My Big Fat Greek Waistline – A culinary odyssey around Greece from A to Z

I love Greek food. One of my fondest childhood memories is smashing plates on the floor at Albury’s only Greek restaurant with my family. And while that restaurant’s existence was unfortunately unable to rival that of the Parthenon, my love for Greek cuisine continues to endure.

The Parthenon, Acropolis in Athens
The Parthenon, Acropolis in Athens

I recall on my previous visit to Greece sixteen years ago that there was a lot of pastitsio on the daily menu, primarily because it was cheap and ready made. On this trip however I was intent on reacquainting myself with some of Greece’s other well known dishes, and looking forward to trying new ones. The following is not a definitive list of Greek cuisine but just a small foray into the food I enjoyed on my holiday, using the Greek alphabet as my guide:

A is for Anise which is the predominant flavour found in the traditional Greek aperitif of ouzo. Whilst my palate is still yet to appreciate the distinctive taste of anise, in many of the restaurants that I visited during my holiday, legendary Greek hospitality ensured that a shot of ouzo was placed in front of me before I started my meal. It feels somewhat appropriate to begin with an aperitif before I eat my way around Greece. Opa!

B is for Bougatsa. (You probably thought that I would say baklava and yes, I definitely ate plenty of that as well, but I’ve been reliably informed that baklava is not traditionally Greek but rather a legacy from the Ottoman Empire).

Bougatsa is a pastry that can be either sweet or savoury, consisting of warm semolina custard or soft creamy cheese between layers of filo pastry. If I was down to my last Euro, I would probably buy a tray full of this … or a glass of wine. It’s a tough call. Let’s just say that my heart would skip a beat whenever I saw this at the breakfast buffet.

C is for Cheese. Whilst there are many varieties and differing textures of cheese found in Greek cuisine (Feta, Haloumi, Graviera, etc.) my favourite cheese dish would undoubtedly be saganaki. Traditionally served as an appetiser, this dish derives its name from the small frying pan in which Kefalograviera cheese is quickly cooked over a high heat and served with fresh lemon. Have your knives at the ready so you can successfully fight off your friends for a portion while it’s still hot.

D is for Dolmades. Served hot or cold, dolmades are grape leaves stuffed with rice and fresh herbs (usually dill, which is my favourite herb) although they can also be filled with minced meat and rice. Deceptively small, dolmades are almost a meal in themselves and are always a hit when they appear on a mezze platter.

Dolmades
Dolmades – stuffed grape leaves

E is for Eggplant which is the main ingredient in one of my favourite Greek dishes, moussaka. Moussaka is a layered pie made with sliced fried potatoes and eggplant, tomato-based sauce, spiced minced meat topped with béchamel and cheese. The more memorable versions of moussaka that I enjoyed had identifiable hints of cinnamon and nutmeg in the meat filling. But not even the best Greek chefs can compete with my sister Nicole’s version because hers is always made with love.

F is for Fava. Fava originates from the island of Santorini and is a warm purée of cooked yellow split peas topped with finely chopped red onion. It can be served as an appetiser, mezze or accompaniment to the main meal and is really quite tasty. Although be aware that it is made with a healthy dose of garlic, so in conjunction with the fresh onion topping, you are guaranteed to repel any vampires and gypsies in your immediate vicinity for at least 48 hours.

Fava - a puree made from yellow split peas
Fava – a puree made from yellow split peas

G is for Gyros. Pronounced with a “Y”, the word “Gyro” means “turn” in Greek referring to the meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie (generally pork or chicken) which is then carved from the spit and served wrapped in pita together with cucumber, tomato, onion, tzatziki and chips inside. Gyros are the ultimate Greek version of fast food and I found a couple of great places selling these in Athens for only 2-3 Euros a piece.

H is for Horiatki or what you and I commonly know as a traditional Greek salad. This is essentially a meal in itself, consisting of tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, sliced onion and capsicum, topped with feta cheese, dried oregano and olive oil. Sometimes variations of this salad will also include capers. I recently learnt that Greek salad served in restaurants should have a large slice of feta cheese on top in order to show the patrons that the cheese used in the salad is freshly cut from the block and not recycled from another dish!

I is for Ithaka, which is a poem written by the Greek poet, Constantine P. Cavafy. While you can’t physically eat the Ithaka, if you read this poem and digest the words you will find your soul nourished and your perspective renewed, particularly if you are still travelling. I had the privilege to hear the Ithaka at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, beautifully narrated in English by Sean Connery and accompanied to music by Greek composer Vangelis. It was especially poignant being in the final days of my holiday and feeling somewhat fatigued, listening to the Ithaka revived me again.

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National Archaeological Museum in Athens

J is for … The letter “J” in the Greek language doesn’t actually exist as it originates from the Latin or English alphabets. It has a few different sound variations when incorporated into the Greek alphabet but many Europeans pronounce “J” as “Y”. Therefore my “J” equivalent is “Yamas!” which is an abbreviation for the Greek phrase “To your health!” or “Cheers!” which I ended up saying quite often on this trip. Yamas!

K is for Kebabs which is a general term describing skewered food such as souvlaki, a popular Greek fast food consisting of grilled small pieces of meat such as chicken or pork (or vegetables). It can also be served on a full plate with chips or fried potatoes and pita. One of exciting things about ordering souvlaki is that no two dishes are ever the same!

L is for Lamb. One of my favourite movie quotes comes from My Big Fat Greek Wedding – “What do you mean he don’t eat meat? That’s okay. I make lamb”. While there are many variations on how lamb is cooked in Greek cuisine, I found it very hard to pass by the oven-baked lamb (kleftiko) with potatoes whenever I saw it on the menu.

