Without a doubt Greek cuisine is one of the main attractions of Greece and the visitor will find that there is something to please even the most discerning and finicky palate. There are succulent dishes for meat lovers, vegetarian dishes bursting with color and flavor, spicy dishes, salty dishes, baked fish, fried fish, stewed fish, grilled seafood, steamed seafood, seafood saganaki (in a small pan with cheese or tomato sauce) an endless variety of breads and cakes, dips, sauces, salads, tangy cheeses and decadent sweets.
Greek food is simple and elegant, with flavors subtle to robust, textures smooth to crunchy, fresh and timeless, nutritious and healthy. Enjoying Greek food is an adventurous journey into centuries of some of the most significant civilizations this world has ever known such as the Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman because Greece was and still remains an important and desirable crossroad of culture and ideas. Discovering, tasting, experiencing Greek cuisine is truly one of the greatest joys a human being can experience in a lifetime.
But for the neophyte trying to decipher what to order from the menu at that charming little taverna by the sea on your first Greek island adventure dinner can be a challenge. My advice to you is to just sit back, relax and be venturesome in your choices. I mean unless you order pigs feet, bull testacles or sheep entrails, you can’t really go too wrong even though some people consider the aforementioned delectable delicacies.
Keep in mind that Greek culinary tradition traces back over 4000 years and over the years Greek cuisine has picked up influences from many different international civilizations, who usually came in the form of conquerors, that crossed and interacted with the Greek people over the centuries.
The holy trinity of ancient and modern Greek cuisine is bread, oil and wine with the most important of the three being olive oil which is produced from the millions of olive trees that are prominent throughout the region. The basic grain in Greece is wheat, though barley is also grown. Ancient Athenians usually drank a white (retsina – flavored with pine resin) or rosé wine. Meat, usually pork or goat, was rarely eaten, only on feast days and fish was more common.
Sugar came much later to Greece so the ancient Greeks sweetened their foods with honey and figs.
The first cookbook in history was written in 320 B.C. by Archestratos, an ancient Greek poet who wrote Hedypatheia (Life of Luxury) which was a kind of Michelin guide to the best food in the Mediterranean world.
The most common spices and flavorings used in ancient Greek cuisine are still used today. They are oregano, thyme, mint, garlic, onion, dill and bay laurel leaves. According to the ancient playwright Aristophanes the common meal for the ordinary Athenian was a barley cake or wheat bread, an onion, a dish of sow thistles or mushrooms with plenty of wine and olive oil.
Many ingredients used in modern Greek cooking were unknown in the country until the middle ages. The potato, tomato, spinach, bananas and corn came from the Americas. Lemons, oranges and peaches came from China.
But let’s get back to our menu. If you see lentils, fasolada (broad bean stew with vegetables), retsina wine, figs and pomegranates then these are all dishes that can trace back to the ancient Greeks. Loukaniko (pork sausages) go back to the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Feta cheese, fish roe, paximadi (barley, corn and rye rusks) and grape leaf dolmathes are from the Byzantine era. Youvarlakia (meatballs in egg lemon soup flavoured with mint), moussaka, tzatziki, keftedes and halva were introduced to the Greeks by our Persian, Arab and Ottoman neighbors.
The Greek diet is the perfect example of traditional Mediterranean eating. It’s based around a variety of nutritious, fresh and flavorful foods that are high in nutrients and low in animal fats.
The foods that form the base of the Greek diet are olive oil, wheat and barley bread, vegetables, wild greens and herbs, fruits, nuts, legumes and cheeses. Secondary foods are fish, seafood and meat.
HOW THE TERRAIN, GEOGRAPHY, GEOLOGY AND CLIMATE AFFECTED THE CULINARY TRADITION OF GREECE
Greece is a mountainous and hilly peninsula, with several surrounding islands, located in and around the Aegean Sea. Greece is blessed with fertile soil, adequate rainfall and a moderate climate year round with higher than average days of sunshine. These conditions create favorable farming conditions and Greece has a very rich and varied agricultural tradition producing top quality fruits, vegetables, wheat and barley and of course excellent olive oil. Most of the annual agricultural production of Crete can be found on the fruit and vegetable stalls of most of Northern Europe.
If you take a drive along the mainland of Greece, especially in the Peloponnese you will be awarded with magnificent views of rows upon rows of olive and citrus groves which grow side by side with vine groves in the wine regions.
Twenty percent of Greece is made up of islands and there is no point from the mainland that is more than 50 kilometers away from the sea which makes fish and seafood a popular and common part of the Greek diet.
The climate and terrain has tended to favour the breeding of goats and sheep over cattle but some cattle farming is practiced, especially in Northern Greece and some of the larger Aegean islands. This varied terrain of hills, mountains, valleys and coastal areas provides for a large and flavorful variety of local cheese including Feta, Kasseri, Kefalotyri, Graviera, Anthotyros, Manouri, Metsovone and Mizithra just to name a few.
Greece also has many natural harbors and borders with the Balkans to the North, Turkey to the East and Northern Africa to the South. This made Greece a cultural crossroad which aided in a variety of different culinary styles and tastes.
The climate, geography and diet of Greeks has made these people some of the healthiest and happiest people of Europe and the world. Centenarians living on the islands of Crete, Ikaria and on the mainland of Iperus and the Peloponnese are not an oddity but commonplace.
New research is constantly being made public which proves by scientific method how the consumption of olive oil, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, honey, Greek yogurt, fish and little or no meat protect us against many forms of cancer, reduce mortality from cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It also prolongs life expectancy and produces a general feeling of wellbeing.
So as you are choosing tonight’s meal from your menu from some idyllic spot on your Greek vacation remember that you are eating over 4000 years of history and one of the healthiest and tastiest cuisines of the world.