The Greek cuisine is one of many great Mediterranean cuisines. Greece welcomes about 30 million visitors every year, and as such many beachgoers and cultural tourists will also get to know the delicacies of the Greek cuisine.
Salads and vegetables play an even bigger role than in other Mediterranean cuisines. Mountains cover 80% of the country, and shepherding is common, which is something that has made lamb meat and cheese (feta) important parts of the local cuisine. The long coastline and the large number of islands have in turn made fish and other seafood important parts of the local fare.
Locally grown olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants and zucchini are to be found in countless dishes. In the north of the country rice is grown, and many wild herbs and vegetables growing in the mountains have become important part of the local cuisines.
Regional cuisines frequently show influences from neighboring countries; in the north there are influences from different cuisines of the Balkan, Ottoman dishes and foodstuffs have been brought in from the east, and Arabian spices and dishes like pita, ground meat, cumin and cinnamon across the sea from the south.
The Orthodox Church and the periods of fasting have also influenced the cuisine. The fact that seafood and sweets are allowed to eat during fasting has created dishes like taramosalata (ταραμοσαλάτα, fish roe salad) and halva.
Common ingredients in the Greek cuisine are salads and vegetables, goat cheese and meat, fish, seafood, and olives. They’re usually spiced with herbs and spices like oregano, mint, thyme, salvia, cinnamon and paprika.
The main dish is usually barbecued or baked. All meals come with bread, usually white bread.
Like around the Mediterranean in general, breakfast is commonly made up of just a cup of coffee and a cookie.
Lunch is also rather light and often composed of sandwiches, salads, or fast food like gyros or souvlaki. Gyros is composed of meat layers spiced with olive oil and herbs, roasted on a rotating skewer and the outer layers are cut off and served. Souvlaki is another form of meat on skewer, served in a pita bread with onions, vegetables, tzaziki sauce and sometimes french fries (patates).
Dinner is the main meal, and in the hot summer months it’s commonly eaten as late as 21:00 or 22:00. Non-touristy restaurants usually open for dinner at 19:30 or later, and people having dinner before that are easiliy recognized as tourists…
The practice common in Central Europe and many other places where each guest gets their own main dish and sides on their own platter is rather uncommon in Greece, at least in traditional places.
When going to a restaurant, the waiter will direct you to a table (or you can ask if the table you’d like to sit at is vacant, locals will avoid the tables in the sun anyways…). When seated, the waiter brings a big jar of cool water and a basket of bread, then the waiter will take your drink orders and give you the menu. The menu is usually bilingual, in tourist destinations there will often be pictures of the dishes too. In such destinations you can also expect restaurant streets with touts standing outside each establishment trying to get you in.
In a Greek restaurant it’s common that the person inviting to eat orders all dishes, and plenty of them. First a set of starters are placed in the middle of the table, and everyone can take as much as they like on their own plate. If the main dish is a barbecue, this too will be placed in the middle of the table for everyone to serve themselves. The same goes for salads, vegetables, patates (french fries with a Greek twist) and so on. Wine is often diluted by water, so that guests can drink more of it without getting intoxicated. Leaving a restaurant drunk is another thing that will mark you as a tourist. The meal is finished with a cup of coffee, and you will often get a free dessert with it. Like in much of the world, big dinners with family and friends continuing for hours and hours into the night are an important part of the local culture.
Types of places to eat and drink in Greece include:
- Bars (μπαρ) are places for having coffee, tea and alcoholic beverages; to eat there will be packed chips, crackers and small warm snacks.
- A taverna (ταβέρνα) is a normal restaurant. A fish taverna (ψαροταβέρνα, psarotaverna) is easily recognized as the “ψ” letter at the beginning reminds of the trident of Posiedon, the god of the sea in Greek mythology.
- An estiatorio (εστιατόριο) is an upscale restaurant.
- Finally, kafeneion (Καφενεῖον) denotes coffee houses where mostly older men sit at tafli (τάβλι) playing backgammon and discussing everything there is to be discussed long into the night. Formerly women weren’t welcome in these establishments, nowadays this has changed somewhat and if you go with a man or are clearly a tourist there will usually not be a problem.