Ahh Greece! Is there any place like it on earth? After all Greece is home to remnants of the beginnings of western civilization, the Parthenon, ancient temples and the very first Olympic Games. Greece inspired great thinkers and artists alike, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Homer. This country offers stunningly beautiful landscapes and amazing architecture. The azure sea, cerulean sky and whitewashed buildings of Santorini, windmills of Mykonos and eye popping natural beauty of Corfu, to name a few.
But let’s be honest here. When you think of Greece your mouth begins to water and not for the Acropolis, that’s for sure. While Greece is a country unlike any other, with oodles to offer her guests at the top of most “must do” lists when planning a trip to Greece? Food!!
Is it the friendly and welcoming people who live here? Or is it the stunning natural surroundings, the relaxing pace of life and appreciation of the little pleasures it brings that make food in Greece taste so spectacular? Who knows? But you need only try these dishes yourself to understand the food of Greece is like nowhere else in the world.
To help you enjoy each and every delectable bite during your Greek vacation we’ve put together a list of some of my favorite Grecian noshes. Here are my must-try foods in Greece.
The Mediterranean climate in Greece serves as the perfect nurturing environment for growing olives. The olive tree is practically an emblem of Mediterranean life.
Greeks found, long ago, that slight differences in soil and climate change the flavor and appearance of the fruit. That’s why, in Greece, there are over 60 different varieties, each with its own distinct character.
There’s more than just Kalamata olives in Greece but Kalamata olives are the most popular. Take the opportunity to sample many different Greek olives while in Greece. Quite often you’ll find markets with a large selection of different local olives.
Olives with bread serve as a traditional breakfast or light snack in many parts of Greece. Olives are also a food product associated closely with the Greek-Orthodox religion. During the period of fasting no meat or cheese are allowed so olives were served to stave off hunger. Nutrient-rich with a good helping of healthy fat olives did the trick. Nature’s powerbar!
The poet Homer once referred to Greek olive oil as “liquid gold” and according to the Greeks, he was right. Ancient Greeks used olive oil daily as a food supplement to support a healthy and long life, as a moisturizer for the skin, as a hair pomade along with many other uses. Liquid gold indeed!
Today grecian olive oil is considered to be of the highest quality. The fruit-heavy aroma and easy flavor is proved by the fact that extra-virgin Greek olive oil comprises at least 80% of olive oil production. Olive oil continually tops the list of the top food exports from the country.
In Greece the consumption of olive oil is calculated to be anywhere from 18 liters per person nationally to a whopping 31 liters on the isle of Crete, a huge producer of olive oil.
In Greece olive oil is primarily used for cooking, however it’s also drizzled on salads, bread and vegetables. There is a category of food the Greeks refer to as “lathera”derived from the Greek word for olive oil, “lathi” and means “the olive oil one”. These are, for the most part, vegetables which have been cooked in olive oil.
Although Greeks traditionally use olive oil for cooking they don’t commonly fry with olive oil. It’s believed to become unhealthy when used at high temperatures. It should also be noted olive oil has a fairly low smoking point which renders food unappetizing once it reaches the smoking point.
Courgette Balls/Zucchini Balls/Kolokythokeftedes
Greek Kolokithokeftedes are a very popular appetizer. The name translates into “zucchini meatballs” however traditional kolokithokeftedes do not contain any meat. They are purely vegetarian and truly delicious.
You can find these delectable part fritter, part pancake “meze” in most of Greece but they originated on the Isle of Crete. They are an amazing and tasty combination of grated zucchini, mixed herbs and feta cheese, fried crispy on the outside, tender and moist on the inside. Kolokithokeftedes appear on menus throughout Greece, from high-end restaurants to family-run tavernas, an authentic taste of Greece.
The Greeks have enjoyed eating octopus for millennia and it remains a very popular dish on the menu of many of Greece’s psarotaverna, or fish taverns. Octopus is typically served freshly caught after being grilled over a charcoal fire and seasoned with an ample dose of fresh lemon juice. Many local families share a meal of octopus after a long and lazy beach day.
Once the octopus is caught it must be prepared before cooking. Traditionally the octopus is hung on a line to dry in the sun before it’s grilled. Surprisingly tender and easy to eat octopus is a must-try when visiting Greece.
Psari Sta Karvouna
Have you ever noticed the simplest dishes, when enjoyed fresh, are some of the most memorable? This version of grilled fish is no exception.
Greece is made up of many islands and a very generous sea surrounds these land masses. Fish is one of the most popular and available proteins in Greece. Because of the warm climate, grilling is the preferred method for cooking the “catch of the day”.
When preparing Greek grilled fish there is no need to marinate or include a sauce. The luscious flavor you taste is simply the way fish is supposed to taste. Enjoy this popular dish al fresco, in the sunshine, beside the water with a nice cold drink and crisp salad.
Ordering a selection of Greek meze, or appetizers, is a wonderful way to taste many of the flavors of Greece. One of my favorite meze is taramasalata. Essentially, taramasalata is made from salted and cured Roa (usually from cod, carp or mullet) combined with olive oil, lemon juice, potato (sometimes bread), garlic and sometimes almonds, green spring onions and peppers.
Try this tasty pink or beige spread on bread or dip on some vegetables. You’ll surely enjoy this traditional Greek meze which is typically served on “Clean Monday” the first day of lent for Greeks.
