An Absolute Guide to Traditional Greek Cuisine
Last Updated on: December 9, 2021
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Similar to the way the country’s culture has been shaped through the centuries, Greek cuisine is a melting pot of different civilizations on the crossroads between the East and the West. It’s celebrated internationally for its immaculate tastes and the simple ingenuity of its Mediterranean character.
Lately, Athens has been rapidly transforming into one of the most interesting culinary destinations worldwide. The Greek capital is undeniably one of the best places worldwide to experience high-end gastronomy and get a taste of authentic Greek cuisine.
In this article, we’ll go over all the types of Greek cuisine you are going to find in Athens along with a few recommended dishes for each, we’ll list the most famous dishes that you can’t miss and we’ll give you a few tips on where to find them.
So sharpen your forks and knives, and let’s get right to it.
Traditional Greek Cuisine
The roots of culinary traditions and the Greek cuisine itself can be traced all the way back to ancient times.
However, the latter has changed so much over the centuries, with so many alterations and recipe variations in different regions that no one can safely say where each dish originated nowadays.
Still, you’ll find that the core philosophy of Greek cuisine is the same throughout the country: it features a prominent Mediterranean character and it always involves the use of fresh vegetables, seasonal ingredients, herbs, spices, and, of course, virgin olive oil.
Below, we’ll break down a few different types of this wondrous cuisine that you will most likely encounter in Athens.
The islands of the Aegean Sea are among the most visited destinations in the country not only because of their natural beauty but also due to their magnificent gastronomy scene.
The region’s unique microclimate – especially that of the Cyclades islands – has assisted in the making of one-of-a-kind products that you won’t find anywhere else like the famous cheeses of Naxos and the cherry tomatoes of Santorini.
Aegean cuisine is celebrated the world over and can be sampled in different versions all through Athens in both small tavernas and high-end restaurants.
Must-try dishes: fava from Santorini, melopita (honeypie) from Sifnos, melitera from Anafi.
Cuisine from the Ionian islands is quite different compared to the rest of the country due to the influences and traditions that centuries of Venetian occupation have left behind.
Ionian cuisine relies heavily on the use of fresh seafood, pasta, meat (mainly beef), and fresh vegetables.
You’ll notice that most dishes from this region sound and look distinctively Italian and that Ionian cuisine features a wide selection of wines and desserts that have no counterparts in mainland Greece.
Must-try: Salami from Lefkada, ladotiri cheese from Zante, Pastitsada from Corfu, Robola wine from Kefalonia.
Cretan cuisine has secured a place for itself in the worldwide gastronomy scene as one of the healthiest and tastiest cuisines on the globe; and rightfully so.
Widely regarded as the reason behind the longevity of the local population, the culinary delicacies of Crete include a range of different cheeses, goat meat, fresh vegetables, and extra virgin olive oil that is considered by some to be the best in Greece.
Must-try: Ntakos (the Cretan equivalent of the Greek salad), Kalitsounia (Cheese Pie), Gamopílafo (rice with meat), olive oil and raki (the local liquor).
Mainland Greece: Macedonia, Epirus, Thrace
Traditional Greek cuisine is quite similar throughout northern Greece.
The region’s mountainous territory favors the use of all kinds of meat, mushrooms, berries, and all kinds of seasonal ingredients.
Northern Greek traditional cuisine features a lot of grilled meat, different kinds of soup, wild greens, and pies.
This is where the famous bougatsa (a special kind of pie dough) originates from.
Must-try: All kinds of bougatsa, roast lamb, yogurt.
Mainland Greece: Thessaly, Central Greece, Peloponnese
Traditional rural cuisine in central and southern Greece is much more minimal and involves heavy use of herbs and spices, wheat flour, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil.
Also, it’s not uncommon for different kinds of fruit to find their way into salty dishes. For example, here you’ll find sausages with oranges and tomato soups with pieces of lemon.
Thessaly is also known for producing some of the most delicious cheese in the country as well as tsipouro a local strong liquor.
Must-try: Feta cheese and tsipouro from Thessaly, artichokes from Argolid, and aubergine from Leonidio.
This is a special category of traditional Greek cuisine.
The term “Politiki” refers to the cuisine originating from Constantinopole and the culinary traditions inherited by the Ottoman Empire.
It bears many similarities with Turkish cuisine and it involves heavy use of spices combined with roast or skewed lamb and chicken, yogurt, herbs, and different kinds of bread; with the most famous example being of course souvlaki.
