Like Chinese food, Greek food in North America has been reinterpreted to meet North American expectations of a food richer in meat and dairy. For instance, Greek Salad is called Horiatiki in Greece. While in Greece the salad has feta and cucumber, it doesn’t have lettuce in it — only the North American version of the salad does (usually iceberg lettuce.)
Greek cooking is ingredient based, as opposed to French cooking, which is technique based. And of course, for thousands of years, the prime ingredients in Greek food have remained olive oil, grains (wheat and barley) and wine.
Cooking methods including boiling, broiling (aka grilling in the UK) and frying.
Coffee is frappé, made with instant coffee.
Travellers joke that the time zone is GMT – Greek Maybe Time.
Greek products aren’t really marketed yet the way the Italians market theirs.
The traditional leavener for bread in Greece is a sourdough starter. Wheat flour was often stretched by mixing in cheaper barley flour; barley grows more reliably in the Greek climate.
Special breads are made for different occasions such births, baptisms and weddings. When you lose something, you can make a bread dedicated to St Farnourio to help you find your lost item.
Street food in Greece is plentiful, offering savoury pies such as tyropita and spanakopita, and souvlaki.
Bars really only started becoming common in the 1960s to respond to tourists. They won’t serve any food other than nuts, or olives. Hamburgers arrived in Athens in 1969.
Greece doesn’t actual have a long-standing restaurant tradition, and certainly no public haute cuisine restaurant tradition. Not many people eat out in public alone, or anywhere alone for that matter.
Despite this, Greece has many places where you can eat out in public; there are a least a dozen different types of establishments:
- Estiatorio — restaurant. A formal restaurant. Though ethnic restaurants are found in Greece, the food is generally not considered good, except for perhaps some Italian restaurants;
- Fastfundadhiko — fast food places;
- Furnos — a place that sells savoury pies;
- Kafeneion — coffee shop. Will serve both coffee and spirts, like Italian bars. You can sit for hours, playing cards or backgammon. Often at least two in every village, with each having different political affiliations. Usually only men go to them;
- Kafeteria — cafeteria;
- Kreperi– a place that sells pancakes. Can be a stall or a restaurants;
- Mezethopoleion — a place that serves meze;
- Ouzeria — a place that serves ouzo. Also sells meals, many also now sell other kinds of alcohol;
- Paradhosiaki psarotaverna — seafood restaurants along the coast;
- Suvlatzidhiko — souvlaki street stalls;
- Taverna — a casual restaurant, also serves alcoholic drinks;
- Zaharoplastio — a bakery that has a table or two where you can sit down to enjoy your baked good.
Most eating habits have been shaped by the Orthodox Church. Religious fast days are still widely observed, on which meat, dairy and eggs can’t be eaten. Even McDonald’s in Greece will serve special foods on those days. Many Greek dishes have a second, meatless version of them for fast days.
Easter is the big time of the year; it is bigger than Christmas. On Maundy Thursday, boiled eggs are dyed bright red. On Good Friday, flags throughout the country fly at half mast and there are sombre processions throughout towns. On the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday, people go to Church at 11 pm to a midnight service, and fireworks are set off at midnight. A late night meal is then eaten afterwards of eggs, pork, cheese, lamb and lemon soup, bread, wine, etc. Lamb is served on Easter Sunday.
- In Classical Greece, July was considered to be the start of the New Year, because the wheat harvest in Greece starts in July;
- Many saints in Greece have their feast days in July, which are still actually observed;
- Religious festivals are based on a modified Julian calendar different from the Gregorian calendar used in the West;
- Instead of celebrating birthdays, Greeks celebrate the name day of the saint they are named after;
- In Greece, instead of Friday the 13th being unlucky, it is Tuesday the 13th, because it was on a Tuesday in 1453 that Muslims conquered Constantinople (to be precise, Tuesday, 29 May 1453.)
Greek cooking features many one-pot meals.
