What do you think of when someone says “Greek Food”?
For me, it’s a drippy souvlaki from Stalactites in Melbourne at 2 in the morning. It’s the perfect time of day for a wad of greasy meat and stinky garlic sauce wrapped in the starchiest pita bread known to man. The only other “Greek Food” I was brought up on was my mum’s moussaka, which didn’t contain eggplant because nobody in the family liked it, so it was more like a lasagne made with potato rather than pasta, or a shepherd’s pie with cinnamon. Then there was Tzatziki, which was best consumed with chilli crisps and copious amounts of beer, and of course, followed by a souvlaki later in the evening.
But nobody told me about Keftedes. Or Saganaki Shrimp. So, when I travelled to the Peloponnese this summer, I realised that what has always been assumed by me to be a cuisine that entirely dedicated itself to the taste-whims of drunks, turns out to be something much more. I’m going to go into a few of the dishes I loved on the Mani Peninsular during last summer. There’s a leaning on very traditional Greek food, and away from too much Ottoman influence as the Mani is the only part of Greece not invaded by the Ottomans. Here’s your run-down:
What to eat
- Keftedes – fried fritters, or balls. Best ones Zucchini (Kolokitho) or Tomato (domato) (from Santorini) – with feta, herbs and breadcrumbs.
- Tiropites – cheese pies, usually in a fried pastry, sometimes baked with a filo casing (better fried)
- Gavros – white marinated anchovies, fresh and juicy, beautifully piquant and not as salty as the Italian ones
- Marides – deep-fried whitebait served whole with lemon and garlic sauce
- Garides Saganaki – or Saganaki shrimp, is prawns with a tomato and haloumi cheese sauce, often scented with ouzo. Sometimes good, often superb.
- Kolokithakia Gemista – zucchini (corgette/kouza) stuffed with rice, meat (usually beef) and herbs, slow cooked and usually served with a drizzle of white lemon sauce.
Sauces and dips
- Skordalia – potato and garlic sauce, goes especially well with cod, but also good on bread.
- Tarama – caviar, olive oil and lemon, often called taramasalata. More creamy and less fishy than you would expect.
- Tirokafteri – spicy cheese dip. Incredibly addictive feta and chilli.
- Tzatziki – we all know this, but it never tastes better than what you get in Greece – yoghurt and cucumber, garlic, mint or dill.
Meats and Mains
- Souvlaki – spit meat – usually chicken or pork. Interestingly enough, it’s not wrapped up in bread like the ones at 24-hour Greek fast food joints in Melbourne, but usually comes on a skewer and served with chips or rice.
- Giros – souvlaki meat (pronounced “Yeeros”) with thick flat bread, tzatziki, fresh tomato, cucumber and onions. Usually served on a plate, but can be sold as a wrap.
- Kleftiko – slow roasted lamb on the bone with lemon and garlic, usually served in parchment, sometimes with cheese.
- Soutzoukakia – meatballs, usually with smooth tomato sauce. Sweet spiced, and served with rice pilaf.
- Stifado – can be anything game, on the Mani peninsular it’s usually rabbit sometimes lamb or even beef, slow cooked with onions and cinnamon
- Kokoras krasatos – rooster slow-cooked in wine sauce
- Ghourounopula – roasted suckling pig, can be ordered as a dish in restaurants, but also purchased by the slab at roadside eateries to be taken home.
- Fresh fish – barbounia (red mullet), snapper, bream, octopus, squid, swordfish, live lobster. Usually simply grilled with lemon and olive oil. Squid either in rings or stuffed with rice and cheese. Ordered by weight
- Loukanika – pork sausages laced with chunks of orange and lemon peel, wild thyme and oregano
Order them, as many times as you can. After my first taste of ‘fried potatoes’ in Stoupa, I sighed with contentment and said to my friend “These are amazing. Real chips. They taste like they used to in fish and chips shops when I was a kid.” To which my friend’s response was: “Of course. That’s because all the fish and chips shops in Melbourne used to be owned by the Greeks.” Touché.
- koulourakia Smyrneika – also known as Smyrna biscuits – sweet pastry-like biscuits, the dough usually rolled and plaited or twisted. Good for dipping in coffee
- paksimadia – hard-baked rusk-like biscuits that require dipping in coffee if you don’t want to break your teeth. Should be barley, but often just wheat flour.
- Loukoumades – like ljeimats (donuts) with honey and cinnamon, sometimes sprinkled with almonds.
- loukoumi – multi-coloured
TurkishGreek delight, usually flavoured with lemon, bergamot, mastic and rosewater.
- Revani – semolina cake, very drippy and sweet, flavoured with orange syrup or honey.
- Baklava – usually served in very large portions, and in this area, a rich, honeyed walnut pie with filo pastry.
- Mastic – in icecream (kaimaki), but you’ll also find it flavouring things like sweets, creme brulée, spirits and more.
What to drink
- Coffee – The Greeks think they can make coffee. It’s similar to a Turkish – sludgy and grainy, and best drunk very sweet. Otherwise you can usually get an insipid americano or a burned cappucino.
- Ouzo – The drink of choice for summer. Ordered in nips, small bottles (200ml) or large (700ml) at restaurants, and will come with a jug of tap water (safe to drink) and ice. Put about 3 cubes of ice and an inch in the bottom of a tall thin glass, then top with water. Drink before the ice melts, then repeat. Keep repeating until bottle is all finished, then order some more.
- Beer – Mythos and Fix are my beers of choice – Mythos more malty, Fix more hoppy, both very clean lager-style beers.
Wine – There is a copious amount of very, very bad wine in Greece.
- House wine – Order the cheapest jug of rose or red on the list, and deal with it tasting like paint stripper (it’s completely acceptable to put blocks of ice in your red wine to water it down), ask if the white is Moschofilero, and if it isn’t then go for a bottle instead – whites often taste like vinegar. Avoid Retsina as it is infused with pine resin and tastes like squirrel vomit.
- White – Go for any variety that starts with ‘M’, which fortunately looks the same in the Greek alphabet as the English one. Moschofilero (Μοσχοφίλερο) is the safest – an inexpensive aromatic dry white that will please Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling drinkers. Malagousia (Μαλαγουζιά) is for the Chardonnay drinkers – a little more body and strength, but unfortunately more variable in quality, and can come off quite sour and almondy (excess volatile acidity). Then of course, there’s always Assyrtiko, Greece’s lovely alternative to Pinot Grigio – a light, fairly neutral and crisply clean white from Santorini that goes with everything (make sure it’s young – no more than 3 years old).
- Red – The reds are hit and miss – if you want to spend some money, go for Xinomavro, which is not local, but from the north of Greece, a strong, muscular variety bound to give you a 3-day hangover. More local, try Agiorghitiko from Nemea, which is a little like a soft merlot or light shiraz. Ripe berry flavours and mild tannins. Don’t be scared about buying red wine with a few years on it – we were finding 2006 varieties on the shelf for €10 (Summer 2014) that were still drinking well.
Well, that’s my big list – please feel very very welcome to comment if you have something to add. I’m heading back to Greece again, and looking forward to finding out more. Next post will contain my recommendations on where to eat in the region, along with some beaches and hotel recommendations. Until next time, Yamas!