In the United States most people are familiar with stuffed grape leaves, or dolmades. In Greece, traditional dolmades are made from cabbage leaves or vine/grape leaves. They are stuffed with an herbed rice mixture and steamed until very tender. Some recipes call for ground meat added to the rice mixture, but typically the dolmades are meat-free.
As part of a meze, dolmades are typically served at room temperature or sometimes chilled, unless meat is included in the filling.
Giant White Beans
A popular and delicious traditional Greek dish is Gigantes Plaki or Giant White Beans. The beans, called gigantes, are grown in several areas of Greece that have a Protected Geographical Indication status due to the unique environment in which these beans are grown. They are similar to large butter beans or lima beans.
To make this fantastic dish the beans are combined with plenty of garlic, onions, tomatoes, fresh parsley and olive oil and roasted for a few hours. The flavors mingle and the end result is to-die-for! Especially when topped with some feta and served with crusty bread.
Once you see koulouri Thessalonikis you’ll recognize this iconic greek snack food. Although you can find koulouri in bakeries and on menus throughout the country, the best way to sample one of these bagel-like sesame encrusted bread rings is from a street vendor.
The crunchy breakfast food is served either sweet or savory and traditionally enjoyed with feta, tomatoes, graviera (a greek cheese similar to gruyere) and/or kalamata olives. If you prefer a sweeter snack top with honey or jam and butter.
You’re probably familiar with the buttery multi-layered nut and honey pastry that melts in your mouth but you may not know the long and contested history of Greece's favorite pastry.
No doubt Greeks and Turks have had an involved rivalry that spans centuries but it is possible it began over a pastry. One version of the history of baklava claims it originated with the Assyrians who had been making a dessert, of sorts, from layers of unleavened bread, nuts and honey, then baked in a wood fired oven.
When the ancient Greek merchants began traveling to Mesopotamia they brought back the recipe, perfected it by using “Phyllo” dough (which, translated means leaf) and gave us the delectable delight we now know and love.
Other historians claim baklava originated in ancient Greece and evolved from the earlier version called gastrin. The Turks and Byzantines also lay claim to the origin of the world’s favorite pastry. While the pre-ottoman origin of this mouth-watering, lip-smacking treat is unknown, we’d all like to thank the person who created the first baklava.
If you think the Greeks and Turks rivalry over baklava is fierce don’t ask about the famous spanakopita, or, spinach pie. Similar to baklava, spanakopita uses the light and flaky phyllo dough and fills it with a mixture of spinach, lemon juice, dill and feta cheese.
This delicious and nutritious hand pie was a favorite of field hands who would put them in their pockets and enjoy as they worked. These pies are popular throughout Greece and can be found in upscale restaurants, diners, tavernas and even from some street vendors.
There is no more refreshingly appetizing and lovely to look at dish in Greece than traditional Greek salad. Very unlike the version served in most American restaurants, the authentic Greek salad doesn’t contain any lettuce. There are no beets, no pineapple and the salad isn’t drowning in some version of “creamy feta dressing”.
The true Greek salad or Horiatiki salad is made with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, bell pepper, feta, olives and in some areas caper berries. The salad is then dressed simply. A drizzle of “liquid gold”, a sprinkle of salt and a pinch of Greek oregano. Enjoy this fresh and exquisite salad and you’ll never look at the Americanized version the same!
Greeks enjoy coffee anytime of day and anytime of year. Coffee is a part of their culture. Its a great way to start the day but also a nice ritual when you unwind with your friends. An iced version of this Grecian favorite is even better in the summer months.
For several decades now Greeks have been enjoying their Freddo and Frappe, iced coffee drinks. The Freddo is offered as an espresso or cappuccino drink. The espresso version features one shot of espresso poured hot into a metal vessel. Ice cubes and sugar are added and the drink is blended. The blending of the hot and cold creates the foam. The Freddo Cappuccino is simply the espresso version with the addition of milk.
The story of the Greek Frappe is an interesting one. Quite by accident a representative of Nescafe in Thessaloniki created the drink by shaking the coffee with sugar and what developed was the Greek frappe we know today. The Frappe is available in three degrees of sweetness, depending on your taste. Sometimes this refreshing treat is made with water and evaporated milk and sometimes just the milk.
Ouzo is an anise-flavored aperitif enjoyed throughout Greece. Produced from the grape-must leftover after wine making it is a distilled spirit, often flavored with anise and sometimes other spices.
True ouzo only comes from Greece or Cypress. This potent liquor has a strong flavor and packs a powerful punch. Though customarily served neat (without ice) in a tall glass, some prefer to weaken it a bit with water much like the French pastis. When you request a side of water your ouzo can be gently diluted. And again like pastis, adding water turns the liquid from clear to cloudy.
There are ouzo bars, called ouzeries, throughout Greece. Not only are they popular for serving different types of ouzo but they also serve some delicious mezethes (an array of meze) for you to enjoy. Enjoying your mezethes and ouzo is a very Greek way to socialize.
Bring Home Some Beautiful Memories
That’s a list of some of my personal recommendations, but with my suggestion that if something looks interesting to you-try it! You can go home and tell one and all you discovered a whole new world filled with food and beauty-Greece!
You'll have a chance to taste these foods during our food tour to Athens and during the Greek Island Fantasy Tour.