Greek cooking is simple, friendly, elegant, and healthy. It reflects the bounty of the Mediterranean as well as the diverse cultures that have made Greece their home throughout the centuries. From the ancient Greeks to the Ottoman Turks to the Romans and the Byzantines, all have made their unique contributions to Greek cooking.
What Makes Up Greek Food?
Greek cooking is noted for its use of fresh ingredients. Like many other Mediterranean styles of cooking, Greek cuisine draws on the bounty of the region for its key ingredients. Lemons, olives and olive oil, almonds, grapes and grape leaves, tomatoes, figs, dates, and oranges all figure prominently in Greek cooking as do the herbs and spices of the region, such as oregano, dill, mint, thyme, cinnamon, anise, and allspice. The mountainous mainland of Greece has been home to goat and sheepherders for centuries and lamb and goat are still the most commonly used meats in Greek cooking. The Adriatic and Aegean Seas provide an endless supply of fresh octopus, squid, shrimp, spiny lobster as well as a variety of white fish. Even the smallest, most remote taverna in Greece offers fresh produce, often grown right there in the proprietor’s garden.
Greek food is simple to prepare. A meal can be made from a few pieces of cheese combined with olives, dates, and fresh pita bread or a piece of chicken or fish put on the grill. Roasted or grilled meat and fish are common and there are few sauces in Greek cooking. Eggs and goat and sheep’s milk cheeses, such as the Greek feta, are also plentiful and make easy and elegant suppers. Pastries and sweets are ever-present and rich with honey and nuts. Breads are simple, generally either a crusty loaf of country bread or the leavened pita bread.
A Greek dinner is often preceded by a small glass of Ouzo, the national, anise-flavored liqueur. Greek Wine, sweet or dry, but always delicious, accompanies most meals, and a small cup of sweet Greek coffee is the ideal finish after the meal is cleared.
The History of Greek Food
Greek cooking is one of the oldest cuisines known. The roots of today’s Greek cooking were sown about 1000 years before Christ, in the days before the ancient Greek city-states. In fact, some of the earliest food writing comes from the Greek poets, Temachideas and Homer, and the Greek philosopher, Plato. They tell of grilling goat on the beach during the Trojan Wars and festive celebration meals. The Greeks have always been fisherman, in ancient times as well as today, and they took their style of cooking to outposts of the Empire, such as France, Turkey, and North Africa. Interestingly, it was the Greeks who brought grapes and taught winemaking to the people of present-day France. Greece’s history has been long and turbulent and each of the civilizations who occupied the country, from the Romans to the Ottoman Turks, left a little bit of their culture on the Greek style of cooking, just as they took back a little of Greece to their own cuisine.
The Traditions of Greek Cooking
The Greek culture is one of friendliness and hospitality and Greek cooking reflects this. Most dishes can be stretched a little to include that extra, unexpected dinner guest or a plate of small appetizers, or mezes, can be put together with little notice for a neighbor who stops by. Over 95 percent of Greek citizens are of the Greek Orthodox faith, and the religious holidays, particularly Easter, are of special significance. The family Easter feast is usually the most lavish meal of the year.
A Healthy Style of Cooking
Recently, medical researchers have called Greek cuisine the healthiest style of cooking in the world. Like other Mediterranean cuisines, Greek cooking’s use of fresh ingredients and olive oil makes it a relatively healthy and low-fat diet. Olive oil, an ingredient in most Greek dishes, is a monounsaturated fat, and has been shown to bestow health benefits, including reducing “bad” LDL cholesterol levels while maintaining the “good” HDLs. In addition, the generous use of fresh fruits and vegetables in Greek cooking makes it easy to get one’s daily requirements. Healthy, too, is the rare inclusion of red meat in the Greek diet – usually only once or twice a month – and the sprinkling of nuts and grains.
Greek cooking is a celebration of culture, nature’s bounty, and a friendly and fascinating people. If you haven’t tried Greek cooking, or if you only know it from gyro stands at the fair, you’re in for a treat. Greek Cooking is simple, elegant, and healthy.
Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit!)