M is for Mezze or a Mixed Grill platter. Why settle for just one dish when you can try new things and enjoy smaller samples of all your favourites? Better still, food always tastes better when shared and enjoyed with friends.

N is for Nutella … or is it? The Greeks have their own version of chocolate hazelnut spread called Merenda and many of the hotels in Greece have large bowls of this available on the breakfast buffet. My friend Julie was accustomed to mixing spoonfuls of hazelnut spread into her yoghurt each morning while I just ate a spoonful of it every now and again because it’s awesome.

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Greek hazelnut and cocoa spread

O is for Octopus. The Hellenic Republic, which is another name for Greece, is surrounded by four different bodies of water (the Aegean, Ionian, Cretan and Mediterranean seas) so it’s little wonder that fish and seafood play a prominent role in Greek cuisine. Octopus is usually served grilled or marinated and features as part of a mezze or main meal. Squid (or calamari) is also a favourite often arriving on your plate battered and fried, but there is also plenty of fresh fish, mussels and shrimp readily available at most restaurants. It’s not unusual to see a multitude of sardines and anchovies as well as whole bream, snapper and mullet trying to avoid eye contact as you pass by the display case.

P is for Pita. There is something unique and special about Greek pita – a little smaller and softer in texture than its foreign counterparts – it tastes more like bread and is usually my downfall when brought out to the table, especially accompanied by eggplant dip or an olive tapenade. Some Greek restaurants in Australia also lightly fry the pita in a pan with olive oil before serving … extremely dangerous for the waistline.

Q is for … actually there is no such letter in the Greek alphabet! There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet as opposed to the 26 letters in the English alphabet. A big thank-you to my friend Kiri for being my online Wiki expert for all things Greek!

R is for Rizogalo or rice pudding. When I first saw small bowls of this at the breakfast buffet, I thought “Seriously?” and avoided it like the plague. Then one particular morning I decided to try some and didn’t look back. Commonly sprinkled with cinnamon, the version I bought at a local bakery in Athens tasted like a cross between a warm baked custard and cream brûlée. Yummy!

S is for Spanakopita. My Mum makes spanakopita regularly at home in Australia, which essentially is a savoury pastry or pie, very similar to a borek, with spinach and feta cheese filling. The handmade filo pastry often used in Greece is a little thicker than the commercial version bought from my local supermarket back home in Melbourne, but no matter where you eat spanakopita, it’s delicious especially when eaten with a salad.

T is for Tzatziki which is a mixture of yoghurt, shredded cucumber and garlic that often accompanies grilled meat dishes or is served by itself as a dip. It’s cool, creamy with a bit of a tangy, sharp finish from the added vinegar or lemon juice but like most things, a little bit goes a long way.

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Tzatziki with zucchini ball

U is for Ubiquitous and what could be more prevalent in Greek cuisine than olives and olive oil. Travelling around Greece, you will see olives on the breakfast buffet; olives and olive oil in your salad; olive groves as far as the eye can see; your food swimming in a sea of olive oil; souvenirs made from every conceivable part of an olive tree; olive motifs on every menu, napkin and tablecloth in addition to the cans of olive oil and vacuum-sealed bags of olives in gift shops just begging to be taken home. Greece is the third largest producer of quality olive oil after Spain and Italy but is the largest consumer of olive oil in the world. So embrace your inner Greek and immerse yourself in the olive universe!

V is for Vegetables. Don’t be fooled by the plethora of meat and seafood dishes in Greek cuisine as there are a number of excellent vegetable dishes on every menu. Tomatoes and capsicum (peppers) stuffed with rice is known as Yemista and is not only delicious but also filling. Another one of my favourites is stuffed cabbage rolls which is called Lahanodolmades, although it does contain minced meat so not strictly vegetarian. Typically there is also okra, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes served as a side to every meal.

W is for Wine (not Windex!). Greece is known for producing some excellent wines and the house wines served in most tavernas and restaurants is not only drinkable but also extremely cheap. Wandering around Athens over the weekend, I happened to discover some very chic and beautifully designed wine bars hidden in the backstreets near my hotel, serving amazing wines by the glass. Make sure you try assyrtiko which is a white grape varietal indigenous to the island of Santorini. The 2011 Karipidis Syrah from the Thessaly region was also a standout favourite of mine. Yamas!

X is for Xynotyri. Erin, our tour director, ordered this for us to try in a lovely little taverna on the island of Rhodes. Xynotyri, which literally means “sour cheese” is an unpasteurised whey cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk. The fresh goat’s milk cheese which we enjoyed had a creamy, thick yoghurt consistency and was used as a spread although as this cheese matures, it becomes hard and flaky but supposedly has great health benefits.

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Xynotyri from Oionos Greek Taverna, Rhodes

Y is for Yoghurt. All thoughts of going on a diet are dismissed when you see very large bowls of Greek yoghurt containing at least 10 per cent fat content every morning for breakfast. Usually the yoghurt is so thick and creamy that you need some serious muscle power to shake just a dollop into your own bowl. Greek yoghurt is apparently good for the digestion particularly after consuming rich meat or fried foods. Often served as a dessert with preserved fruit or whipped together with cream, good Greek yoghurt is one of those universal substances that seems to appear at every meal.

Z is for Zucchini. Whether it be deep-fried zucchini balls (kolokythokeftedes), pan-fried slices of zucchini or stuffed zucchini, the Greeks know how it make this vegetable taste just that little bit better.

And so now I have come to the end of my own culinary odyssey and time in Greece. Although I’m looking forward to going home and practising some of the recipes I learnt at a cooking class in Athens, a recent visit to the historic site of Olympia and hearing about the ancient gymnasium and athletic rituals has inspired me to start training for the 2020 games!

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