When starters are served for fancier meals, they are called “meze.”
Meat and fish dishes are served on their own with no side veg — though sometimes potatoes will appear.
Wine is taken with most meals except breakfast.
Breakfast is a cup of coffee and a bun.
Lunch is the biggest meal of the deal. It generally starts around 1:30 to 2 pm. Lunch plus a siesta afterward will last until 5 pm.
Dinner is served around 10 pm.
Traditionally, meat was rarely eaten, though with the advent of prosperity finally in the late 1900s, people started to eat more meat. Lamb is served for social occasions and Easter; pork is served at Christmas and New Year.
People on the coast of Greece don’t eat as much fish and seafood as you’d think, because the Aegean Sea isn’t really overabundant, and the best of what they catch is often sold to inland markets. Fish have always been expensive in Greece — even in classical Greek plays, characters complained of how much fish cost in the market. Fish is served at funerals and on Annunciation Day (25 March.)
Olive Oil in Greece
Greece is the third-largest producer of olive oil in the world, producing 400,000 tonnes as of 2006. Greeks consume 75% of that internally and export the remaining 25%. Of the 25% (100,000 tonnes) exported, only 6% of that (6,000 tonnes) is sold abroad labelled as Greek as of 2006.
Most olive oil producers are small ones. They pick the olives by hand, and send them to co-ops for pressing. Twenty-five brands of Greek olive oil have either PDO or PGI designation.
In Greek, “horta” (“χόρτα”) means “greens”, either for salad or cooking with, whether cultivated or gathered from the wild.
Greeks eat salad greens from the wild such as dandelions and purslane, and grow chicory, mustard greens and amaranth shoots.
Legumes such as beans, chickpeas and lentils are important; fresh (as opposed to dried then boiled) broad beans are often served.
Popular vegetables include artichokes, green beans, zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant.
Popular flavourings are garlic, onion, dill, celery, fennel, mint, bay leaves, cinnamon and cloves. Cinnamon and cloves are often used in savoury dishes.
Foods such as Greek Salad (with loads of feta), moussaka, gyros, dolmades and spanakopita are not particularly “healthy” in the eyes of modern dietitians. In November 2000, the American Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC, warned that such food was as heart unhealthy as any fast food.
Mainland Greece was ruled by Turkey until 1829; Crete until the early 1900s. The first important modern Greek cookbook appeared in the 1920s, written by Nicolas Tselementes.
Prosperity only started to arrive in Greece in the mid-1960s; at the same time, Christmas started to become a big celebration.
Greek food shows both Eastern and Western influences. Many of the Greek islands have their own slightly different cuisines, depending on who occupied them, when, and for how long. There are Venetian and English influences in the Ionian Islands; Turkish and Genovese influences in Chios; Arab, Turkish and Venetian influences in Crete; and Turkish influences in Lesbos. Yoghurt is particularly used in cooking on Crete, showing the Turkish influence.
When talking about historical influences on their food, however, Greeks prefer to reach back to Classical Greece and de-emphasize the Turkish occupation of almost 500 years. If one is reaching back, though, it’s probably more accurate to reach back to the Byzantine Empire, which was Greek, sustained through the centuries by the Greek Orthodox church, though there no cookbooks that came out of the church or monasteries during the Byzantine period to really document this.
Through the centuries of Turkish occupation, there were mountainous parts of Greece which were never truly subjugated.
Chou, Hsiao-Ching. It’s just a myth that traditional Greek foods are unhealthy. Seattle, Washington: Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 8 November 2000.
Hermano, Raphael. No more Italian labels on our olive oil, Greece says. Agence France-Presse. 21 June 2006.
Kremezi, Aglaia. Some Thoughts on the Past, Present, and Future of Greek Food. Greekworks.com 1 November 2001. Retrieved October 2005 from http://www.greekworks.com/content/index.php/weblog/extended/some_thoughts_on_the_past_present_and_future_of_greek_food/.