by Anastasia Valti-Spanopoulou
If you’re reading this post, it means you’re one of us - i.e. a traveler who plans out what meals they’ll have at their next destination way before they actually get there. So hat off to you, you’re our favourite kind of person! Obviously, you’re well aware that mediterranean food is a huge part of the Greek culture: it’s not only mouthwatering, but also super diverse, full of influences from cultures worldwide, stomach-filling, and quite healthy (well, it can be). So finding your way around that long Greek dinner menu is crucial because getting to know the true Greek cuisine is your chance to ensure an authentic travel experience of the country, and that’s a chance you don’t want to waste. But have no fear, dear reader. Since we relate with you so so much, we’ll be your eyes and ears, your loyal food guide lighting the way through the path of absolutely essential traditional Greek food.
Literally all food tours of any city in Greece will take you for souvlaki, which is an absolute top food for us Greeks, and anyone else who tries it. It’s basically a pitta bread wrapped around a) a chicken or pork skewer, or b) pulled chicken or pork (aka ‘Greek Gyro’), and stuffed with ingredients of your choice - most commonly fries, tomato, salad, and tzatziki, which we’ll discuss further down. Of course souvlaki has by now been elevated to a form of science for us Greeks, so in the past we have put together an entire guide to the anatomy of souvlaki (and where to find the best ones in Athens), which we hope you will find enlightening. In any case, going to a souvlaki restaurant and trying the notorious Greek street food is definitely one of the best things to do in Greece, or anywhere else in the country.
Known among foreigners as ‘Greek salad’, Horiatiki is the country’s signature salad and it is plain awesome. Usually it comprises of: tomato, cucumber, red onions, capers, green peppers for extra Vitamin C, some of our famous Greek olives and olive oil, oregano, and feta - naturally, as it's our 'national' and most loved cheese. Sometimes, you might be served horiatiki with 'paximathakia' in it - these are a kind of rusk that obviously needs to be dipped in a tiny bit of water or, in this case, salad dressing to become soft enough to eat. It's tastier than you can imagine, and also very rich in fibre. Back to the salad though, in Greek ‘Horiatiki’ loosely translates into ‘village salad’, because in the old days these ingredients were what people could get their hands on to make a salad, but it was such a success that today it’s never absent from a Greek lunch table. All this, but also tips on Athens' restaurants serving healthy food and all things good for you in the Greek food culture is explained in detail in our guide to healthy Greek food.
Tourists often call this miracle of mankind ‘Greek moussaka’, but in fact it’s called ‘moussakas’ (that’s an ‘s’ at the end), and every great Greek restaurant takes pride in serving it, although not always successfully. Moussakas is a true masterpiece of food layering (respect to the moussakas-makers) so pay attention: first, you lay a layer of fried potato rounds on the baking tray; then, you lay a layer of fried eggplant slices over it; then, you add another layer, this time of minced meat; and then, you top it aaall up with a thick layer of béchamel sauce, and put it in the oven. In short, if you were wondering what to eat in Greece think no further, just make sure there’s plenty of empty room in your stomach before you go try one of the most unique experiences of your culinary life. If you think you can't handle it, worry not - there are plenty of fans of lighter cooking who make moussakas with grilled, not fried, ingredients.
Where can we begin describing Spanakopita, after all the things we have gone through together... Undoubtedly a super popular Greek food, and possibly one of the most ingenious foods ever invented. This is basically a spinach pie, yet so much more! The original Greek spanakopita recipe sandwiches fresh spinach, herbs, and optionally other greens for extra flavor, between two layers of either puff or flaky 'filo' pastry. Most of the times, however, we don’t miss a chance to have our dose of feta cheese, and throw it in the mix as well. Divine. Try spanakopita at a restaurant - not a bakery, where they’re usually unnecessarily greasy - as a snack or a main, served both cold and warm from the oven.
