Ask people to name their favorite cuisine and the answer is usually Chinese, French or Italian. Greek never, ever comes up. Why? ‘Cause Greek food is like drunk Uncle Charlie at a family picnic - tolerated but never talked about. Maybe it’s all those consonants. Who can pronounce those dishes, much less cook 'em? Well, think of me as a family therapist. I’m going to walk you through the food of Greece, and soon you’ll be itching to get into the kitchen and whip up a batch of baklava. (Just don’t ask me to spell anything.)
The history behind Greek cuisine is based in geography. Greece is about the size of Louisiana, but the geography ranges from mountains to cities to beaches. Surrounded by water, and with more than 1,400 islands, the main staple in Greece is seafood. Because different parts of the country encountered different cultures throughout history, there are regional differences as well. In mainland Greece you might find entrees such as casseroles and grilled meats, while on the island of Corfu you might find a fillet of beef sauteed in white wine and vinegar, or any number of fish and seafood entrees. Thessaloniki, which has been settled or invaded at various times by Byzantine Greeks, Ottomans, Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Turks, Armenians and Germans, has its own specialties, such as rabbit stew and various eggplant dishes. With 10 million people in Greece, there are zillions of variations on the cuisine.
Besides sea creatures, other major ingredients in Greek cuisine are olive oil, vegetables (including eggplant, peppers, onions and cucumbers), lamb and olives. Cheese is a big thing, too, with the most popular being feta, kasseri, graviera and manouri. Herbs and spices are used with abandon, so be sure to stock up on parsley, mint, anise seed, oregano and garlic. Pucker up: lemons are used in almost every dish.
Grilling and stewing are the most common ways to prepare food, and luckily for those of us with less-than-Julia-Child cooking skills, these are two of the most painless, foolproof cooking methods.
Greek cuisine comes down to ingredients; pick the freshest you can find and you’ve won half the battle. With the country’s warm climate, everything is seasonal, so locals tend to shop the markets every day. Since Greece gets 3,000 hours of sun a year, it’s no surprise the food is incredible - those crops are lovin’ the sun, so everyone eats fresh fruits and veggies.
Known for their laid-back lifestyle that gets started after the sun goes down, Greeks tend to eat late and in large amounts. A typical mainland meal starts with hot and cold appetizers (called mezedes) that are served family style. These include keftedes (meatballs) and melitzanosalata (mashed eggplant with oil, lemon and garlic.) The main course is usually a casserole or grilled meat or fish. In the winter, hearty soups are very popular as well. Vegetables are usually served in a casserole rather than plain, and yes, people in Greece actually eat Greek salad (a combo of feta, tomatoes, olives and cucumbers.)
In the country where Dionysus got his name, wine is, of course, served with every meal. Greece produces a lot of the juice (reds from western Macedonia and Crete, dry whites from Chalkidiki, Cephallonia, Santorini, Patras, Lemnos, Crete and Attica, and dessert wines from Patras and Cephallonia.) Ouzo, the traditional aperitif that tastes like anise, is something you must try, if only to feel the burn. Remember: no pain, no gain.