The Greek food throughout its history and continuing today is for the Greeks a philosophy, they know that what makes a perfect feast is not just the food but also the good company. Food is nearly always prepared with the tastes of the guests in mind, should the dishes be roasted or fried, light or heavy? Much of the conversation at the dinner table centers amicably around the food. The freshness of the fish, having just leaped from the sea; the vegetables newly dug from the ground or picked from the vines of the local farmers. The host will want to proudly point out how they have attempted to provide the best and freshest produce for you to enjoy.
The traditional day is still de rigueur on the islands. It begins early with a quick breakfast of coffee and cigarettes or dried Rusk soaked in warm milk, followed by a substantial lunch and a siesta. After a few hours more work, evening is the time to relax with family and/or friends whilst nibbling meze (Greek appetizer). This is followed at 9 or 10pm by dinner with, perhaps, sweet pastries, cakes or ice-cream enjoyed later in the cafes. Strong distinctive tastes are the hallmark of this culinary rhythm. Herbs like rigani (oregano), thyme, rosemary, parsley, coriander, dill, fennel and sage; spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla and mastic are all crucial.
Greek olive oil enriches and flavors and the traditional cooking methods of grilling, long slow baking all enhance and mellow the food. Eating and drinking out in Greece is still wonderfully enjoyable and very democratic, young and old, wealthy and not so wealthy, the ordinary citizen and the celebrity, all enjoy the same favorite neighborhood tavern, restaurant or cafe. Today, in many areas of Greece, celebratory meals, special occasions and family get-togethers are all more likely to occur in local taverns or restaurants than in peoples homes which means that you, the visitor, can vicariously enjoy the event which may also include live, traditional music and spontaneous dancing and perhaps fireworks! It seems academic to point out that thousands of years ago, the Greeks created one of the most important civilizations ever to be seen but part of this civilization was the idea of good living. Epicurus, for example, was one of the major philosophers in the Hellenistic period. One aspect of his teaching is that the point of all one's actions was to attain pleasure (conceived of as tranquillity) for oneself and that this could be done by limiting one's desires and by banishing the fear of the gods and of death.
Pleasure, simplicity and good friends you can trust were central to his theory of life. The Romans during the period of the Roman Empire continued this tradition but to enormous excess. Evidence of this is seen in the many famous feasts held during this time. This element of excess was and still is at odds with the Greek temperament, and was eliminated by the later Byzantines, thus preserving the authenticity of Greek cuisine for over a thousand years. Basically, the traditional diet and method of cooking food in Greece has not changed since the ancient times, the original flavors and ingredients are still used along with the crucial basic ingredient of all - Greek olive oil.
This is particularly so in somewhere like Crete, where the traditional diet is the same - simple and basic without the over spicing of much modern food. It is argued that the Cretan diet hasn't really changed since Minoan times - using olive oil, cereals, wine and fish. Such a diet has created the worlds most healthy and long-lived people and is the basis of the famous Mediterranean Diet. Indeed, research carried out in 1950 by the International Scientific Community discovered that the inhabitants of Crete were so healthy due to their diet. Still today, it is generally agreed that following the traditional Cretan way of eating leads to less chance of suffering from heart disease compared to other Mediterranean countries. The main reason seems to be due to the fact that Cretans eat twice as much fruit, a quarter less meat and more pulses than other Europeans. But one could also argue that this is the traditional diet of much of Greece. In the summer of 2005, the margarine producer Flora ran a campaign to raise awareness about heart disease and cholesterol in women.
Cholesterol is largely found in animal fats and people with high levels are more prone to suffer from heart disease than those with lower levels. Greek cuisine is largely free from animal fats which is why it is so good for us. This, together with fresh, organic foodstuff, large helpings of fish, fruit and vegetables with very little opportunity for fast food binges and no real tradition of making do with pre-cooked TV dinners leads us to conclude that it is not really surprising that as well as being the cradle of civilization it was also the birthplace of the Mediterranean Diet. Today, with the introduction of nouveau cuisine in much of Western Europe - with its strange mix of ingredients and flavors, or the cuisine of some European cities with its pretentiousness, complicated etiquette procedures and formalities it seems that all gastronomical pleasure has been lost. In Greek cuisine, you can rediscover the original feeling of taste. The Greek food is beautiful! And when I say Greek food I don't mean souvlaki and moussaka, but the hundreds and hundreds of wonderful dishes that Greek women have invented through time.
If you want to try the typically Greek traditional food, the first thing you have to do is to find a traditional Greek tavern. The first sign you should look for is the customers: if the majority is Greek then you are on the right track. Also have a look at the tavern, if it doesn't have huge signs in 50 languages shouting out that they have the Greek dishes of Moussaka for only 4-5 euro, then you have found something. If you are really lucky, they dont even have menus, at least not in English.
Step two is to eat the way the Greeks do. You start by ordering in mezes, or mezedakia. These are the small dishes with various delicacies that you eat as appetizers or on the side. You can even remain there and not order a main course at all. Order whatever comes to mind, or ask the waiter to bring in whatever is good.
With this you should drink wine, but beer or a soft drink is OK too. Dig in, and enjoy. Take your time...the Greeks do not just eat out for the food, but for the company and the fun of it. Worth to try are the Greek desserts and the famous Greek salads like, Horiatiki the well known Greek salad, Melitzanosalata, Angourontomata, Maroulosalata, Psarosalata and many others.
What to order in a Greek Restaurant:
Opening a menu in a Greek Restaurant or Tavern the first part are the appetizers, I am not going to list all the Greek appetizers here but the most common that the Greeks will order. One of the most popular starters is the tsatsiki the famous appetizer made out of Yogurt, garlic and cucumbers, Taramosalata, the Greek red caviar and then usually fried aubergines, zucchinis or fried green paprika followed by Tyropitakia (small cheese pies) and various croquettes from cheese (Tyrokroketes), zucchini balls flavoured with fresh mind (kolokythokeftedes), dolmadakia gialantzi (stuffed wine leaves) and of course Horta (Greek dandelions or radices boiled).
Among the main dishes you will find moussaka, stuffed tomatoes, aubergines or paprika, giouvarlakia ( meatballs with rice in white egg and lemon sauce), Dolmades (stuffed cabbage leaves), soutzoukakia (meatballs in red sauce), spaghetti Bolognese, and many meat dishes from chicken (kotopoulo) veal (moshari) and lamb (arni).
The grilled meats include Britzoles (chops) from pork (britzoles hoirines), lamb ((britzoles arnisies) or veal (britzoles mosharisies), Paidakia (ribs) from lamb and other specialties on spit or skewer like Souvlaki and Exohiko (lamb grilled in foil). In many grill taverns mostly in the mainland of Greece you will find many specialties on spit like Kokoretsi, Gardoumpa and Splinantero all having as base lamb liver and kidneys.