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It sounds Japanese, but it is 100% a Greek invention, and it is brilliant in its simplicity. We take the cheese. We deep fry it. We eat it. What can possibly go wrong there? You will be surprised to hear that this time we often do not use feta (what?! Plot twist!), but some other kind of cheese - more often than not yellow- that the chef deems best for the job. It melts in your mouth, and is served with a slice of lemon on the side, for you to shower the cheese with lemon juice and get that extra tanginess on your tongue.
'Gemista' literally means 'stuffed' because, quite obviously, we stuff vegetables with minced meat and rice to make one of the most popular Greek dishes among both locals and tourists. Some people twist the original recipe and cook gemista only with rice, or with rice, raisins, and pine-nuts, but either way they are more often than not enjoyed -again- with feta on the side. The top hits when it comes to gemista are stuffed tomatoes and green peppers (most people will make a tray with a bit of both), but in Greek households it is not rare to also use eggplants or even red onions to do the job. All stuffed veggies you may come across are equally mouth-watering and so out honest advice to you is: if you can find them, try them all!
#7 Greek Dips and Spreads
All the best places to eat in Athens - traditional cuisine-wise - will encourage you to try at least one of the following along with your Greek appetizers: tzatziki, taramosalata, tyrokaftery, melitzanosalata, and fava. Tzatziki is by far the most famous one, consisting simply of -the world famous- Greek yogurt, cucumber zest, and garlic. Taramosalta sounds a bit freaky, as it is basically two kinds of fish egg moulded into a spread, but don’t worry, you can neither taste nor smell the ‘fishiness’; also, contrary to popular belief abroad, the less pink it looks, the better. Next, melitzanosalata is a spread made of moulded eggplant and garlic, and fava is quite simply ground fava beans topped with olive oil and red onion. Last but not least, tyrokaftery is mainly made from feta (surprise!), red peppers and paprika. So take your pick according to your taste and personality. In any case, know that a true Greek spreads at least one dip on his/her bread before proceeding to the main course, and us hardcore foodies don’t hesitate to dip a french fry or fried zucchini in there too.
Another common Greek food that comes in two varieties, because Greeks can be called everything but boring. Dolmathes, or Lahanodolmathes, are essentially a mix of minced meat and rice made into a roll, and wrapped with vine leaves or cabbage leaves, before they are cooked in a thick sauce of egg and lemon. You may also easily find some lighter variations of dolmathes without sauce, or without minced meat in them. Alternatively, you may come across ‘Dolmathakia’ - which translated into ‘small Dolmathes’, and is exactly that: mini dolmathes, this time definitely wrapped in vine leaves, covered in either in the usual egg-n-lemon sauce, or simply lemon sauce. Quite often dolmathakia are served with a spoonful of yogurt on the side or in some places, such as Crete, with zucchini flowers, aka 'anthous'. No matter which version or variety you try, we guarantee you won’t be able to get enough!
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Well, if we tell you this is a bean soup, you will probably misunderstand fasolatha, because it's so unlike any boring version of bean soup you may have tried - especially if you've tried canned bean soup. To make fasolatha, Greeks use a particular variety of large white beans, which are left to soften for a long while in water, and are then boiled for an equally long time in the saucepan, before the tomato, various delightful spices, herbs, and sometimes carrots are thrown in. The end result is a super flavory soup, not at all watery if that's what you're thinking. Dunking fresh bread in there is one of our favourite pastime activities (it even has a name, 'papara'), and it's probably needles to say by now that we often invite feta cheese to join in.
Most locals think of koulouri as the ultimate Greek breakfast, and many call it 'Koulouri from Thessaloniki', because supposedly that's where its current form originated from. Koulouri is basically a kind of Greek bread, soft on the inside and crispier on the outside, shaped into a big ring and covered with sesame seeds. Perfect to fill your stomach and tingle your tastebuds in the morning before you set out to explore all the local attractions and landmarks in Greece. Can be bought in bakeries but also from street vendors (surprisingly, these are often better). Make sure you buy it early in the morning, when it’s still fresh and cotton-soft on the inside! For more awesome breakfast solutions, check out our Athens brunch guide.
