Ah Greece. The land of azure seas, multi-hued beaches, craggy mountains and colorful mythology. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, but those aren’t the only reasons why. The main reason Greece is always listed in my top five favorite places to visit?
Whenever I get asked, “Which country that you’ve visited had the best food?” I hem and haw for a while, stammering out half-sentences about Thai curries and spectacular restaurants in Australia, before I finally blurt, with finality, “Greece.”
The Ultimate Greek Food Guide
It can easily be argued that the Greeks invented the modern way of eating. Think tapas is a Spanish thing? The Greeks have been doing meze for literally thousands of years. The locavore movement? Greek food always has been and is still predominantly sourced from the surrounding area, factory farming be damned. Ingredients and influences have colored Greek food over the millenia of it’s existence, but it is the foundation upon which almost every other European, Middle Eastern, and North African cuisine is built. And you can taste it in every bite.
Undoubtedly, this is my favorite way to sample Greek cuisine (or any cuisine for that matter). The Western World calls them appetizers, but that doesn’t adequately describe the small dishes meant to be served with ouzo and plenty of long, deep conversation. This is what I think Greece does best, and you may find you never make it to a main course!
Even the most avowed olive-hater can’t deny the deliciousness of Greek olives. Black or green, they have none of the acidic tang of olives grown in the States, and instead are sweet, earthy morsels of pure deliciousness. Homer once described Greek olive oil as ‘liquid gold,’ so I guess that would make these… gold nuggets?
This is the ultimate sauce/dip/meat accompaniment, a Greek yogurt-cucumber sauce that garnishes just about anything in Greek cuisine. As a meze, it’s served with pita, but I’m not above scooping this stuff straight into my mouth with a spoon! The Greeks have several amazing dips for their famous pita bread made from everything from fish roe to eggplant, but the absolute king of them all is tzatziki. If you want to try to recreate it for yourself, check out my recipe!
Saganaki means ‘fried’ in Greek, so cheese saganaki is basically… fried cheese. Show me any non-lactose-intolerant who doesn’t like the idea of that? The simplest form of this dish is deep-fried haloumi cheese with a little honey and lemon, and it is absolutely divine. Salty cheese, tangy lemon, sweet wild honey… party in your mouth!
I crave dolmades like I crave my next breath. Seriously. I ordered these at just about every meal on my last visit to Greece, and I regularly swing by the deli at the Middle Eastern market near my parent’s house to pick them up when I’m visiting. A tender grape leaf lovingly hugs rice cooked with lemon juice and onion, then mixed with dill, oregano, and a host of other herbs. Topped with a lemony egg sauce, they are absolute heaven on a plate.
The Italians call them arancini, and they’re almost always made with rice. But in Greece, keftedes are usually made with vegetables, seasoned, mashed together and deep fried to a crunchy crust and warm, flavorful center. What vegetable is inside will depend on where you are, anything from chickpeas to eggplant to zucchini are common.
“No great story ever started with someone eating a salad,” they say. Whoever made up that quote obviously hasn’t tried salad Greek-style. Perhaps the reason I love salads in Greece so much is their seeming aversion to lettuce (I’m not the biggest fan either). Instead, they combine an endless array of vegetables, herbs, and other ingredients into tasty, fresh, healthy delights. That’s a salad I can vouch for.
Traditional Greek Salad
This is very simple: cubed cucumber, tomato, feta, oregano and thin slivers of red onion tossed in vinegar. That’s. It. No olives, heaps of lettuce, or other strange vegetables adorn this dish, and they don’t need to! The simplicity is what makes it taste so good (but the super-fresh produce probably helps a lot too). Often restaurants will leave the creamy feta as a solid block atop the vegetables, allowing you to crumble it as you desire. Yum!
Giant Bean Salad
I stumbled over this culinary gem on my most recent visit to Greece, when I sailed the Ionian Sea for a week. Our hostess and chef made us phenomenal lunches every day, and one of the dishes that stuck with me the most was her Giant Bean Salad. It’s made with gigantes, huge white beans that are difficult to find outside of Europe, red onion, fresh dill and oregano, and a few dried herbs mixed with olive oil and vinegar to make a spectacular dressing.
Moussaka is a dish that has it all: creamy bechamel, hearty seasoned meat, smoky grilled eggplant, and sweet-spicy hit of nutmeg to make your entire mouth light up like a fireworks show. It’s a heavy meal, so ordering this means you should take it slow on your mezedes or you run the risk of offending the chef by sending back half the food! But it is a Greek specialty and a can’t-miss when you visit.
Okay, some Greeks might yell at me for putting a meze in the mains section of this guide. But have you ever had shrimp saganaki? There’s no way you can eat it an not come away full! So I always consider it a main dish. Fresh shrimp are drowned in a seasoned tomato sauce that’s packed full of perfect, delicious feta cheese and baked until everything is bubbly, hot, and delicious. Do not visit Greece without giving this one a try!
This is the closest you can get to authentic Greek ‘fast food’ (something that is a bit of an oxymoron in and of itself). Grilled meat (usually chicken, beef, or lamb) is stuck onto skewers or packed into a pillowy pita and served with lettuce, tomato, onion, and tzatziki sauce. It’s simple, but oh-so delicious (and always cheap!).
Lamb chops! No Greek food guide is complete without lamb on the menu. If you’re lucky enough to visit Greece during Easter, try to get invited to a family celebration, where they’ll roast an entire lamb on a spit from the early morning and serve it with tons of amazing side dishes. If not, then there’s paidakia. Lamb chops are marinated with olive oil, garlic, oregano, thyme, lemon, and generously seasoned, then cooked over a charcoal grill to lend a perfect smokiness that will have you coming back again and again.
If something like octopus is not normally on your personal menu, Greece is the place to get daring and give it a go. Nobody marinates, cooks, or serves this delicious maritime protein quite like the Greeks, so take a walk outside your culinary comfort zone and give it a try. Simple grilled octopus is the best way to sample this ocean delight, but wait until you’re at a taverna near the sea, so you can be sure it’s fresh.
Most Greeks simply dine of fresh fruit, maybe with a drizzle of honey, for their desserts. The cantaloupe melon in Greece is so unbelievably sweet, you might not believe it came from the earth! But if you’re looking for something a little more, ahem, caloric, Greek cuisine will still take care of you. By the time dessert rolls around, I’m usually too stuffed to even entertain the idea of it, but here are some favorites.
This is deep fried dough smothered in that famous wild Greek honey. Some call them Greek doughnuts, and I suppose they are somewhat similar in concept, but in execution they soar over the sugary, processed mess we call a doughnut in the USA.
What self-respecting Greek food guide wouldn’t include baklava? The honey, nuts, and phyllo dough concoction is famous the world over, even if it’s not my favorite Greek dessert (gasp!). Of course, just about every restaurant will have it on the menu, and it blows away anything you can get outside the motherland.
This is the custard cousin to baklava — buttery phyllo encases a slightly-grainy vanilla custard and is topped with a sweet syrup. It’s creamy, it’s sweet without being overpowering, and you can impress your friends that you know more Greek desserts than just baklava when you order it.
So that’s it! My guide to the best and brightest of Greek cuisine. What did I miss? What is your favorite Greek dish? Let me know in the comments!