National Specialities

Find out about some of the traditional meals and food products you can expect in Greece...

Most Greek dishes can be found throughout the country. Each region also has local specialities or variations on the common dishes.

Spices

Greek food is always flavoured using the rich variety of herbs and spices available in the country. The spicing tends to be quite mild and aromatic - there are few very hot dishes in Greek cuisine. Herbs and spices are often used fresh and the most commonly used are: basil, bay leaves, oregano, cinnamon (with meat), parsley, black pepper and dill.

Vegetarian "everyday" dishes

Note that for the first four, the name of the dish is also the name of the main ingredient.

  • Fakes (?????): Lentil casserole with onions, tomatoes and garlic; eaten with feta cheese
  • Fassolada (????????): Bean stew with tomatoes, carrots and onions
  • Arakas (??????): Pea casserole with onions; eaten with feta cheese
  • Bamies (???????): Okra in tomato sauce
  • Gemista (???????): Tomatoes and green peppers stuffed with rice (also made with other vegetables)
  • Fassolakia (?????????): Beans stewed in the pod with tomato sauce
  • Spanakorizo or Tomatorizo (??????????? ? ??????????): Spinach or tomato with rice
  • Kritharaki (?????????): Orzo with onions in tomato sauce
  • Horta (?????): Greens which are boiled and eaten with olive oil and lemon juice; usually served with fried potatoes

Vegetarian accompaniments and mezedes

  • Dolmades (?????????): Vine leaves stuffed with rice
  • Kolokythokeftedes (????????????????): Pumpkin, aubergine or courgette, mashed and mixed with flour and fried as patties
  • Pites (?????): Pastries, stuffed, usually with cheese and/or spinach
  • Gigantes (????????): Large butterbeans in tomato sauce
  • Patzaria (????????): Pickled beetroot
  • Mavromatika (???????????): Black-eyed beans with raw red onion and olive oil
  • Fava (????): Mashed chickpeas served with onion and olive oil and showered with lemon juice
  • Kolokythakia (???????????) or Melitzanes tiganites (?????????? ?????????): Battered and deep fried courgettes or aubergines
  • Tzatziki (????????): Yogurt sauce with cucumber and a lot of garlic

Main dishes

  • Kleftiko (????????): Slow-baked lamb on the bone
  • Pastitsio (?????????): Baked pasta with white sauce and mince meat
  • Keftedes (????????): Meatballs
  • Stifado (???????): Rabbit or venison with shallots, cinnamon and red wine sauce
  • Brizoles (?????????): Grilled beef steaks or pork chops
  • Moussaka (????????): Baked aubergines with minced meat, potatoes and Béchamel sauce

Seafood dishes

  • Grilled fish: Various types of fish grilled whole over charcoal
  • Fish in batter: Small fish fried in batter and eaten whole
  • Garides tiganites (??????? ?????????): Fried shrimp
  • Garides psites (??????? ?????): Grilled shrimp
  • Kalamarakia tiganita (??????????? ????????): Deep-fried squid in batter
  • Grilled octopus (??????? ??? ????????): Octopus tentacles served grilled
  • ?arinated octopus (X?????? ??????): Octopus in vinegar

Meat accompaniments and mezedes

Many of the main dishes mentioned above are served as mezedes in smaller portions.

  • Pastourmas (??????????): An eastern dish of dried camel meat
  • Taramosalata (????????????): Sauce with fish roe, olive oil, lemon and seasoning

Regional specialities

Although Greek food is generally similar across the country there are some regional specialities. The regional foods reflect the country's history, with influences from Asia Minor in the foods of the North Eastern Aegean and the Dodecanese, while Corfu and some of the Cycladic islands have Florentine and Italian influences.

Greek food is also influenced by geography. As would be expected, fish is very common, as are chicken and goat on the mountainous islands.

Dishes associated with specific celebrations

Easter Sunday:

  • Magiritsa: Soup made with lamb intestines. Eaten after midnight or early on Sunday morning when returning from church
  • Kokoretsi: Spit-roasted lamb offal
  • Arni: Spit-roasted lamb

Clean Monday - the start of Lent:

Large meals of shellfish, octopus and other seafood (but not fish) are served with unleavened bread (Lagana).

Christmas:

Although there are no traditional Greek Christmas day meals, many families eat turkey, following the imported tradition.

New Year's Day:

  • Vasilopita (??????????): A bread cake with a coin baked inside. The cake is cut into slices, one for each person present and one for the house and is then distributed in order of age. The belief is that the person who gets the slice with the coin will have good luck over the following year

Desserts

There is a rich tradition of pastries in Greece; many originate from certain islands and from Izmir (historically Smyrna).

  • Baklava (?????????): Filo pastry with honey and cracked pistachio nuts
  • Pasta (?????): The name for small sweet creamy cakes from Zacharoplasteia (??????????????)
  • Loukoumades (???????????): Deep-fried pastry (like doughnuts) served with honey
  • Galaktoboureko (???????????????): Pastry with cream and honey inside
  • Kourabiedes (????????????): A crescent-shaped shortbread covered with icing sugar
  • Karidopita (??????????): A very sweet walnut cake
  • Chalvas pita (??????): A dessert made from sesame seeds

Restaurants often serve slices of melon (watermelon or honeydew) or sliced apple with cinnamon at the end of the meal for no extra charge.

Olive Oil

Historically, oil was very important to the development of ancient Greece and it remains an integral ingredient in the majority of Greek dishes. About 60 percent of cultivated land in Greece is devoted to olive groves. Some Greeks may own land in the countryside where they have or once had family and let out this land to a farmer who collects and presses the olives.

Oil is dribbled over salads and cold dishes such as tzatziki and is added to stews such as Fakes and used to baste meat that is going to be grilled or cooked. Most meals in Greece contain olive oil, and sometimes a surprisingly large amount of oil is added. Olive oil is generally considered a “healthy” oil – when not used for frying – as it is high in monounsaturated fats.

Olive oil is not well suited to frying food. However, because of a lack of alternatives it has long been used for this purpose. However, more and more people and restaurants are now using other oils more suitable for frying, such as sunflower oil, and many different oils are now widely available in supermarkets.

There are at least four different classes of olive oil:

  • Extra Virgin: From the first cold press of the olives
  • Virgin: From a cold press but of slightly lower quality
  • Pure Olive Oil and Olive Oil: From a subsequent press that also uses chemicals to extract oil

When using the oil cold, for example on a salad, Extra Virgin should be used and it is this class that is most readily available in supermarkets.

Cheeses

The typical Greek cheese is Feta. It is made from a mixture of goat and sheep milk, as are most Greek cheeses. Feta is a crumbly and salty cheese and exists in many varieties. Consistency and saltiness can vary greatly between different makes of Feta.

Feta is sold in brine and should be kept in the brine to preserve it. If the feta is too salty, it is possible to wash it lightly under running water to remove some of the brine and salt.

Other Greek cheeses include:

  • Myzithra (???????): A very creamy white cheese found on some Greek islands.
  • Staka (?????): A spicy cream cheese from Crete
  • Formaela (????????): A yellow cheese from Arachova in the mountains north of Athens; it is smoked and then served hot

A common way of serving cheese in tavernas is grilled, known as Saganaki (????????). Various cheeses can be used, but the most common type of cheese used is Feta. Lemon juice is squeezed over the cheese and it is quickly cut into pieces before it becomes hard again.