We’re not gonna’ lie: The Greek food culture is one of the reasons we keep coming back to this sun-splashed land of 6,000 islands at the very end of Europe. Menus of sizzling saganaki cheese, crispy Cretan dakos breads, stewed mountain greens, souvlaki on a balmy Athens night, fresh tomato salads drizzled in honey and olive oil by a pebble cove on the Aegean – it’s all too much to resist.
The truth is that Greek food culture didn’t become what we know and love today overnight. It’s the product of thousands of years of culinary experimentation and innovation. From the first olive cultivations by the Minoans back in 700 BC to the invention of the modern gyros in the long-lost mountain town of Livadia in the 1920s, it’s been a journey of taste-bud-tingling twists and turns. You’ve also got to factor in the huge influences that came from surrounding regions, whether that’s the Slavic Balkans up north or the spice-plumed bazaars of Istanbul and Turkey in the east.
This guide will try to do all that by focusing on seven of the top dishes Greece has to offer. It’s got simple mainstays like the Greek salad next to fresh-off-the-grill cheeses doused in honey and lemon juice. Along the way, we’ll reveal the central tenets of Greek food culture, which prides itself on freshness, earthiness, and long traditions. Grab a fork. Let’s go…
It might be simple, but there are few dishes that can showcase the underlying strengths of Greek food culture with such raw – literally! – simplicity. The key thing here is the freshness of the ingredients. Tomatoes are plucked straight from the vines. Cucumbers come right out of the garden. The onions are zingy and sweet, the oregano has been drying on your windowsill in the Aegean sun, and the olives are newly preserved from the region of Kalamata.
Pile all those together and finish it off with a whole block of feta cheese (yep, a whole darn block!). Then drizzle on olive oil, give a squeeze of lemon, and throw in some chopped green peppers. Viola! You’ve got it: The Greek salad. It’s a quintessential addition to any Greek lunch. It matches perfectly with salty souvlaki and Greek chips (which are different to all other chips around the globe, mind you!), with a cold Mythos beer, or just a dry Retsina wine. Mouth = watering.
Santorini is now famed as one of Greece’s most Instagram-worthy honeymoon spots. It’s known as a world of boutique hotels, where blazing sunsets kiss ancient volcanic islands above rust-red beaches. However, ask any Aegean local and they’re more likely to wax lyrical about the island’s fantastic split pea crop. Yep – the split pea crop! They’re the main ingredient to the regional specialty known as fava beans, which isn’t actually made with fava beans at all (sorry, Hannibal Lecter).
Instead, this one’s a smooth and velvety mash that’s created by boiling the split peas of Santorini (which, incidentally, are now a protected specialty known as a PDO) and then blitzing the lot with red onions and spring onions and a healthy dosing of garlic. Finally, serve as a sort of dip with a generous top of extra virgin olive. One word of warning: Greek fava doesn’t smell great. We get hints of post-hike foot and musty cheese. Urgh! We do, however, promise that it tastes a whole load better than that!
We remember once remarking in a small taverna on the side of Poros island where we could eat saganaki for every meal of the day, every day of the month. Fast forward 30 days to the end of our trip and we realized we’d almost done just that. Such is our addiction to this salty Greek staple. It’s not complex stuff. In fact, it’s simple: Get a cheese and fry it.
The important thing is to fry it right and to choose the perfect diary. The Greeks typically use a slightly hard, dry cheese, like Cretan graviera or Cypriot kefalotyri. That’s plonked into a very hot pan with a flat bottom and sizzled up until it’s got patches of golden brown on the outside. Saganaki is served with a simple touch of lemon drizzle, which acts to balance out the saltiness with the sharpness of fresh citrus. We find it goes beautifully with a cold beer or a dry Greek white wine at the start of a long lunch. Take us back, please. Pretty please?
Greece food culture doesn’t typically do speedy eating. Long, languishing lunches by a lapping Aegean Sea shouldn’t be rushed. It’s about relaxing, kicking back, tasting the location as well as the flavors. However, there’s one dish that’s famously eaten on the go, sort of like Athens’s answer to McDonald’s. Cue souvlaki. A symphony of marinated meat grilled on skewers, often over an open flame, it’s all packaged up in a soft pita and drizzled with tzatziki (see below), harissa, and olive oil for something you can munch as you walk.
