The Traditional Diet of Greece
Souvlaki, The Greek Hamburger. Photo courtesy of Debliteck Ltd
We’ve been to Italy; now let’s go to Greece, another supposed bastion of health with its “Mediterranean Diet”. From Athena to Athens and the Parthenon to the Pantheon, let’s explore what the country that brought us Zeus can bring to our table.
History and Geography of Greece:
Starting around 2700 BCE, Greece was home to some of the first advanced civilizations in Europe, namely the Minoans, who survived on the island of Crete until around 1450 BCE. Around this time, Mycenaeans invaded from the mainland, defeating the Minoans, and then later declined (supposedly to the Dorians) at the start of the Greek Dark Ages. After the Dark Ages, in which nothing of note happened other than the decline of art, language, and archeology, came the period known as Ancient Greece, with which most Westerners are most familiar. Beginning between 1000 and 750 BCE (depending on who you ask), this period contributed the names with which we’re all most familiar: Homer, Sophocles, Plato, and Aristotle, to name a few.
From this period, we also see the beginnings of everything that the United States and other Western countries hold as sacred: “democracy, Western philosophy, the Olympic Games, Western literature and historiography, political science, major scientific and mathematic principles, and Western drama, including both tragedy and comedy.”(1) Because about one-fifth of Greece is made up of islands and no part of the country is no more than 85 miles from the sea, the Ancient Greeks took to the water, merchants and traders opening trade routes both east and west.
This proximity to the sea also produced some beautiful city layouts. I can’t get over images like this one and this one of the coastal communities perched right on the edge of the water in step-wise fashion…amazing!
The Ancient Greek diet was dominated by wheat, olive oil, and wine. The staple of the diet was cereals, specifically wheat and barley. Served with this bread was typically some form of fruits and vegetables, made into a soup, boiled, or mashed. Because vegetables were expensive, the poor made do with dried vegetables, along with getting meat primarily from chickens and geese from their farm yards. The more wealthy raised goats, pigs, and sheep, as well. Along the coast, fish and shellfish were common foods. Eggs and yoghurt were common, as was cheese. Milk and butter, however, were not widely consumed in the cities.
Following the Ancient Greece era came the empires, the Roman, followed by the Byzantine. In the Byzantine Empire, food was class-based. In the palace, there were spices, exotic recipes, fruits, cakes, and candies to entertain all comers. The regular folk had to subsist mainly on vegetables, legumes, and cereals prepared in various ways. The mild Mediterranean climate produced a variety of vegetables, which were commonly eaten in salads. Poultry, eggs, shellfish, fish, game meats, sausages, and, for the upper classes, lamb brought home the protein content of the diet. Because cattle were used for crop cultivation, beef was seldom eaten. The pigs that were slaughtered for the sausages and salt pork also yielded lard which was used throughout the winter.
The area was truly a melting pot of cuisines due to the numerous empires, wars, and conquerings that took place. Constantinople lay right on major trade routes, which brought influences, both cultural and dietary, from locales like Italy, the Persian Empire, and the Arabic Empire. Later, the Ottoman Turks controlled the area, both impacting and being impacted by Greek cuisine. These myriad influences can be seen throughout Middle Eastern cuisine.
The mainland of Greece is mountainous, four-fifths of the country lying in the Pindus and Rhodope mountain ranges and surrounding foothills. There are three major climate regions: Mediterranean, Alpine, and Temperate. The Mediterranean climate is that which is most expected of outsiders: mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Western Greece features the Alpine region, while the temperate area lies in Central and Eastern Macedonia, complete with cold, wet winters and hot, dry summers, the worst of both worlds. Athens lies in a transition zone, the north featuring a more Alpine climate, while the south lies in a more Mediterranean climate.
Half of Greece is forestland, ranging from coniferous Alpine forests to Mediterranean vegetation. This rich expanse of flora hosts an equally rich expanse of fauna: the last brown bears of Western Europe, lynx, wolf, deer, wild goats, fox, wild boar, and many others. In the sea are found seals, sea turtles, and numerous other rarities.
