Greek cuisine has very ancient roots. It has been influenced from different customs and habits that the Greeks have been in contact with, from the East in the past and from the West in more recent times. Greek cuisine in turn has colored the dietary habits of others, especially in Southern Italy, Spain and Mediterrenean France.
The first cookbook in recorded history was written by a Greek, Archestratos, in 320 B.C.
Ancient Greek cuisine established the “Mediterrenean triad”: olive oil, wine and wheat. Cheese especially from sheep and goat’s milk featured frequently, and fish and meat formed the basis for other recipes. Like elsewhere in the Mediterrenean Sea, meat has become truly readily available only in recent decades.
Some current spread dishes date back to ancient Greece like lentil soup, retsina (rosé or white wine with pine resin) and pasteli (candy with sesame seeds and honey). Loukaniko, instead, dates back to the Hellenistic and Roman period. Byzantine cuisine included revolutionary changes by introducing new ingredients like nutmeg, lemons, basil and caviar. Moreover, Constantinople was a global hub for the spice trade, with consequences for everyday cooking.
In this period, feta cheese and paximadi (a traditional bread, discussed further below) became commonplace.
The most characteristic element of current Greek cuisine is certainly olive oil, but other vegetables play a fundamental role – tomato, eggplant, green beans, green peppers, onions and potatoes.
Greek cuisine also employs many flavorings like oregano, garlic, mint, dill and bay laurel leaves. Moreover, many recipes include spices, especially in combination with meat, like cinnamon and cloves in stews.
Another common choice for meat dressing is yoghurt, like for souvlaki and gyros pita. Lamb meat is traditional and it is cooked especially for holidays like Christmas or Easter.
One of the most important ingredients (even for the famous Greek Salad) is feta cheese. This cheese is made from sheep’s milk, but it may include some goat’s milk. Usually, it comes from mountainous regions and the sheep traveling long distances (and the high number of different types of grass which they eat) contributes to the special taste of this cheese. It is even used in other famous dishes like tyropia and spanakopita, which are also served in fast food restaurants.
Greek honey is also a staple in Hellenic cuisine. This variant is quite dark and it mainly comes from the nectar of fruit trees and citrus trees like lemon, orange and bitter orange trees. Other similar spreads are thyme and pine honey. A special mention goes to “mastic”, an ivory coloured resin which is grown only in Chios.
The typical places for eating outdoors are Taverna and Estiatorio.
Apart from famous typical dishes like moussaka, tzatziki, keftethes, boureki, baklava, halva and kadaifi, Greek cuisine is very diverse. We will try to describe it more or less region by region starting from the Peloponnese.
The Peloponnese is Greece’s fertile southernmost peninsula and its cuisine is very rich in vegetables and fruit, olives and olive oil like for preparing Arni me votana, a lamb dish with herbs and vegetables. The sea, instead, provides locals with shellfish and crustaceans. Some very traditional dishes are prepared, in fact, with lobster and crab which are normally char-grilled or crumbed and fried, then served with sea salt, olive oil, lemon juice and herbs. Kaimaki, a sweet cream, is also traditional and it’s usually served with pastries or walnuts and honey.
Athens, instead, has a very varied cuisine thanks to its mixed population: a real Greek (and not only) melting pot. Among its traditional dishes are Mprizoles, a pork or beef steak cooked with lemon juice and olive oil, and Sparangia kai aginares: artichoke hearts and asparagus boiled in olive oil and lemon juice.
As for Central and western Greece, local recipes include spicy pies and cheese. Bourtheto, a coastal dish consisting of small fish cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, is also popular. Another delicacy is Spetzofay, spicy sausage flavoured with herbs and vegetables. Glyko kastano is a popular desser – chestnut pudding combined with honey and orange.
Ionian cuisine has been influenced, more than any other part of Greece, from Italian cuisine due to Venetian rule of the islands. A very ancient element is the Zante currants, dried berries of the grape variety “Black Corinth” from Zakynthos. In Corfu, a popular dish is Tsigareli, cabbage with fresh tomato, potatoes, herbs and red spicy peppers. The most symbolic dish, however, is Pastitsada. Pastisada is a traditional Sunday dinner in Corfu and Italian influence is apparent. It is prepared with macaroni, olive oil, onions, sliced garlic cloves, black pepper, vinegar, cinnamon, tomatoes and grated kefalotyri or Parmesan cheese.
Cretan cuisine is generally based on seasonal products which underwent minimal processing. Even if from the ’60, the traditional cuisine has changed, it remains one of the most traditional in Greece. Fresh and dried fruits, herbs, aromatic plants and rough cereals are widespread, due to the warm regional climate. Dairy products are still nowadays consumed on a daily basis and also fish is very common. Red meat was consumed sparingly in the past, in the order of a few times a month, but now it’s much more common and it is usually accompanied by local red wines. Fruit-made sweets make up the dessert, like Amygdalopita (with almonds) and Portokalopita (with oranges). A traditional sweet is Patouda: sweet pillows of crisp pastry filled with honey, nuts, seeds and spices, usually served with strong coffee.
A very typical dish that deserves mention is the Cretan Paximadi. The Paximadi is a double-baked bread that is 90% barley and 10% wheat. It was the typical food of shepherds and sailors because of its very long shelf life. Moreover, each piece of paximadi is three times more nutritive than one slice of common bread. A special variety of paximadi is ntakos even called koulouri and it is specific to Creta. It is a round paximadi and it is served with tomatoes and feta cheese. It is soaked in olive oil or water before being seasoned.
Northern Greek (and Macedonian) cuisine is also relatively authentic. This had an important boost in the Hellenistic period. In the wedding party of Caranus, which took place in the 4th o 3rd century B.C., the wedding menu consisted of eggs, oysters and grilled fish. The arrival of Greek refugees from Costantinople in the 20th century introduced new elements in Macedonian cuisine like Tahini, Halva and Gemista. Current specialities of this area are trahanas, tyrokfagteri (a Macedonian spicy cheese) and mydia yiachni (mussel stew).
Turkish dishes are common in Thrace due to migration. An example is Kavourmas cured meat whose name comes from the Turkish word “kayurma” which means “roasting”. This salami is made with pork, cow or beef (even buffalo in Macedonia). It is cut and cooked in its own fat called “voutero”. Then it’s dressed with olive oil, black pepper, cinnamon, clovesor and oregano. It can be served as “meze”, small dishes, with alcoholic drinks, or cooked with eggs and vegetables.