It also features a wide range of desserts with nuts and honey famously known as ‘siropiasta”.
Must-try: souvlaki, kebab, baklava, soutzoukakia (meatballs in tomato sauce), imam baildi (oven-baked vegetables), politiki salad.
Modern Greek Cuisine
Greek gastronomy may be mostly known for the array of popular traditional dishes like Moussaka and souvlaki but we strongly urge you to look beyond the classics if you are on a culinary quest for excellence.
During the past years, Athens has been rapidly transforming into a marvelous culinary destination with top-notch contemporary restaurants, tavernas, and street food stalls that fuse tradition with international influences in the most inventive ways to create new culinary wonders.
In Athens, you’ll find all kinds of eateries for all kinds of tastes.
In fact, we’ve put together a complete guide to the restaurant scene in Athens that will prove our point. Check it out right below.
Traditional Greek Dishes you Have to Try in Athens
No matter how customary and ‘mainstream’, there are some dishes you just have to try when you visit Greece.
There’s no way you can head back home without tasting the quintessential moussaka or the world-acclaimed souvlaki, for example.
Try as you might, you’ll keep coming across them anyplace you go anyway; and the smell is bound to lure you in.
They’re the classics for a reason after all. So where do you start?
Here’s our list of the most typical traditional Greek dishes you have to try on your visit to Athens.
This one is probably the most internationally acclaimed traditional Greek dish.
Its recipe is quite simple, yet its tastes and aromas are impeccable. It’s typically made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olives, virgin olive oil, fresh oregano, and of course the trademark slice of creamy feta cheese on top.
The extremely refreshing Greek salad -or “Horiatiki” as you will hear locals call it- is ideal for a light lunch at a seafront restaurant and the perfect way to recharge your batteries in between sightseeing and exploring Athens city.
Fava is the delicious Greek answer to houmous. The two dishes might look similar but are actually based on different recipes.
Fava is made with mashed fava beans, onions, parsley, olive oil, and various seasonings.
Although it’s native to the famous Santorini island, it has gained nationwide fame and you can find fava in almost every restaurant and tavern in the country.
It can be served both as an appetizer and a spread and it’s a must-try dish for vegetarians and vegans visiting Athens.
Moussaka is undoubtedly one of the most delicious dishes Greek cuisine has to offer. It’s traditionally made with boiled and fried potatoes, eggplants, minced meat, and béchamel cream layered on top of each other and bathed in rich tomato sauce.
During the past years, several kinds of variations of the recipe have been popping up in gourmet restaurants across the hippest neighborhoods of Athens, some of them being vegan and vegetarian, incorporating mushrooms or zucchini in the mix instead of meat.
Dolmadakia are as tasty as hard they are to pronounce.
You can expect to find this dish in many local traditional eateries in the center of the city and when you do, don’t hesitate to try it as a finger-food appetizer or even a main course.
Dolmadakia are small rolled vine leaves stuffed with minced meat, rice, dill, parsley, and other herbs. They’re typically sparkled with olive oil and served with a side of lemon juice.
Roaming around the streets of Athens, you’ll probably notice countless bakeries serving slices of fresh hot spinach pie or “spanakopita” from sunrise till sundown.
Locals go crazy over it and apart from it being a street food delicacy, it’s also served in restaurants and taverns.
The crispy crust of the trademark “phyllo” dough on the outside and the rich filling of spinach and feta cheese will surely have you asking for more.
If you’ve been wondering what that pinkish thick spread side dish that locals seem to savor piously is, you’ve come to the right place.
Taramasalata is a paste made with codfish roe, lemon, black pepper, olive oil, and dill.
If you’re visiting Athens during Easter, you’re sure to come across this one a lot, as it’s traditionally made during the Lent period.
This dish is one of the most typical “mezedes” you’ll find on a restaurant’s menu.
Not to be mistaken with common meatballs, zucchini balls are made with fresh zucchini, feta cheese, spices, and herbs that are deep-fried in a mix of eggs and flour to come out as crispy fritters. Finger-licking is good.
You’ve probably tried or heard of this one even if you’ve never visited Greece before.
Tzatziki is famous the world over for its strong flavor and refreshing taste and as the perfect accompaniment to souvlaki.
The creamy white sauce comprises Greek yogurt, fresh cucumber, olive oil, vinegar, dill, and lots of garlic. And we do mean lots.