Modern Grecian Cooking:
Since we’re going to be spending the next few articles exploring the areas around the Mediterranean Sea, let’s go ahead and talk about the horse in the corner, the “Mediterranean Diet”. Here’s a good quote to sum it up:(2)
The idea of the ‘standard Mediterranean diet’ … is a modern construction of food writers and publicists in Western Europe and North America earnestly preaching what is now thought to be a healthy diet to their audiences by invoking a stereotype of the healthy other on the shores of the Mediterranean. Their colleagues in Mediterranean countries are only too willing to perpetuate this myth. The fact of the matter is that the Mediterranean contains varied cultures…
Around 1975, under the impulse of one of those new nutritional directives by which good cooking is too often influenced, the Americans discovered the so-called Mediterranean diet…. The name… even pleased Italian government officials, who made one modification: changing from diet-a word which has always seemed punitive and therefore unpleasant-to Mediterranean cuisine.
The bottom line is that there is no single Mediterranean Diet. It has been created by our “health authorities” as if Italy, Greece, Spain, and France all share the same cuisine. Comparing the article on Italy (see Table of Contents above) with this one should be enough to dispel the notion of a “Mediterranean Diet,” though there are a few similarities like seafood, olive oil, and grilled meats. Now let’s get on with discussing “The Greek Diet” (trademark pending).
Next, let’s go ahead and establish that Greeks are very proud of their cuisine. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be, though some of the statements I came across tended towards the more hyperbolic:
- The first thing is that you will eat the best tomato you have ever tasted in you life. Shortly thereafter you will eat the best melon you have ever eaten in your life.(3)
- Greek olive oil is simply the best.(4)
- For some reason vegetables and fruits taste better in Greece than they do elsewhere.(3)
Any or all of these may very well be true. It should be noted that the first cookbook was written in 330 B.C.E. by Greek gourmet Archestratos.(5) And the white chef’s hat is also a Greek contribution to the food world, coming from Greek Orthodox monasteries where the chefs were distinguished from the regular black hat-wearing monks.
The varied climates provide an abundance of produce, which, as in all great cuisines, is eaten seasonally, right at the peak of perfection. The mild climate means that greenhouses are not necessary in most of the country, producing top-notch fruits and vegetables. Fruits include tomatoes, citrus, “apricots, grapes, dates, cherries, apples, pears, plums, and figs.”(6) In the vegetable world, we have eggplants, potatoes, green beans, okra, bell peppers, onions, cabbage, spinach, carrots, artichokes, zucchini, garlic, and of course olives, to name a few. As in Italy, several of these vegetables are not indigenous to Greece, particularly some of the most common, like the tomato and bell pepper. In the winter and spring, you’ll also find the women gathering wild greens, known as hortas. Unfortunately, of all these vegetables, the potato is the one most widely eaten.
And then there are legumes such as chickpeas, lima beans, split peas and lentils. Chickpeas are turned into hummus, which actually comes from the Arabic word for “chickpea”. In the nut world, we see pine nuts, almonds, walnuts and pistachios. Other plants are used as herbs and spices, particularly oregano, mint, nutmeg, dill, and bay, along with basil, thyme, fennel, cinnamon and cloves. Greek food, however, is not spicy or heavily seasoned. Spices are used to bring out the natural flavor of ingredients rather than to mask it.
Olive oil is absolutely essential to Greek cooking, present in nearly every dish. The country produces over “430,000 tons of olive oil annually, and more than 75% of that is extra virgin.”(7) Besides olive oil, another mainstay in the Greek cuisine is bread and other forms of grain, particularly wheat, sometimes barley. “The busiest shop in any Greek village is the local bakery.”(4) Grains are turned into pita, phyllo dough, and orzo and macaroni pastas (along with others, though these are the most common).
Then there’s the cheese, which any Greek worth his salt will tell you is the best in the world. Greeks love cheese. And by that I mean, they really love their cheese. Greece is the top consumer of cheese worldwide, chowing down on 27.3 kg per person each year, 75% of that being feta. The next closest country is France at 24 kg per person per year, which works out to an additional, ohhhh, 7.25 pounds of cheese each per year in Greece. Looking at this list of cheeses, you can see that only Italy rivals Greece in the number of varieties of cheese produced. Just eyeballing, it appears that Greece wins. Other Greek varieties include Kasseri, Kefalotyri, Graviera, Anthotyros, Manouri, Metsovone and Mizithra. The European Union recently ruled that only Greece can label cheese “feta”.
