The rural and urban cooking of each region is a small but important piece of the puzzle called Greek cuisine. Until fairly recently, most tourists knew of only a small number of standard dishes – moussaka, tzatziki, Greek salad, stuffed vine leaves, baklava – without realizing that each corner of this incredibly varied country has its own specialties.
The local larder and recipes are a product of the landscape, its fertility, crops, pastures, proximity to the sea, connections with other cultures – Italians, Anatolians, Slavs to name a few – and so much more. But some threads connect them all: they obey the seasons and they are bursting with genuine tastes.
Culinary Influences in Greek Cuisine
Greek cuisine is a mosaic of flavors that tells the story of Greece’s rich cultural and culinary history. While herbs – thyme, oregano, basil, mint – are used extensively in Greek cooking, the presence of spices is part of the Byzantine heritage and a testimony to the great influx of Greeks from Asia Minor. To them we owe such popular dishes as moussaka, imam baildi (stuffed eggplant), all the syprupy fyllo pastries in the baklava family, meats seasoned with cumin, and many many more.
In the local cuisine of the north, you may even come across emblematic dishes from the Pontus – brought by Greeks from the Caucasus – such as piroshki, a warming soup (sorbas) of bulgur and yogurt, and little pies called pisia filled with anything you can imagine. Pontic cooking is a celebration of a lost homeland, and so is the food of the refugees from Smyrna (now Izmir), who fled in a hurry in 1922 with only the clothes on their backs and their music and their recipes in their hearts.
With their arrival in Greece, followed later by many Greeks from Constantinople, the country inherited a vast repertoire of recipes from a culture that was more sophisticated than the mainland’s, with new seasonings, spices, and preparations. Carefully kneaded meatballs (keftedes), cumin-scented soutzoukakia (meatballs with tomato sauce), atzem pilaf (lamb with rice and a multitude of other rice dishes) and dolmadakia (stuffed vineleaves and a whole range of stuffed leaves and vegetables) are a mere sample.
By now, these treats have been absorbed into the mainstream cuisine, but you’ll find them especially in tavernas in places where the refugees first moved, in the Athenian neighborhoods of Palio Faliro, Nea Smyrni, Nea Ionia and, of course, in Thessaloniki, that great melting pot of cultures. There, in addition to foods from Asia Minor, you’ll find Sephardic Jewish dishes, specialties from the Balkans and plenty of marvelous seafood, such as pilaf with ultra-fresh mussels, shrimps in tomato sauce and scores of little dishes which all go down a treat with a little ouzo and friendly company.
Local Cuisine: Macedonia
The whole region of Macedonia is a bountiful garden. Vast orchards with trees weighed down with Edessa cherries, peaches, apricots, and apples; fields purple with Kozani’s saffron crocus; vine-covered hillsides around Naoussa and Drama, producing divine red and white wines. Then there’s Grevena’s magic mushrooms, Florina’s flaming red, sweet peppers, and the delicious beans and pulses of Kastoria and Prespes, where the bean fields extend alongside the magnificent lakes.
In the north, you’ll find game raised on special farms, excellent sausages and preserved meats like pastourma, hearty soups, and stews that are perfectly complemented by the local red wine – xinomavro – which rates among the best in the world. In summer, on the rugged shores of Halkidiki, where the pine woods reach the water’s edge, you’ll succumb to the irresistible riches of the sea, freshly-caught fish and shellfish prepared to perfection whether at your luxury hotel or at the humble taverna on the beach.