How we eat in Greece: Greek family cultural & culinary secrets


Breakfast and Brunch

Many Greeks in big cities do not eat breakfast. Just a coffee they’d say, a toast or a koulouri (round thin bread with sesame) suffices. Brunch follows with a pie or pita wrap (souvlaki or gyros). Lunch is the most important meal, usually enjoyed at home or a taverna/restaurant. This meal ideally should be home cooked: a good casserole or oven roasted meal with a large salad. Desserts are not necessary and sometimes part of weekend meals and name day celebrations, birthdays, Easter & Christmas and Dekapentavgoustos on 15th of August – the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary).

In villages and islands, where traditions are stronger, breakfast involves strapatsades (Greek style scrambled eggs), omelettes, pies, yoghurt with fruits and nuts and sweet preserves. Last but not least, the breakfast involves a Greek coffee!

 

Starters, mains & salads

Greece has a completely different culture in the way we serve and consume food. The joy of the food is connected with sharing your meal, at least salads and starters, with friends and family. If, for a main, you choose mezes, then everything has to be shared. Starters first and then mains? Most of the times not. Whatever comes out of the kitchen first will be served first. The starters and salads remain on the table until everyone has finished their main. Usually the starters and salads are chosen based on what goes well with mains; for example, if you have seafood or fish, taramasalata and/or a green salad is ideal. The salad is always large so that all diners can enjoy it.

Salads the Greek way

In Europe salads are sometimes considered a main course and thus often contain meat. In Greece, salad is a necessary dish for every lunch and dinner meal but never as a main (unless you’re on a diet). Greek salads are a celebration of vegetables, olive oil, lemon, vinegar and cheese. Greek salads are ideal for vegetarians. In rare cases you could add smoked fish such as herring or sardines. So, if you like Caesar salad, then Greek cuisine will not do it for you. Greek salads are usually simply green with a delicious, healthy dressing and some Greek cheese (from feta cheese to Kefalotyri or Graviera) with no mayonnaise, bacon or even chicken. You can always add plenty of vegetables to add colour and taste. This is one of the reason Mediterranean diet is so healthy. And of course there are so many more salads than the traditional Greek ones; many meals in Greece have two salads on the table.

Desserts

Fruits, honey and nuts are the key ingredients of Greek desserts (such as baklava or kataifi) and then there are the numerous sweet preserves with Mediterranean fruits and honey. There are sweet preserves with vegetables too such as tomato and aubergine.

Grills and Gyros/pita wraps

Remember that Gyros/pita wraps and grills are our fast food. This is what we eat when we do not cook and want something quick. There are also big celebrations involving grills and a lamb on a spit with family and friends, including Easter Sunday (the biggest religious celebration in Greece). Christmas comes second in Greece and most Orthodox countries. Also 1st May and Tsiknopempti “Thursday of the Smoke of Grilled Meat” is a carnival in Greece. Some Greeks may also organise barbecues for birthday parties. Apart from that, no Greek mother or grandmother would be happy if the children enjoyed a pita wrap before their lunch or dinner and grilled meat is not part of what we call ‘magirefta’  (casserole) dishes or ‘fournou’ (oven roasted) meals and sometimes ‘tiganita’ (fried). Fried dishes are more common on Sundays and especially fried fish dishes. Here a grilled fish could have a place on the table but again oven roasted is the most common version.

In summary, grills, gyros and generally pita wraps are the Greek version of fast food which is usually much healthier than common fast food but not what we cook. We love pitas and we have some on our brunch menu but we explain to customers that this is not what our mothers cook.

Back to tradition

For some decades (from the 1980s to start of 2000) Greeks adopted an American lifestyle which led to health problems less known in previous generations. This is sad as the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest in the world and Greece is one of the very few countries in a blue zone (Blue Zones is an anthropological concept that describes the characteristic lifestyles and the environments of the world’s longest-lived people). Ikaria island is acknowledged as a blue zone. You can learn more about it on the following link: http://www.island-ikaria.com/about-ikaria/Ikaria-BlueZone

However, the big cities have returned to old habits, embracing a healthier Mediterranean cuisine. Traditional Greek dishes have returned to many restaurants all over Greece and wonderful eateries have opened in tourist honeypots with authentic cooked dishes. They do not have to be traditional in a strict way. We support creativity but it should come from people who have a deep knowledge of Greek cuisine. You can smell the authenticity in the blend of herbs and spices and the combination of vegetables. You need to know the rules in order to break a few of them creatively. Even if a chef has created a dish from scratch, a dish with a new name and signature, you can tell if he knows the traditional rules, rules that involve no measurements. In Greece we do not measure with spoons and cups – we measure ingredients with the eye (‘me to mati’) and the nose (‘me ti myti’). Does the lamb smell like the mountain of Samothraki island or the mountains of Crete? Then it’s right. That’s the rule.

Thankfully the small towns, villages and Greek islands never lost their traditions. We learned these unwritten rules in our childhood days.