Now on to the fun stuff, meat. Lamb, pork, beef, goat, chicken, veal, and rabbit all feature in the Greek version of the Mediterranean Diet. You know, the Mediterranean Diet in which little red meat is eaten:(8)
But anyone visiting Greece would wonder exactly what is meant by the Mediterranean diet for while those of us outside the Med have been eating more whole grains, extra virgin olive oil and fresh vegetables, the Greeks have been eating more meat, turning a once or twice a week special occasion food to a daily affair, sometimes twice daily. As the Greeks become more affluent they eat more meat.
The hilly, mountainous terrain favors goat and sheep production over cattle, so beef is a rarity in comparison. Meats are usually grilled or cooked on a rotisserie. One recipe which sounds delightful is called patsa (not pasta) and is made of pig intestines, stomach, etc. Seafood dishes are obviously common, more so along the coast and in the islands. Sardines, anchovies, mackerel, bogue, smelt, squid, swordfish, multiple varieties of tuna, bream, trout, red porgy, sea-bream, sea bass, pandora, and dentex are a few of the species dwelling in the waters around Greece. (If you haven’t noticed, I love really long lists.)
As in most of the other countries we’ve looked at, special occasions call for bringing out the meat, not the whole grains and legumes. In Cuba, it’s a stuffed turkey for Christmas; in Greece, it’s an entire lamb roasted on a spit.
Greek cuisine is an example of using fresh ingredients with little refinement. “Too much refinement is generally considered to be against the hearty spirit of the Greek cuisine,” though unfortunately, that spirit is being broken in more recent trends.(9) The food is simple, yet packed with color and flavors, owning to the precise use of herbs and spices to bring out the flavor of the ingredients. Eating out is a wonderful pastime in Greece. Men spend much time at the taverna and estiatorio, where traditional home cooking can be had affordably. Many restaurants will actually take you back in the kitchen where you can look at the offerings and make your selection.
The daily eating schedule varies from rural to urban areas. Farmers typically rise early and have a spot of grape juice or fruit brandy before tending to the fields. He’ll eat around noon when his wife or daughter brings him “some soup, bread and cheese, perhaps olives and raw onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers and occasionally a sweet pastry or fresh fruit.”(10) He eats a similar meal, perhaps with with a meat dish, after sundown.
In the cities, Turkish coffee starts the day, along with a sweet biscuit of some sort. Lunch may extend several hours and be followed by a rest period, similar to the Hispanic siesta. The restaurants in the cities have tended towards more cosmopolitan fare, traditional foods being mainly served only in the home. After work, the men usually head to the taverna for a drink and socializing. Dinner is served very late, usually around ten o’clock, after which there may be another visit to the tavern.
As with all of the best cuisines we’ve seen, the food is highly regional. That to me means that the local chefs are making the best of local ingredients. This makes sense when considering that Greece consists of a mainland and some 300 islands. It is said that Macedonia offers the richest variety of dishes in Greece, some of them dating from the ancient days. It mixes the typical Greek cuisine with oriental elements.
If you’re in the mood for something other than tea, coffee, and water, there is ouzo and wine. Ouzo is the notable anise-flavored beverage loved throughout the country. However, wine is the most common drink. There are claims that wine was invented on the island of Icaria.
Desserts feature lots of nuts and honey, as seen in a dish like baklava. However, these exceptionally sweet desserts are usually saved for special occasions. Fresh and dried fruits are the most common desserts served.
Over all, I can’t find a great deal to complain about in the Greek dietary pattern. The food is fresh, unrefined, and seasonal, which is pretty much a necessity when eating fresh, unrefined foods. It has a truckload more wheat than I’d like to include in my diet, but at least the bread is freshly baked, which I would presume means it has very few ingredients, none of which begin with “high fructose” or “exthoxylated”. The wide variety of fruits and vegetables, along with olives and olive oil, mean plenty of vitamins and minerals, and no vegetable oils.
The Greek culinary world has a very strong social aspect. A few quotes from various sources regarding this social aspect, if I may:(10)(11)(12)
Greeks don’t like being alone and don’t think that anyone or even any thing should ever be alone. For example, a drink must always be accompanied with food and food must always be enjoyed with friends.
