There are a few places in the world as astounding as Greece. Everything you see, touch, feel….and eat is part of a 3-4 millennial old cultural continuum, where Socrates and Plato established their ideas of a republic and governance, Aristotle studied and theorized, and Homer sang his great tales and ballads of heroes and gods. When I was 10 years old, I’d devour books of Greek mythology and history. Little did I know that a decade later I’d get to truly be able to immerse myself in it, and like my 10 year old self again, I devoured every minute of it. Literally.
I was fortunate enough to travel with an Italian friend who has spent a great deal of time in Greece. We started off in Athens for a few days, then went off the beaten tourist trap route to the beautiful little beach towns of Nafplio and Tolo, as well as spent some time on the islands of Hydra and Spetses. Greek culture is like a delicate baklava – it contains many layers from its ancient history, to modern culture, the friendly people, the government and refugee turmoil and the captivating food and flavors. I savored every little layer.
Although it was only my first trip to Greece, it was love at first sight. It quickly became one of my favorite European countries, because the food, scenery, history and people are phenomenal and unlike any other I have experienced. This is a list of my favorite dishes I had while on my travels. And when you eat them, savor the taste and the 6000 year old history for a true Greek experience. Yamas!
You know that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the Greek family is drinking, smashing glasses and yelling oppa? Well, they were drinking Greek’s favorite apertif, ouzo. Although they don’t really say oppa (“yamas” means cheers which is more often used) as often as Hollywood would make you believe, we can all agree that ouzo is amazing. It’s a licorice flavored alcohol forming from anise, clove and coriander. It’s clear in the bottle, but when poured over a single cube in a tall glass, it turns a milky white. It is made to sip over dinner and snacks, and definitely worth trying.
9. Greek Salad
Most Greek meals are served family style, and a Greek salad is just the staple at every meal. I love it for it’s simplicity and freshness, and it just the perfect example of Greek ingredients at its finest. Good Greek-pressed olive oil, fresh sweet tomatoes, fresh crumbling feta cheese and sweet red onions.
There’s an 90% chance you’ll be nearby a body of water on this peninsula, so there’s amazing seafood available at any moment. However, the octopus in Greece stands out among your usual seafood dishes. The various ways it’s prepped, cooked to be tender and marinated with various of Greeks flavors are never short of impressive and delicious.
Many Greek desserts are made with honey and nuts. Baklava is one of the best examples, with its layers upon layers of crispy phyllo dough, Greek honey and nuts. It’s simple, yet complex in its nutty, sweet and lemon flavors. Although its origin isn’t completely Greek, it’s popular and you can’t get it better back home.
It’s fried cheese, need I say more? The cheese varies from place to place, but it is often kesseri, halloumi or feta. It is fried to create a nice crispy golden crust, and bubbling inside. I could go on but I’m sure I had you at ‘cheese’.
Loukoumades are the original doughnuts. They’re fried dough balls drizzled in a honey syrup and topped with crushed walnuts. You can’t go wrong.
I would describe moussaka similar to an eggplant lasagna – there’s cheese and bechamel, but the Greek flavors of cinnamon and allspice add a whole new level.Instead of pasta, it’s layers of eggplant, potato, tomatoes and onion in a deliciously hearty, comforting dish.
Dolmades is my absolute favorite Greek dish, perhaps because it reminds me of some Asian foods with its rice wrapped in steamed leaves. The leaves made here, however, are grape leaves. The stuffing is usually composed of rice, ground meat, pine nuts and herb flavors of thyme and fennel, andit’s topped with a lemon and mint flavored yogurt sauce. It’s wonderfully complex, and comforting, yet not heavy. I could eat it as a meal, although it’s usually served as an appetizer, and still dream of good dolmades.
The Greek are masters of grilled meats. Souvlaki actually just means skewer, so it is anything on a skewer, from chicken to pork to lamb. You eat it with rice and/or fries and chase it with a beer. To me, pork souvlaki is better than bacon. There, I said it. Now go try it for yourself.
Gyro: it’s what you get when you combine already amazing pork souvlaki with fresh greek vegetables and wrap it all in a fluffy pita, maybe even add some fries to it. There is nothing more wonderful and Greek than a 2-4euro gyro, especially after a good ocean swim and beach day. They are abundant throughout Greece, but go to the spot where you see people flock. Chances are that is the local favorite.