For better or for worse, upmarket restaurants in Greece mostly serve Real Greek food. If Creative Greek restaurants in Greece offering creative cuisine are to serve moussaka, then this has to be either in the shape of a minced meat and eggplant liquid poured into a martini glass or mixed with liquid nitrogen and morphed into ice cream. Greek chefs, for better or for worse, have fallen prey to the charms of molecular cuisine. New Greek cuisine is the inevitable fashion in Greece as nueva cocina has been in Spain and new Nordic cuisine in Denmark. An endless array of young Greek chefs who apply the techniques of molecular cuisine onto traditional recipes straight from their grandmothers’ recipe books flowed out of the kitchens of an older generation of New Greek cuisine chefs. Contemporary Greek cooking has taken the standard Greek recipes and fused them with exotic ingredients, turned them inside out, deconstructed them, foamed them, freeze dried them and spherified them, giving a definitely new form of Real Greek food.
In addition to Creative Greek cuisine restaurants, there has also been an explosion of Modern Greek restaurants in Greece. First of all, they are bistro-like restaurants, where young chefs create their own revolution by serving Greek food in a more recognizable form. There, moussaka is just moussaka, but the difference between these “bistros” and traditional Greek taverns is that in the former there is greater gastronomic sensitivity. Ingredients from the rich terroir of Greece are well sourced and there is precision in cooking. As for the wine, instead of the ubiquitous retsina of the past, superb barrique wines from Santorini, Nemea or Amynteo are served in proper glasses.
It is also worth mentioning that a great number of “neotaverns” have appeared in recent years, especially in Athens. These “modern Greek restaurants” not only try to recreate the atmosphere of the old taverns (whose number has alas been waning) in an “authentic manner” but also attempt to reproduce the flavour and the aroma of tavern food, ouzo and retsina included.
The most recent trend in modern Greek restaurants is their welcome discovery of local cuisine. People in the cities are going back to their roots by rediscovering the glorious gastronomy of Crete, Chios, Lemnos and the Peloponnese, a multifaceted cuisine that is based on local ingredients and a mix of recipes that reflects the turbulent history of Greece.
Whether it is in taverns or bistros, in local or “New Greek cuisine” restaurants, Greeks are becoming more conscious of their gastronomic heritage and this has created a food culture which the tourists may find more appealing than eating hummus in Plaka.
The Greek diet, with Crete as its most famous paradigm, is the quintessential Mediterranean diet, based mainly on vegetables and olive oil, although so many of its other elements of have also come under scientific scrutiny and have been found to be beneficial to health. Among them: snails, the immense variety of wild greens, Greek honey, specific Greek cheeses made not from cow’s milk but from sheep’s and goat’s milk, wine, tsikoudia (tsipouro), or eau de vie, which is thought to spur metabolism.
The Mediterranean diet, in fact the Greek diet (Cretan diet) ultimately is really about the region’s lifestyle, where meals are not only inherently healthful but also social occasions for family and friends to gather. There is little stress and much joy in eating the way a traditional Greek does. All these things combined make for what is now coined the Mediterranean Diet.
The Greek Diet, and specifically the Cretan Diet, has become synonymous with the Mediterranean Diet, renowned as one of the world’s most healthful. Crete was one of the original places observed in the now famous Seven-Countries Study begun by Dr. Ancel Keys in the late 1950s to document the rate of heart disease among several different populations.
In 1947, the Rockefeller Foundation arrived in Crete to offer humanitarian assistance to the war-ravaged islanders. It documented the islanders’ meager diet, then a subsistence regimen of wild greens, fruits, legumes, bread and barley rusks, little protein and plenty of olive oil. While the Rockefeller Foundation was appalled at what seemed like the diet of utter despair, they were equally surprised to notice that the islanders were uncannily healthy. Under Greek diet (Cretan Diet) there was no malnutrition on Crete after those war-torn years.
At around the same time in Naples, a young cardiologist named Ancel Keys was puzzled at how there wasn’t one cardiac patient in the entire hospital he had served in during the War. Keys, realizing that disease and diet must somehow be related, initiated a study of cardiovascular disease and lifestyle seven very different countries: Italy, Holland, Yugoslavia, Finland, the U.S., Japan and Greece. What he discovered was that while the Cretans consumed an inordinate amount of fat (on a par with the meat-eating Fins), they still had no heart disease. Unlike the Fins, who got most of their fat (saturated) from meat and animal products, the Cretan peasants got most of theirs (unsaturated) from olive oil. The Cretan diet –in fact a great part of Greek diet – in the 1950s consisted of carbohydrates (mainly bread and barley rusks), wild greens (upwards of 80 different varieties), other vegetables, fruits, and olive oil. There was virtually no cheese in the diet as cheese was a commodity to be made and sold; and, there was almost no meat. By the late 1950s, Keys had assessed that the Cretan diet was in fact one of the healthiest in the world.