For me, Greek food is the best in the world. Not just because they use fresh vegetables and they don’t over-power with spices, but because it comes with the whole package of wine and conversation that can go all afternoon or all night long. As anyone who has visited Greece will tell you, eating and drinking is a way of life there and those British holidaymakers who stay in self-catering rooms and apartments fixing their little English meals, are missing out on one of the best aspects of living in Greece.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about Greek food and Greek cuisine is that eating out and sharing the dinner is as important as the food itself. Greeks even have a special word for this: paraia: a transcendence of the dinner table to include conversation, the view, ambiance and the overall spirit of place as Lawrence Durrell phrased it.
And to really drive the point home:(13)
The Greek word symposium, a word as ancient as the country itself, if translated literally, means drinking with company.
Vegetarians can do quite well in Greece, the country being one of the earliest to have an actual vegetarian tradition. There are plenty of meatless main dishes and you’ll be in good company with famous Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. Don’t get upset carnivores; I’m not advocating for such a diet, nor implying that being a vegetarian will put one on par with Plato. Just trying to help our vegetarian friends out.
Unfortunately, as the country has increased in affluence, obesity has increased. Along with more meat, more refined grains and sugar have been incorporated into the diet. The more dense meat-haters will place the blame on the additional meat, but I think we all understand the reality.
Reveling In Obscurity:
As in Italy, most of the ingredients in Greek cuisine have been “discovered” and brought to Western shores. From olives to capers to olive oil, we incorporate Greek ingredients into our meals constantly. Two ingredients that I did happen across are:
- Mastic – An evergreen cultivated for its aromatic resin.
- Zucchini leaves – The leaves of the zucchini plant. These could probably be found here or grown in your own backyard.
A Few Recipes:
So who’s hungry now? I know I am. It’s extremely difficult to fast while researching and writing an article like this. I suppose we should have another quote about how wonderful Greek cuisine is in comparison to everywhere else: “The Greek meal experience, namely the combination of what you eat and where you eat it, cannot be repeated, exported or duplicated.”(13) But we’ll do the best we can in our own kitchens because if you can’t travel to Greece to experience the real deal, it won’t hurt to have the unreal deal in your own home.
Meat and Such
- Keftedes – Fried meatballs with oregano and mint, Recipe
- Bekri Meze – “Drunkard’s Snack,” minced beef with various spices, Recipe
- Kleftiko – Marinated bone-in lamb, Recipe
- Hirino me selino – Pork and celery in a lemon-egg sauce, Recipe
- Kokoretsi – Who’s feeling brave? How about lamb intestines stuff with liver, heart, testicles, and lungs?, Recipe
- Souvlaki – The Greek Hamburger, skewered grilled lamb, Recipe
- Stifado – Rabbit with Onions, Recipe
- Paidakia – Here we eat ribs, there they eat lamb chops, Recipe
- Brozoles – Simple ribeye in lemon marinade, Recipe
- Loukaniko – Greek sausage, Recipe
Sides, Appetizers, Soups, and Salads
- Horiatiki – Known in The States as “Greek Salad,” Recipe
- Melitzanosalata – Also known as Baba ghanoush, a puree of eggplant, onion, garlic, and lemon juice, Recipe
- Tzatziki – For those including dairy, a puree of cucumber and yogurt, Recipe
- Patsa – Tripe soup, Recipe
- Magiritsa – The soup used to break the Lenten fast for Orthodox Greeks, your call on the rice, Recipe
- Bamies – Okra in tomato sauce, Recipe
- Kakavia – Fish soup, Recipe
If you’re looking to purchase some real Greek products and the Ethnic section of your local grocery isn’t cutting it, try the Greek Internet Market.
(2) Cuisine of the Mediterranean
(3) Greek Food: Fruits and Vegetables
(4) Greek Food: The Basics
(5) An Introduction to Greek Food and Greek Cooking
(6) Greek Cuisine at Mediterrasian
(7) Greek Food Products
(8) Guide to Greek Food: Meat
(9) Greek Cuisine
(10) Greek Meals and Customs
(11) Introduction to Greek Food
(12) History of Greek Food
(13) Traditional Greek Cusine at Greece: The True Experience
History of Greece
Greek Food: Fish and Seafood
Greek Food: Herbs and Spices
Greek Macedonian Cuisine
Ethnic Cuisine, Greek
Ancient Greek Cuisine
Intro to Greek Cuisine at That’s Greece