Greek cookery is known as a typical Mediterranean cuisine, sharing characteristics with the cuisines of Italy, the Balkans, Turkey and the Levant. (Levantine cuisine is the traditional cuisine of the Levant, known in Arabic as the Bilad ash-Sham. This region shared many culinary traditions under the Ottoman Empire which continue to be influential today. It covers the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Northern Iraq, Southern Turkey near Adana, Gaziantep, Antakya, Mardin and the Palestinian territories)
Contemporary Greek cookery makes wide use of olive oil, vegetables and herbs, grains and bread, wine, fish and various meats, including poultry, rabbit and pork. Also important are olives, cheese, eggplant (aubergine), zucchini (courgette) and yogurt. The desserts are dominated by nuts and honey. Some dishes use phyllo pastry.
The most characteristic and ancient element of Greek cuisine is olive oil, which is usually used in most dishes. It is produced from the olive trees prominent throughout the region, and adds to the distinctive taste of Greek food. The fundamental grain in Greece is wheat, though barley can also be grown. Important vegetables include tomato, aubergine (eggplant), potato, green beans, okra, green peppers and onions. Honey in Greece is mainly honey from the nectar of fruit trees and citrus trees: lemon, orange, bigarade (bitter orange) trees, thyme honey and pine honey from conifer trees. Mastic (aromatic, ivory coloured resin) is grown on the Aegean island of Chios.
Greek cuisine uses some flavourings more often than other Mediterranean cuisines do, namely: oregano, mint, garlic, onion, dill and bay laurel leaves. Other common herbs and spices include basil, thyme and fennel seed. Persillade can also be used as a garnish on some dishes. (Persillade is a sauce or seasoning mixture of parsley chopped together with seasonings including garlic, herbs, oil, and vinegar. In its simplest form, just parsley and garlic, it is a common ingredient in many dishes.
Many Greek recipes, especially in the northern areas of the country, use "sweet" spices in combination with meat, for instance cinnamon and cloves in stews.
The climate and terrain has tended to favour the breeding of goats and sheep over cattle, and thus beef dishes are uncommon. Fish dishes are frequent in coastal regions and on the islands. A great variety of cheese types are used in Greek cuisine, including Feta, Kasseri, Kefalotyri, Graviera, Anthotyros, Manouri, Metsovone and Mizithra.
Too much refinement is generally considered to be against the hearty spirit of Greek cuisine, though recent trends among Greek culinary circles tend to favour a somewhat more refined approach.
Dishes to try in Greece - Steeped in history and lapped by the Mediterranean sea, Greece is home to some of the finest ingredients in the world. Sample them in a traditional Greek dish along with a glass of ouzo.
Taramasalata - A mainstay of any Greek meal are classic dips such as tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber and garlic), melitzanosalata (aubergine) and fava (creamy split pea purée). But the delectable taramasalata (fish roe dip) is a must. This creamy blend of pink or white fish roe with either a potato or bread base is best with a drizzle of virgin olive oil or a squeeze of lemon.
Olives & olive oil - Greeks have been cultivating olives for millennia…some even say that Athena gave an olive tree to the city of Athens, thus winning its favour. Greek meals are accompanied by local olives, some cured in a hearty sea salt brine, others like wrinkly throubes, eaten uncured from the tree. Similarly, olive oil, the elixir of Greece, is used liberally in cooking and salads, and drizzled over most dips and dishes. Many tavernas use their own oil.
Dolmades - Each region in Greece, in fact, each household, has its variation on the classic grape leaf-wrapped rice parcel. Eaten as a finger food, some stuffed vine leaves incorporate mincemeat with the long-grain rice, others, simply a heady combination of thyme, dill, fennel, oregano or pine nuts.
Moussaka -Variations on moussaka are found throughout the Mediterranean and Balkans, but the iconic Greek baked dish is based on layering: sautéed aubergine, minced meat fried pureed tomato, onion, garlic and spices like cinnamon and allspice, a bit of potato, and then a final fluffy topping of cheese and béchamel sauce.
Grilled meat - Greeks are master of charcoal-grilled and spit-roasted meats. Souvlaki is still Greece’s favourite fast food, both the gyros and skewered meat versions wrapped in pitta bread, with tomato, onion and lashings of tzatziki. At the taverna, local free-range lamb and pork dominate, though kid goat is also a favourite.
Fresh fish - Settle down at a seaside taverna and eat as locals have since ancient times. Fish and calamari fresh from the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas are incredibly tasty and cooked with minimum fuss – grilled whole and drizzled with ladholemono (a lemon and oil dressing). Flavoursome smaller fish such as barbounia (red mullet) and maridha (whitebait) are ideal lightly fried.
Courgette balls (kolokythokeftedes) - Sometimes in the form of a patty, sometimes in a lightly fried ball, make sure to try these starters any chance you get. The body of the fritter is usually made of grated or pureed courgette blended with dill, mint, or other top-secret spice combinations. Paired with tzatziki, for its cooling freshness, you just can’t lose.
Octopus - Along harbours, octopus hung out to dry like washing is one of the iconic images of Greece. Grilled or marinated, it makes a fine meze (appetiser), or as an entree stew it in wine sauce and serve it with pasta.
Feta and cheeses - When in Greece, be sure to sample the vast array of fresh cheeses. Ask behind market counters for feta kept in big barrels, creamy and delicious (nothing like the one in plastic tubs in markets outside of Greece). Or, sample graviera, a hard golden-white cheese, perfect eaten cubed, or fried as saganaki. At bakeries you’ll find tyropita (cheese pie), at tavernas, salads like Cretan dakos, which is topped with a crumbling of mizithra, a soft, white cheese.
Honey and baklava - Greeks love their sweets, often based on olive oil and honey combinations, with flaky filo pastry. The classic baklava is a start, layering honey, filo and ground nuts. Or try galaktoboureko, a sinful custard-filled pastry. Simply, pour a lovely dollop of local thyme honey over fresh Greek yogurt.