Greece enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate, making it a blessed place for growing various quality local produce that transform Greek cuisine into a mosaic of flavours, both nutritious and healthy.
Greece’s culinary tradition is more than 4,000 years old
Some of the Greek dishes we eat today, can be traced back to the dietary habits of our ancestors thousands years ago. Even now, Greek diet is based on Mediterranean diet’s holy trinity: olive oil, wine and grains. Another triptych Greek food is known for is freshness, locality and seasonality. This is why it’s hard to recreate Greek recipes, when you cook them back home. Our cookery may not be hard to master, but its basic values must be respected to bring out authentic Greek flavours on your plate.
Another tradition we inherited from Ancient Greeks, is our love of eating together. In Greece we don’t eat only to fill our bellies, but to interact socially with one another, sometimes even sharing our food between us. So, one could say that the Greek food tradition of meze dining (small plates shared on the table with family and friends) is the modern-day continuation of symposia. These were ancient Greek banquets held by prominent Athenians where wine drinking and convivial discussion were encouraged.
Did you now? Archestratus, a Greek writer and gourmand, is thought to have written the first Greek “cookbook” in 350 B.C. “The Life of Luxury” is a mock epic poem, advising a gastronomic reader on where to find the best food in the Mediterranean world (sources: Wiki, Brittanica).
The diverse regional Greek cuisine
What is put on the table around the country, depends on what it’s available in every geographical region. Greece, despite its small size, boasts a very diverse terrain that influences our diet. For example, inhabitants of the Greek islands and along the coastline of Greece dine on plenty of fish and seafood. Which is not the case for the people of Greece’s mainland, which is covered by mountainous, semi-mountainous and landlocked areas. Locals living there don’t have easy access to fresh fish from the sea, and consume more meat and dairy produced in their own farms.
Greece, a land on culinary crossroads
Greece has always been a melting pot of different cultures, ideas and religions, bringing closer the West and the East. Imagine that some of the most significant civilisations of the world; Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman left their mark on the country and influenced one another. Greek traditional cuisine is their meeting point.
After Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire, it became a newborn state with an evolving urban middle-upper class. This new, sophisticated crowd was inspired by a Western, more elaborate way of dining, that contrasted the ‘plain”, peasant like foods* found in Greece till then.
Tselementes, a Greek chef trained in Europe, became the embodiment of Western influence in Greek cooking. Tselementes tried to get rid of oriental influences in Greek cooking, like heavy spices, and introduced French techniques to add more depth to humble Greek cooking. The most famous creation is Moussaka. The most stereotypical Greek dish, is actually the “marriage” of a Middle Eastern recipe, eggplants with minced meat, topped with bechamel, a creamy French sauce, with butter and grated cheese.
During the 20th century, Greeks from Asia Minor, Istanbul and the Black Sea region, gradually moved to Greece. Their arrival spiced up the Greek food culture experienced in households and Greek restaurants, to the point that we actually owe Greece’s culinary renaissance to them. Their gastronomic traditions integrated so harmoniously in the Greek cuisine, that now it’s unthinkable to think of authentic Greek food without them. Could you imagine for example Greek street food without gyro, bougatsa or peinirli?
* What Italians describe as “cucina povera”, which means “poor man’s cuisine”, a frugal, rural cuisine using whatever is available and getting creative with it.
What happens today: Contemporary Greek cuisine at its best
Greek cuisine is now praised worldwide for its unpretentious deliciousness. Along with time-tested, traditional Greek food, comes along a brigade of talented chefs who take local raw materials to another level. Humble and often overlooked, local ingredients like fava, lentils, horta and carob, now shine in gourmet dishes, giving way for more premium local products to be created. Inspired by the new trends, locals take pride in “made in Greece” products, moving away from foreign fads of the past, and rediscover their Greek culinary roots.