Food is Greece is an important part of the culture. Many people are familiar with Greek food – gyros and Greek salad are menu staples that transcend Greek food. Greek food is full of flavor, commonly seasoned with garlic, oregano, thyme, basil and other fresh herbs. Lemon and olive oil are common bases for sauces and soups. Greeks are very welcoming and love sharing their food with you. Several of the restaurants I went to gave me a free dessert, which were all amazing. Honey is the main sweetener used, and fresh fruit is popular as well. When I was in Greece in October and November, it was pomegranate, orange, and mandarin season.
Olives and olive oil are abundant as well. I actually passed through Kalamata, home of the olive of the same name. These olives are popular since they are larger and meatier than other olive varietals. Olives are packed in brine or olive oil and keep until the next year. Green olives and black olives are the same olives, but picked at different parts of their maturation process. Olives in Greece are almost always served with the pits in them. Olive oil is used in anything that needs oil – even for light frying. Greece has the purest olive oil in the world and it is pretty tasty.
Here are a few other tasty things I ate during my time in Greece:
Feta cheese: The most common cheese in Greece, feta is served in slabs as an appetizer, atop Greek salads, and as a snack. Sometimes it is served with olive oil and oregano drizzled on top. This salty cheese is made by brining cheese curds made from sheep’s milk (or a combo of sheep and goat milk) and stored in the brine to preserve it.
Greek coffee: A thick, foamy coffee served with the grounds. Boiled over an open flame in metal pot used specially for coffee, it is usually served very sweet and very hot. There are varying levels of sweetness and strongness. Although it is a small amount of coffee (about the same as a cup of espresso), it is a great start to the morning. Don’t drink the grounds (unless you like coffee grounds, then drink away!).
Greek salad: Similar to a Greek salad that you would find on many menus in the U.S. except for the notable distinction that a true Greek salad does not have lettuce. Usually made with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives (with the pits), onion, green pepper and a slab of feta cheese on top. The dressing is usually heavy on oregano and olive oil. This is a great side dish or light meal, especially in the summer when these veggies are at their peak freshness.
Greek yogurt: Now pretty common in the U.S., Greek yogurt is a high-protein, thick yogurt with no flavors added. Greek yogurt is commonly eaten for breakfast or dessert, usually with honey. It is also used as a base for dips and sauces.
Gyros: First off, stop saying ji-ROS. It’s pronounced more like YEUR-o. Here’s a helpful video. Moving on, a gyro is the Greek equivalent of a fast food hamburger: ubiquitous, cheap, portable, quick and most importantly, delicious! Before coming to Greece, a gyro was pretty much the extent of my experience with Greek food. A warm pita filled with meat (usually lamb or chicken), french fries, lettuce, tomato, onion, and sauce – either a mayo/ketchup hybrid or tzatziki sauce (see below).
Mousakka: The Greek version of lasagna, this is a layered casserole made with eggplant, potatoes, meat sauce and Bechamel sauce. The meat is flavored with tomatoes, garlic and onions. This is a hearty dish, perfect after a long day of touring monuments and museums – or working!
Souvlaki: Basically a meat kabob, souvlaki can be made from pretty much any meat, but chicken and pork are the most common. These are usually cheap (2-3 Euros) for a skewer of meat, making it cheap – and filling. The meat is usually marinated before being placed on the grill, and they are brushed with olive oil, lemon and seasonings (oregano, garlic, etc.) while on the grill and after. Souvlaki can be eaten by itself or on a pita with toppings similar to those in a gyro – tzatziki, lettuce, tomato, onion, etc.
Tyropita (cheese pie): Made from phyllo dough, a flaky, thin pastry crust; and filled with cheese, these pies are easily portable and delicious. A variety of cheeses can be used, but a mix with feta is the most common. Cheese pies are a great breakfast or snack during the day, especially when they are served warm.
Tzatziki: A dip or sauce made from Greek yogurt, lots of garlic, and cucumbers. Most of the tzatziki I had in Greece did not have dill, but a few did. Tzatziki is a great sauce for gyros, a dip for French fries or pita, and even by itself.
Similar to Italy, my advice would be to try new things and get out of your comfort zone. Many of the places I visited were near the sea, so there was an abundance of fresh, amazing seafood, including prawns, kalamari, and a variety of fish. So go beyond gyros and really experience the fresh and vibrant flavors that Greek food has to offer!