I am impressed with what’s on offer in Greece, both the raw ingredients and prepared foods either in restaurants or in the grocery stores. Commonly used spices include allspice, cardamon, cloves, coriander, mahlab, mastic (also an after dinner drink), nutmeg, saffron, and sumac. I suggest you forget about ordering mintroduced by Nikolaos Tselementes, a Greek chef who worked in the St. Moritz Hotel in New York. Greek salad is everywhere and not as good as I have had in Greek restaurants abroad, lacking the dressing that gives the salad its zing, also lacking the spicy jarred peppers. There is a slice of feta atop, which is quite good but I find it lacks integration, and would be better if cubed. I suggest skipping it and trying some of the other salads or even the cooked vegetable side dishes.
Not to worry about losing these three dishes! There is a great deal to enjoy as you explore this complex, sophisticated cuisine. The Greeks love grilled meats. These they generally call souvlaki, served on a skewer sometimes with grilled vegetables. The meat is very tender, often marinated. Throw it on a pita bread and you have an inexpensive lunch, about 2.5 euros. A gyro is the equivalent of the kebab, which is the meat grilled on a vertical spit then shaved. You will find beef, chicken, pork and to a lesser extent lamb. Sandwiches may have fries inside. They are limp, as are those ordered separately or included in quantity. Fries in Greece do not rank with those of France, Belgium and Nederlands in my book, where they know how to fry them: a second time to make them crispy.
Saganaki is a fried cheese, the name coming from the pan in which the cheese is fried. The cheese is usually graviera, kefalograviera, halloumi, kasseri, kefalotyri, or sheep’s milk feta. Mussels or shrimp saganaki are served in a superb tomato base. The mussels I tried were heavenly at a small place near the port. The shrimp was in one case superb and in the other the sauce tasted like an Italian was in the kitchen, very good but not it did not seem Greek to me.
We have had several stews that were outstanding and which cost no more than 8 euros at a non-tourist restaurant. One near us called their dish “pork bites.” I have no idea what it is made from but a very rich flavor and amazingly tender pork. There are probably hundreds of recipes. The meat in general has been very tender and juicy, a matter of good igredients and technique.
There is a variety of cheese pies, in addition to spanakopita. Tiropita (or tyropita) is made from the usual layers of filo dough filled with a cheese and egg mixture. There are dozens of versions of these pies, served as main dishes or as snacks from the bakeries.
I have tried several main course vegetable dishes. The eggplant at our local restaurant called the Olýmpion (
Bakeries offer a wide selection of crusty bread, not as crunchy a crust as the bread that you get in Italy (the stuff you get in the US called Italian bread is a pale imitation). I was surprised to find a huge variety of bread sticks, much better than the tasteless crostini you sometimes find in Italy and the US. In Rome and other Italian cities you can find an excellent bread stick, a thick crusty one with sesame seeds, that are still my favorite even after tasting many of the Greek varieties. The Greek versions are nearly as good but there are many more varieties to choose from and they are widely available, although they do not serve them in restaurants. The restaurant bread is generally of high quality bakery bread.
The desserts are amazing. They are primarily made with honey, nuts, cream and fruit. There is the usual baklava, large servings rather than the tiny diamonds one finds in the US. Bougatsa is also made with filo then filled with a creamy custard. Diples are fried turnovers. Halva is made with with semolina flour or sesame with raisins and cinnamon. Melomakarona are soft cookies dipped in honey or syrup then covered with walnuts. At the Acropolis museum I had a kind of nut cake. I think there was nutmeg. I did not taste any honey. Kataifi is made with a dough that lookes like shredded wheat. You add walnuts and perhaps other nuts), clove and cinnamon, and covered with a lemon scented syrup. Wow!
The dessert possibilities are nearly endless. Writing this is making me hungry so I am stopping here.
The market near our house is top notch. Olives, melons, figs. Greens! The Greeks love greens. There are several varieties of cicoria like in Italy. They sell beet greens, and various forms of endive and a variety of lettuces. And reasonable prices, if not sometimes dirt cheap.
Wine. The white is very good, even the inexpensive ones. You can get a half liter of the house white for 4 to 6 euros and not be disappointed. We have only found one good red house wine and have spent as much as 13 euros for a bottle and still not found anything worth mentioning. Per one commentary, ” For fans of lively whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño, Greek white wines offer astounding quality for a reasonable cost. While Greek reds are not as uniformly compelling, the best bottlings are terrific.” Stick with the white or spend a lot.
After almost a month here I have barely begun to know the Greek kitchen. I certainly have a new appreciation for it.