While the rest of ancient world was just learning how to use fire to cook, the Greeks were discovering the subtle nuances of adding herbs and spices to their food. Influenced by its eastern and western neighbors, Greek food is still a unique combination of fresh, seasonal ingredients and a generous blend of herbs and spices.
Like many other ethnic cuisines, Greek food varies by geographic regions. Unlike American food, however, common themes are exhibited in all Greek food, the main one being olive oil.
Olive oil is quite important in Greece. With land and climate conducive to the cultivation of olives, Greece is one of the largest producers and consumers of olives. In Greek food, you”ll be hard pressed to find dishes that don”t use olives or olive oil in some way.
High in monounsaturated fat, olive oil is a much healthier counterpart to butter or animal lard, which is more commonly used in northern European and American fare. Therefore, Greek food has been touted as being one of the healthiest foods available.
The Importance of Olives
Olives are so important in Greece that civil servants get paid leave in November to return to their villages and help in the olive harvest.
One of the reasons Greek food is so healthy is that vegetables often make up a large portion of the meal. Unlike the ravenous meat eaters of America and northern Europe, Greeks eat a variety of vegetables, including tomato, cucumber, olive and zucchini. The vegetables are always fresh, as the Greeks only eat whatever is in season.
A majority of the Greek”s protein comes in the form of cheese (especially feta cheese), which is often found sprinkled liberally on top of dishes. When meat is served, it”s typically lamb or goat. Seafood is another common protein source in Greek cooking, but over-fishing in the Mediterranean has reduced the amount of seafood available in Greece.
Greek Cooking and Seafood
No part of Greece is further than 85 miles away from the coast, which explains the predominance of seafood in Greek cooking.
Herbs and Spices in Greek Cooking
Herbs and spices are found in abundance in Greece. Herbs such as thyme, rosemary, oregano and spearmint abound in Greece, even sprouting up on the roadsides. When used in cooking, herbs and spices provide a wonderfully fresh flavor. Most Greek recipes call for judicious amounts of herbs.Sheep and goats graze freely in the countryside. With herbs growing practically everywhere, the animals are bound to eat some. This gives the meat grown in Greece a unique taste not found anywhere else in the world.
Traditional Greek Cooking
While souvlaki and gyros are traditional Greek dishes, they are not normally made in the Greek home. Souvlaki and gyros are normally served in the many tavernas (something in between a restaurant and a tavern) found in Greece. Those foods are usually served along with a drink, such as ouzo. At home, Greeks usually cook one-pot meals. A variety of ingredients will be placed into the potsuch as lamb, zucchini, tomatoes, lemon juice and of course, the herbs and spices.
Greek Food in the Tavernas
To the Greeks, sharing a meal with friends and family is a deeply rooted social affair. When dining, they like to take their time and enjoy the food, the drink and the company. This love for eating in the company of others resulted in the rise of the tavernas.A taverna is a combination restaurant and tavern. It is a place where one can sit around for hours sipping drinks while eating food and chatting with friends. A popular drink of choice is ouzo, an anise/licorice-flavored liquor, but Greek wines are also quite good and gaining popularity all the time.
Preventing an Ouzo Hangover
A secret to drinking ouzo is to mix it with water before drinking. As you drink the ouzo, add water to your glass. This will dilute the alcohol and counteract the effects of dehydration.
Meze (appetizers) are considered a very important part of the meal because they are shared among friends, further enhancing the dining experience. The variety of meze is huge. It can be as simple as a dish of olives, or it can be as complex as taramasalata, a dip of cod”s roe whipped with olive oil and bread until creamy.
Menu? What Menu?
The staff at many Greek restaurants will allow patrons to wander into the kitchen to see what the cooks are preparing for the evening. There is typically a table full of food choices on display so customers can see their options.
Greek Food Cooking
A lot of Greek dishes are quick and easy to make. Many of the dishes are raw or pickled, so all you have to do is cut the vegetables into pieces and then mix everything together.Some of the more elaborate dishes will take a few hours, but a lot of that time is spent waiting for it to cook. Some dishes, like kleftiko can take upwards of 12 hours to cook.