An inside look at Greek food culture: how to eat and drink like the locals
The further you venture into the world, the stranger the food gets. There is nothing unusual about this, after all, different cultures and climates create radically different cuisine sometimes. In this article, we will have a brief look at the Greek food and drink culture. You will learn a few interesting facts, what you should definitely try, and also what to expect from the friendly people of the Mediterranean.
A bit about the culture…
Aside from stereotypes, the Greek have quite a different temper from most Western nations.
You can get a hint at this if you look at how they start their day. In most languages you may say “good morning”, but not in Greece. The traditional greeting is “kalimera”, which derives from the words kali (meaning beautiful or simply good) and imera (meaning day). So basically, they already start with the day part, not the morning. The morning concerns them little and so does breakfast. Homemade yogurts, fruits may be consumed, but a heavy breakfast is more like a rarity. However they have lunch earlier, then comes the siesta in the early afternoon.
Evenings are much more eventful, families gather around and have long dinners with multiple courses. They stay up late, have a good time, and get up late in the morning. Quite a lifestyle if you ask a Northerner.
They can eat a lot, but still, most of what they eat is healthy, which, as you will see later from this article is because of the ingredients.
There are a lot of similarities between Greek and Turkish food. Kebab, and gyros, for example, are two very well-known examples which the two cuisines share among many others, like souvlaki. In fact, there are some food and drinks the origin of which no one is really sure about.
Those who visit both countries will notice that there is a slight difference in the use of yogurt – there is much more of it in the Turkish tzatziki for example.
But back to the Greek foods!
(Maybe another word about yogurt: it also has a very important place in Greek cuisine. Most prominently maybe because it is the basic ingredient of tzatziki. And if you are looking for some light diluted yogurt, you may have to search for quite a while. Greek yogurts are heavy and thick.)
Gyros is quite simple in Greece, but you can also encounter some surprises along the way. I know someone who once wanted to have simple gyros in Thessaloniki and discovered in shock that it was filled with ketchup and mustard.
But in basic gyros (especially in the South) only onions, tomatoes, tzatziki, the meat, and fries go in the thick pita and nothing else.
If you go to a restaurant you will find that they love appetizers, also known there as meze. A meze may be grilled feta cheese with sauces and tomatoes, pita and several other finger-foods.
Fish and lamb are prominent and so are the different kinds of Mediterranean fruits and vegetables like zucchini, tomatoes, and of course olives.
Sunflower oil is rarely ever used here, everything is prepared with olive oil, which is not surprising for a country with so many olive groves. Olive trees grow olives every two years which are then being shook off into great nets and prepared in household presses.
What goes on the side and on the food
Oh, and a word about tzatziki. A lot of souvenir shops offer it and other local spices, but don’t let them fool you: whatever they may tell you, you just won’t get that same taste. You have a much greater chance of recalling your culinary experiences by starting from the basics, looking up some Greek recipes and preparing everything for yourself.
Oregano is also a very common spice, they put it on everything, even on fries with a little lemon and olive oil (which might sound strange, but I assure you is delicious).
They tend to spice up everything a little, and sometimes with the most unusual ingredients. For example, in tomato sauce they often put cinnamon, which gives it a really special taste.
Drink like a Spartan
Ouzo is probably the most prominent of Greek drinks. It is considered an aperitif and tastes similar to anise liqueurs which pretty much all Mediterranean countries share – Greeks often dilute it with water, which gives the originally transparent liquid a milk-like color.
If you travel to Greece you most certainly have to try it, but be advised: some foreigners and particularly those from non-Mediterranean countries often don’t really like the taste of it.
Another divisive drink is the retsina wine, which has been a part of local culture for more than two millennia. This white (or sometimes rosé) wine has only lovers and haters, there is little to none middle ground. Locals tend to love it, but I personally have heard some say things about retsina like “give it to a priest and ask him to bless your future choices in wine in return”.
Coffee is also present, but if you want to try something a bit more local than your usual morning black, you should get familiar with frappé coffee. Of course, today you can just order a frappuccino at Starbucks, but I guarantee you that you won’t even be in the ballpark of the original Greek frappé.
It can be made in a lot of different ways, with various amounts of milk and sugar. A common summer drink of Greeks, in hot weather you can find many of them in the parks sipping their icy frappe for hours at a time.
It is also good for your health
As I have mentioned it earlier, traditional Greek cuisine is also a pretty healthy one. It is not a coincidence that there are even dietary systems that use it as a basis. The fruits, vegetables, the fish and other components tend to be high on nutrients and low on fat.
Meat is not as prominent as you might think. Festivals, celebrations of course have a lot of meat, mainly sheep or goat, but in everyday meals you can find much less than in other European countries.
These animals naturally are also used for their milk, which is the basis of the Greek yoghurt that we have talked about earlier and which you can find in many meals.
Dessert is another thing that is a rarity. When the Greek have dessert, they usually have fruits (fresh or dried), maybe with some honey on it to give it a sweet taste, and accompanied by mavrofadni or similar wines. Richer desserts can be also found, but just like meat, they are more likely to turn up on special occasions.
Where to go to eat?
Well, you can always choose restaurants, but the true experience awaits elsewhere.
In the countryside, on farms and vineyards you can try out the best local foods Greece can offer: they tend to prepare everything from local ingredients and the local flavors can also differ greatly. (Remember the Thessaloniki gyros – that, for example, may be so strange because Macedonia is near, which is reflected in culinary customs)
Also, if you want the best drinks and moussaka, yemista, you should look for small local taverns. They also have quite an atmosphere. Also, many of them are family businesses, in operation for multiple generations, with their own recipes and hospitable owners.
And if you go to a restaurant near the sea, be sure to try out a wide range of seafood! Not only it is healthy, they have great experience in making it taste great.
It would be impossible to give you a full guide in Greek foods, and honestly it is also uncalled for. You have to experience it yourself! And the best is not to just prepare some meals on their own in your own kitchen. A few days, weeks or even more in this beautiful country will completely transform what you have earlier thought about some food.
So do that: the beautiful Mediterranean climate and friendly locals, beautiful scenery make it a perfect holiday destination, and not only for gourmet tourism.