Every cuisine in the world is the sum of its parts, of its ingredients, in other words, those basic foods and flavor combinations that are the cook’s alphabet for both carrying on traditions and creating new dishes that are both authentic and contemporary. Greece is blessed with a wide gamut of basic Greek ingredients that flourish in this perfect Mediterranean climate. First and foremost, of course, are Greek olives and Greek olive oil, which are as basic as water to the Greeks. Greek fresh fruits, greens, and a wide array of fresh, seasonal vegetables (like Florina Peppers) and legumes are the mainstay of traditional Greek cooking, some with distinctly regional associations. Greece is also blessed with a wealth of “natural gourmet” products, foods that come from the land or sea and that have a long history, such as Greek honey, saffron (Krokos Kozani), Mastiha Chios, a great wealth of Greek herbs, both fresh and dried, and botargo as well as other preserved Greek fish and seafood specialties. The sea provides excellent conditions for organized fisheries, and aquaculture is one of the most important industries in Greece. Greeks have been consumers of Greek cheese and Greek yogurt from time immemorial. While feta is the best-known Greek cheese, there are at least 60 unique regional cheeses. Other specialty foods that define the Greek table and boast both historical and cultural depth are the sweet and savory Greek rusks, called paximadia.
Greeks have used Greek herbs as flavoring agent, tisane, and medicine from time immemorial. Indeed, even today, there is a well-established folk pharmacopoeia based on an often ingrained knowledge of the therapeutic powers of herbs. In cooking, most herbs are used in their dried form and the most beloved are oregano, thyme, savory, spearmint and mint. On the other hand Greeks enjoy some Greek herbs (dried) or aromatic plants as beverage by combination with hot or boiling water. There are many of them throughout the country, but the most famous are chamomile, sage and mountain tea, all well-known for their therapeutic benefits.
What would the Greek-Mediterranean cooking be without the plethora of healthy, delicious dishes based on Greek beans and legumes? The most ancient legumes are the lentil, chick pea, fava bean, and vetch, or split pea, all of which are still widely consumed in soups, stews and baked casseroles all over Greece. Greeks traditionally eat beans at least once a week. But New World beans have also become a staple and several Greek regions mainly in Macedonia, are home to beans with the coveted Protected Designation of Origin. Famed Greek giant beans (“gigantes”) and white beans of varying sizes grow well in the fertile wet soil of Greece’s rainy North.
Although the supply of fish in the Aegean and Mediterranean is dwindling, Greek fish and seafood continue to be important and beloved foods to the Greeks. It comes as no surprise, given the importance of fish on the Mediterranean table and Greeks’ affinity for it, that the country is one of the world leaders in fish farming, with sea bream, gilthead bream, sea bass, and trout the most popular and commercially successful species. On the seafood front, mussels have been farmed in Greece since antiquity, and northeastern coast of the mainland all the way up to the eastern fringes of Halkidiki and Thrace, which are laced with small coves, are closely associated with both mussel production and cookery. In the context of the Greek-Mediterranean diet, oily fish (not farmed), such as sardines, anchovies, and mackerels are an important part of the culinary traditions. But the most iconic of all Greek sea creatures and preparations is surely the octopus, grilled and stewed and savored in every part of the country and in almost every Greek restaurant in the world.
Arguably one of Greece’s most gourmet product, botargo (avgotaraho) is this country’s “caviar.” It is the salted, pressed roe of the grey mullet, “bafa” in Greek, which migrates en masse to the marshlands off the coast of western Greece and in some parts of Halkidiki, then attempts to migrate out to sea again to spawn. The mullets are caught on their exodus, at which point their swollen egg sacs are removed. When sufficiently dried and pressed, they are preserved in bee’s wax. Botargo (avgotaraho) is an ancient delicacy and has a rich, deep flavor and soft, unctuous texture. It is savored on its own in thin slices, sometimes with a twist of lemon and a crackling of black pepper. It is also excellent mixed into pasta and flavored with nothing more than exquisite Greek olive oil.
