape or cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, onions and usually mince beef;
angináres – artichoke hearts (and some other veggies) in an egg and lemon sauce;
jemistés – oven-cooked tomatoes and sweet pepper filled with rice and onions, and sometimes also currants, pine-nuts and/or mince meat.
If you eat in a taverna by the sea, you can have some excellent fish, served either grilled or fried in oil. Before you order enthusiastically, do keep in mind that fish can be very pricey and is sold by the kilo. The best (and most common!) way to order is to go to the kitchen and ask them to show you the fish (to psári), and point to the one(s) that appeal to you. Grilled fish is served with an olive and lemon sauce. If you don’t know what kind to order, tsípoura, snapper, is a safe bet. My favourite fish, however, is deep-fried barboúnia, red mullet, which is very, very tasty. Use your fingers to eat them!
Although I definitely have a sweet tooth, usually at the end of a long and lazy meal in a taverna, all I need is a fruit (frúta), which is usually offered. You can also ask for something sweet (glikó). Usually there is not a huge choice, but what you will get will certainly be fresh, homemade and very sweet indeed! Don’t be surprised, by the way, if you get your desert before the other dishes are cleared away – that’s taverna style.
If you’d like to try making some Greek food at home, have a look at the Gourmed website about Greek food and wine where you will find some of the inspiring recipes and articles.
You could also try and take some cooking lessons during your holidays in Greece. For instance, at Eleonas, a hotel set in the midst of an enormous olive grove, you can learn how to prepare olives and how to use them in a variety of dishes. In Perleas, an estate on the island of Hios, you can learn how to make the best jams and marmalades. In Crete, in Milia, there is always someone to show you how to prepare delicious dishes with simple, seasonal organic ingredients. Also at Guesthouse Porfyron you can participate in cooking workshops.
For a total immersion in Greek cooking, you can also sign up for culinary holidays. These are not holidays during which you will only eat really very well, but you will also learn how to prepare the most delicious Greek traditional food. At Rodialos in Crete, Mary Fragaki and Jenny Vassilaki organise week-long seminars for small groups. Together with participants, they shop in local markets, harvest organically grown fruits and veggies, collect herbs from the fields, choose fish, fresh off the fishermen’s boats, and you will learn how to transform these pure ingredients into beautifully tasting meals, using ancient recipes adapted to modern lifestyles.