Various versions of souvlaki are served all across the south Mediterranean and the Balkan Peninsula. Turkey calls it kebap, adding in spicy peppers for an extra hit. The people of the Caucuses know it as shashlik, which they grill on mangal BBQs and serve with green salad. What’s more, excavations in Bronze Age Akrotiri on Santorini reveal that it, or something similar, have been produced in Greece for at least 4,000 years! That makes it a true staple of Greek food culture that no carnivore will want to miss.
Ask 100 people to name the most famous dish of all in Greek food culture and it’s likely that a good chunk will say moussaka. Yep, this layered eggplant and tomato concoction has risen to become something of a poster boy for the Greek kitchen in the last couple of decades. Why not? It’s earthy, it’s folksy, it’s hearty, and – most importantly – it’s downright tasty. That said, it’s not as venerable as many of the top dishes on this list. In fact, it’s thought to have been brought back by legendary Greek chef Nikolaos Tselementes in the 1930s. He returned from traveling Europe to share the secrets of French bechamel sauce with traditional cooks in Athens.
Moussaka is made by stacking sautéed aubergine and fresh tomatoes with a dollop of thick lamb ragù. Veggie versions usually make use of lentils, instead. There’s a hit of cinnamon and allspice for some added dimension, before the whole thing is topped in a creamy white sauce and thrown in the oven to cook and rise. The final product is best served with a fresh Greek salad for crunch and variation.
Spanikopita is sold in all Greek roadside bakeries from Thessaloniki to Corfu. At least, it’s sold in the ones that are worth visiting! A traditional savory pie that’s packed to bursting with crumbly feta cheese and – as the name implies – spinach, it’s one of the best get-and-go snacks in the country. We often grab some slices (never more than 1 EUR each) to pack for a trip to the beach. They can be eaten cold or warm and are a divine after a refreshing swim in the Aegean!
The most common version of Spanikopita includes feta. You’ll also find variations made with harder kefalotyri. That results in a slightly drier pastry with a less salty finish. Other recipes also embellish the stuffing with fresh spring onions, garlic, and even baked eggs. The key thing to get right if you’re thinking of cooking the pie is the pastry. It’s got to be flaky, buttery filo that’s light to the bite.
For us, it’s simply not a proper Greek feast without a dollop of tzatziki on the side. This creamy dip is made from yoghurt, infused with mint and grated cucumber, flavored with raw garlic, topped with sprinkles of fresh herbs, and mixed in with fresh lemon juice (just picked, preferably) and – of course – oodles of local olive oil. It’s a zingy, sour mishmash of a side that is the best wing-man accompaniment to other, saltier mezze mains – saganaki, souvlaki.
The idea of tzatziki is thought to have originated during the dominion of the Ottoman Empire. However, the name itself doesn’t appear as a translation in English until the 20th century. What’s more, the Greek version of the dip is noticeably different to its regional counterparts, which are made with walnuts in Istanbul and with tahini paste in the Levant. The result is a uniquely refreshing and simple dish that complements the sharing platters of Greece with ease. It’s also a cinch to make. A few quick chops and a good stirring hand is all that’s needed to whisk up some darn tasty tzatziki!
Why is food important to Greek culture?
Food has been central to the Greek identity for millennia. Ever since the time of the ancients, the process of preparing food and eating together has had an almost spiritual significance in Greek society. Even today, families will gather to share platters and mezze for hours on end. What’s more, some dishes, like the Greek salad and souvlaki, have become iconic exports of Greece, giving the country a recognizable flavor all around the globe.
What makes Greek food unique?
Freshness and simplicity are the two key features of Greek cuisine. The Greeks love to harness the natural bounty of their nation. That results in a truly remarkable set of flavors. The bad news is that makes it hard to recreate Greek food if you don’t have access to juicy Mediterranean tomatoes, fresh-caught octopus, spring lemons, and the like. But, hey, that’s just another reason to start planning your trip right now!
What is a typical Greek lunch?
Mezze is the most typical Greek lunch. It involves ordering multiple small dishes that each complement each other, adding up to a symphony of saltiness and sweetness. A common mezze might include Greek fava paste (not actually made from fava beans), gigantes beans, spinach pies, fried saganaki, octopus, grilled fish, tzatziki – the list goes on and on! Greeks tend to have long lunches but won’t have their evening meal until late.