Even though not the ideal choice for a romantic date in Athens which includes dinner, tzatziki is an exceptional dip for any meat or vegetable platter.
Souvlaki is one of the six national dishes of Greece and beyond any doubt the most beloved.
The name itself has often been a matter of controversy among different Greek regions, but one thing is for certain; souvlaki is enjoyed equally across the country.
The recipe is quite simple. Thick pieces of pork or chicken meat are skewered on a stick before slowly cooking on the grill. It’s served with French fries, pita bread, onions, tomato, and -of course- an abundance of tzatziki.
Gyros is sometimes confused with souvlaki and, indeed, the similarity is evident.
Yet, gyros is made with thinly trimmed slices of pork and chicken that are grilled on the iconic vertical rotisserie you’ll see everywhere around you in downtown Athens and especially around Monastiraki.
The juicy meat is served rolled in pita bread with fresh tomato, tzatziki, fries, and onions. We’d urge you to try it, but the enticing smell of gyros will certainly lure you into a gyros place anyhow.
This dish is as traditional as it gets. Yemista –or ‘’stuffed’’ in Greek– is a delectable vegan dish.
It’s made with mature tomatoes, green peppers, and zucchini filled with a mix of long-grain rice, herbs, and seasonings and cooked in the oven. A perfect example of the distinctive simplicity of Mediterranean cuisine and diet.
Yemista are typically enjoyed with a side of feta cheese or a generous scoop of Greek yogurt.
Calling all cheese lovers! If Greek gastronomy hasn’t completely and utterly charmed you yet, this one is bound to do the trick.
Saganaki is a thick slice of “kaseri” or “graviera” cheese that is fried in a pan with olive oil. It comes out as a golden brown delicacy that’s crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, the perfect side dish for any meal.
Make sure to sprinkle your saganaki with a lot of lemon juice to bring out its extraordinary taste.
After you’re done feasting on all the treats listed above, it’s high time for dessert. And Athens has the most exquisite delicacy in store for you.
Loukoumades are deep-fried donut balls dipped in honey, chocolate, ice cream, or anything else you can imagine and they’re seriously addictive.
Frequently Asked Questions about Traditional Greek Cuisine
We are fully aware that learning your way around Greek cuisine and all its different kinds must be quite confusing, especially when you can’t even pronounce half the dishes recommended in online guides.
To help you out a bit, we’ll try to answer the most frequently asked questions by our readers regarding Greek cuisine below.
What is the most famous Greek dish?
The most famous traditional Greek dish has been, and probably always will be moussaka.
What is the most popular food in Greece?
The most popular food among locals is souvlaki, a street food delicacy that will find everywhere in the country.
What is the most common meat in Greek cuisine?
The most common meat in Greek cuisine is pork. However, it is customary for Greeks to have lamb during Easter and on other national holidays and other festive occasions.
What is the weirdest Greek food?
There are quite a few things in Greek cuisine that foreigners find weird like snails, squid, and octopus.
What is the healthiest Greek food?
Greek food is considered to be very healthy in general. Some of its most healthy ingredients include olive oil, honey, and all the local spices.
What do Greeks eat for breakfast?
Greek breakfast can vary depending on the region. A typical Greek breakfast may include pastries, bread, butter, honey, eggs, different kinds of pie, and coffee.
What is a typical Greek lunch?
Greeks typically have light lunches with oven-baked vegetable-based or meat-based meals accompanied by a salad and bread.
Is Greek food spicy?
Though the use of spices is common in Greek cuisine, Greek food is not what you would call spicy as the spices are used mainly for their aromas and most of the time only add a subtle taste to the recipe.
What spices are used in Greek food?
The spices most commonly used in Greek cuisine are oregano, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron, and coriander.
What is the national fruit of Greece?
The national fruit of Greece is the olive.
What is the Greek national drink?
The national drink of Greece is ouzo. Other popular drinks in Greece include raki, tsipouro, local wines, and ‘’mastiha’’ liqueur.
So there you have it. That’s everything you need to know about traditional Greek cuisine.
Next time you visit Athens, you can put your knowledge to the test and explore and sample all the local delicacies like a true connoisseur.
Whether you choose to indulge in these famous Greek dishes in a street food stall, a traditional local taverna, or a luxurious restaurant, there is no doubt that the gastronomy scene of Athens will astound you.
Bear in mind that Athens By Locals is here to help you embark on the most exciting culinary adventure with insight into the city’s best food spots, eateries, and hidden gastronomical wonders.
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