Greece has always been a crossroads between East and West. In Northern Greece (Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace) the regional food and cooking mirror the shepherd’s traditions, with local Greek cheeses and Greek yogurt playing an important role in the traditional Greek Diet. Savory pies, which keep and travel well –convenient to itinerant herdsman– are a major part of the local cooking. Pickled cabbage and peppers in every shape, heat level, and preparation are other common northern Greek ingredients. The cooking of Macedonia and Thrace has been immensely influenced by the million or so Greek refugees who emigrated en masse here after the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922. With them came the flavors of the East and the aesthetics of a more urbane, sophisticated cooking style, peppered with more than a few French influences. Dishes we take for granted today, from moussaka to saganaki and more all arrived with the Asia Minor Greeks.
The Peloponnese is home to a cuisine where extra virgin Greek olive oil, one of the region’s most important products, flows in generous amounts in all sorts of Peloponnesian regional food, especially bean stews and vegetable dishes. Pork is a specialty here, too. Kalamata olives, world’s most famous, hails from the Peloponnese. In Ionian island cooking, the Venetian influence palpable in the countless Italian-sounding dishes (bianco, bourdetto, polpetes, etc.), the penchant for pasta, and more.
Aegean cuisine is simple. Chick peas and yellow split peas, filling vegetables fritters, pan-fried greens pies, oven-roasted goat and grilled fish are some of the classics of Aegean cuisine. Aegean cuisine culminates in the cuisine of Crete, mother of the Mediterranean Diet. Crete’s regional food is unique! Wild greens are paired with everything from meat to fish to snails to legumes in a multitude of simple, nutritious, delicious dishes finished with excellent extra virgin olive oil. The island also produces myriad cheeses and famed thyme honey, and vegetables that are exported all over the world.
Greek cuisine is based on seasonality, simplicity, continuity, regionality, and healthfulness. The excellence of the country’s raw ingredients, cultivated in a perfect Mediterranean climate, has fostered a respect for the integrity of flavors, especially in traditional Greek cuisine and cooking, which are still highly seasonal.
Greek cuisine has ancient roots. Greek olive oil, Greek olives cured and flavored in much the same way over eons, Greek honey, wild foods –specially game birds and hares (or rabbits today)– herbs, shoots, buds, countless wild greens, ancient legumes, such as the fava bean, split pea, chick pea and lentil, fish and seafood, snails, nuts, sesame seeds, whole grains, and a few simple goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses are the timeless ingredients of the Greek table. In all, Greek cuisine is sound in its basic values but also flexible enough to change with the times without losing its eternal spirit.
Greek cooking is simple and healthy! While there are time-consuming dishes such moussaka and pastitsio, there are very few complicated sauces and preparations in Greek cooking. The Greek flavor palette (garlic-oregano-lemon juice trinity, tomato sauces perfumed with cinnamon and allspice, Greek honey in various sweet and savory dishes, orange and fennel combined, and more) often lends antioxidants, minerals and other nutritional elements to every meal. In the traditional Greek Diet, essentially a traditional Mediterranean Diet, vegetables and legumes appear in countless main course dishes. Most main course vegetable dishes provide the daily recommended allowance for vegetables in the diet. Coupled with whole grain bread and a little cheese (protein), these meals are nutritionally complete. The wealth of vegetable main courses evolved out of the fasting traditions that dictate one abstain from all animal products for roughly half the year. Today Greeks are avid meat consumers but traditionally meat was limited, consumed as a festive food or combined with plant-based foods in stews and baked dishes. Extra virgin Greek olive oil makes so much Greek food healthy and Greeks consume it in copious amounts, around 22 liters per person annually. Extra virgin Greek olive oil is the basic cooking fat and the basic dressing, poured over all manner of salads and cooked dishes at the end.
Gastronomy is, of course, a Greek word. Ironically, the history of the cuisine evinces a decided lack of gastronomical Greek dishes, save for the periods of antiquity, the Byzantine era, and from the last years of the 20th centure, when Greek cuisine and Greek gastronomy experienced a radical transformation.
Until very recently, Greek cuisine was home-based. Restaurants fell into several categories: grill houses, fish and seafood places, certain specialty eateries (tripe houses, soup places, souvlaki joints, etc.) and the ever-popular family-run neighborhood taverna, where traditional Greek cuisine was and is the mainstay. In the late 1980s and 1990s, a generation of young, urban Greeks returned from study and life abroad, where they had acquired a more international and sophisticated palate, which translated into demand for cosmopolitan cuisine. In those early decades, a new generation of chefs also emerged who saw their profession as a career and not a choice of last resort; the open market of the EU brought a deluge of new food products to the Greek supermarket, inspiring chefs to experiment. In the 1990s, contemporary Greek cuisine was characterized by an “anything-goes” spirit. Fusion –and much confusion– was the word of the day in Greek gastronomy.