#11 Mastiha Submarine
This is the kind of thing you would never hear about as a tourist, unless a local told you, exactly because it’s so deeply associated with Greeks’ childhood. Submarine, (or ‘ypovrihio’ in Greek,) is a thick paste, which you take into a spoonful and dunk it into a glass of cold water until it becomes soft enough for you to suck slowly into your mouth. Think of it as a more imaginative version of a lollipop. The traditional flavour is mastiha - a resin with a herby aroma that only grows in the island of Chios, but you can also find a more 'modernised' version with vanilla. Ypovrihio is widely available in supermarkets and candy shops, but the best ones are generally sold in delis.
#12 Glyko tou Koutaliou
The Greek sweet preserves, or ‘spoon desserts’ as we call them, are almost synonymous to ‘homely’ for locals. Greek grandmoms and moms have taken pride for years in the time and toil they dedicate in making each little jar of Glyko tou Koutaliou, and each household or area you visit often has a tradition in making a particular kind of it. From sour cherry, to grapes, lemons, roses, figs, tomatoes, even eggplant, pretty much everything edible can be turned into a sweet preserve by a Greek hand, and opinions vary immensely about which one is the best. Normally we eat them as they are (only a spoonful of them, hence their name), or as a topping to our yogurt, ice-cream, and sometimes toast.
One of the many noble Greek desserts us locals remember from our childhood, Rizogalo literally means ‘rice and milk’, and you could say it’s a sweet Greek rice pudding. Some like to eat it warm from the saucepan, but often it served cold, and always with a pinch of cinnamon on top. Finding this ‘grandma’ delicacy in restaurants can be a challenge - although not insurmountable - but one thing you can do is take a short break from your Athens tour, pop into a supermarket and buy a packaged portion. However, if you’re not a fan of anything that comes in plastic, places serving exclusively desserts should be more than glad to give you the ‘homemade’ version.
In our opinion, one of the best things to do in Greece is take a long walk around the city, and go crazy in all the dessert shops you can find on the way. Galaktoboureko is one of our all-time fave buys, and it's the Greek addition to a wide category of delicious desserts we inherited from the Middle East, known as 'siropiasta' - i.e. syrup desserts. Galaktomboureko is everything you'd expect from that description: a thick milk custard, with layers of crispy pastry on its top and bottom, bathed in a light syrup. Make sure you get your hands on this dream as early in the day as possible, when it's still warm and you can feel the butter, syrup, and custard all melt in your mouth like a beautiful dessert-symphony. Available in most reputable dessert shops, but you can also find places who advertise specifically their expertise in this one delightful puff dessert. Personally, we like to buy a whole tray - no, we're not exaggerating, it's an actual thing in Greece and it's called buying a 'tapsi' (oven tray) of galaktimpoureko.
The Greek halva recipe comes in two versions. The first, with semolina, cinnamon, and cloves, makes a grainy, ‘classic’ halva. The second, produces the ‘Macedonian’ halva, made of tahini, nuts, and sometimes chocolate. Definitely a one-of-a-kind taste, either version of halva you try is bound to make an impression on you. It’s pretty easy to find in dessert shops, supermarkets, and often as a dessert option (or even treat) in Greek restaurants.
As you can imagine, this list could go on forever, but you can try the rest on your second, and third, and fiftieth visit to Greece. For now, make sure you tick all of the above off your holidays in Greece list, and you'll be guaranteed a pretty indicative sample of true Greek food (and entertainment). Just keep an eye out for imitations, and stay clear from tourist traps. Happy dining!
P.S. All the opinions mentioned above are strictly personal, and not promotional in any way.
Did we forget something? Are your favourites missing from our list? We can't wait to hear from you! (and don't forget to share your thoughts here and spread the word in social media!)