A Lesson on Greek Food & Where to Find Good Greek Restaurants
Everyone knows that the ancient Greeks were leaders in astronomy and philosophy but what you may not know is that the first cookbook in history was written by a Greek, named Archestratos in 320 BC.
In those ancient times, the menu consisted predominately of the Mediterranean staples, olive oil, wheat and wine with some fish added. Today, Greek food has become legendary the world over with much more!
Who can resist tender calamari cooked on an open fire or a sweet Baklava dripping with honey?
OLIVES – THE START OF IT ALL
The warm Mediterranean climate is perfect for the growing of olives and this tradition dates back to ancient times. Legend has it that a battle between the Goddess Athena and God of the Sea, Poseidon, took place for possession of the City of Athens. Athena won when she presented an olive tree laden with this magnificent fruit. An olive tree still stands today in the original spot on the Acropolis. Olive leaves are used to crown the heads of kings and athletes, the wood from olive trees are used in house building and the rich oil is an integral part of Greek cuisine.
A MEZE FEAST TO START
The famous meze platter is the only way to start a Greek meal. This tradition is well known in Middle Eastern countries and offers the diners a large range of small dishes, each with a unique flavor. Sample Spanakopita, small parcels of spinach and feta, Hummus with Tahini and Tzatziki, a cool and refreshing cucumber, garlic and yogurt dip. Then move onto a rustic eggplant dip called Melanzanosalata and the iconic Dolmades, made from grape leaves and stuffed with pine nuts, currants and rice. No platter is complete without octopus dripping in olive oil and small crusty pieces of pita bread to soak it all up.
FRESHLY COOKED SEAFOOD
Greeks are great fisherman and the Aegean Sea is filled with the most tasty seafood. Small picture-perfect taverns on white sandy beaches offer up classics that will make you weak at the knees. Relax with a glass of wine and enjoy the scene of the owner cooking a whole fish on the open coals as the sun sets over the ocean. Basting is lovingly done by drizzling ladholemono, a lemon and oil dressing over the fish as it cooks. Try some lightly fried barbounia, red mullet or marida (whitebait). Calamari and prawns are equally as delicious and the fabulous tiny crispy sardines will thrill.
No baked dish gets more iconic than the classic Moussaka. In the style of an Italian lasagne it is made up of many layers. Sautéed aubergine, minced meat, fried puréed tomato, onion and potatoes are layered and spiced with garlic and cinnamon. Topping it all is a fluffy cheese and béchamel sauce.
Aubergines were introduced to Greece by the Arabs aeons ago but béchamel surely is French? History, explains all! During the Ottoman occupation in the early 1900’s, a Greek chef, Nikos Tselementes who grew up in Constantinople and trained in France, focused on ridding Greek cuisine of Turkish flavors. By adding the classic French sauce, béchamel, to moussaka, he freed the dish from its Turkish roots.
WINES OF GREECE
No meal is complete without a classic glass, or two, of wine and Greece offers some fabulous choices. Wine making in Greece dates back 1000’s of years and archaeologists claim that Greece is the origin of the first ever known crushed grapes. The God of Wine, Dionysus, was worshiped and wine flowed freely at banquets and celebrations. Retsina is probably the best known Greek wine. This white wine is said to derive its unique flavor from the Aleppo Pine resin which was used to seal the wine vessels in ancient times.
DON’T FORGET OUZO
Ouzo is a sweet, clear, strong alcoholic made from the by-products of grapes after they have been used for wine making, It is distilled and flavored with anise, which gives it a distinctive licorice taste. Greece holds the rights to the name and no similar drink made anywhere in the world can be called ‘Ouzo’! The name is thought to stem from the ancient Greek word ózó, meaning smell or the Turkish word ūzūm, meaning grape.
Drink it from a shot glass in the afternoon or early evening, it must be accompanied by a large plate of meze. If you add water or ice to the glass, the clear Ouzo becomes cloudy – always a conversation starter if you want to impress someone at the table.
Greek food pulls out all the stops when it comes to desserts. Luscious pastry weeping with honey and nuts, cool yogurt and smooth creamy lemon custards are the order of the day. Try the famous Baklava, made with layers of thin phyllo pastry filled with chopped nuts and drenched in honey. Then sample Finikia, a small cookie topped with chopped nuts. Galaktoboureko is a delectable baked custard layered in between sheets of phyllo pastry and drenched with lemon scented honey syrup.
For Christmas the delightful snowy-white Kourabiedes cookies are made with kneaded flour, butter and crushed roasted almonds and then sprinkled with loads of powdered sugar.
WHERE TO EAT GREEK FOOD ON THE PLANET
Greeks are avid explorers and over the centuries they have spread far and wide, taking their culture and traditions with them. One of the largest Greek communities outside of Athens can be found in Melbourne, Australia. MasterChef fans will know that this is the location of the famous Hellenic Republic, the inspiration of chef and judge George Calombaris. Enjoy traditional Greek cuisine in a taverna setting with a touch of fine-dining flair.
Then head for the idyllic island of Mykonos. Packed full of Greek eateries you can take your choice. Take a 4WD to a deserted beach where you will find a tiny tavern and the most delicious home-cooked meal made the local Yia Yia. Sit and soak up the paradise setting while enjoying Chickpea Soup, Revithosoupa and fried Greek cheese, Saganaki.
Then party the night away in Mykonos Town at Interni Restaurant where the Jet Setters meet. The classic blue and white décor setting speaks of traditional Greece but the vibe demands designer gear and Gucci sunglasses.
When in New York, you cannot miss Pylos in East Village. Order classic Pastitsio, a terrine of baked pasta layered with aromatic meat sauce and béchamel. Then head over to Queens, to Artopolis Bakery, where you will find the most scrumptious honeyed Baklava. Don’t let the dowdy strip mall dissuade you, the food is worth the trip!
Images: Shutterstock. Oia Village, Santorini/Scorpp; Olives/Ndd Works; Spanakopita/Viktory Panchenko; Greek seafood plate/Tupungato; Moussaka/Tashe4ka; Retsina wine/Balia; Ouzo/rawf8, Baklava/Alp Aksoy; Crete cafes/Vladimirs_Gorelovs