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Monday, June 15, 2015

Travelers Guide to 33 Traditional Greek Foods

Traditional Greek Foods: Greek Lamb, Pita, and Tzatziki

It really shouldn’t have surprised me, the Greek culture being one of the oldest in the world and all, but the Greeks have a ton of traditional foods!  What with the different alphabet and the difficult pronunciations, it’s hard to remember what everything is.  So here is a guide to some of the traditional Greek food you’ll be ordering and eating when you travel through Greece. 

Savory Greek Foods


Traditional Greek Foods: Barbounia (μπαρμπούνι) Red Mullet Fish

Barbounia (μπαρμπούνι) are red mullet fish, small little fish that are red in color and delicious fried.  There’s a lot of picking meat off the bones and it takes quite a few to make a meal, but the taste is well worth the effort.


Traditional Greek Foods: Biftekia (μπιφτέκια)

When Yoav, our Tripology Adventures guide, kept offering hamburgers as an option at lunch, I felt a little offended we were being offered an American dish when we were in the heart of Greece.  What I eventually realized was we were actually being offered a traditional Greek food called biftekia (μπιφτέκια).  We received a quick cooking lesson at the watermill tavern in Agrafa on how to make biftekia.  These ground beef patties are more like little meatloaves than hamburgers because they are made with a mixture of ground meat, egg, bread soaked in water, onion, hot mustard, fresh parsley, pepper, salt, and oregano, which makes them tender and flavorful. 


Dolmades (ντολμαδάκια) are stuffed grape leaves, encasing a rice and herb mixture.  The stuffed grape leaves are simmered in a mixture of water or broth, olive oil, and lemon juice before serving.

Fasolakia Lathera

Traditional Greek Foods: Fasolakia Lathera (φασολάκια λαδερά)

Guess what?  The Greeks have green bean casserole too!  In fasolakia lathera (φασολάκια λαδερά), green beans are stewed with tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil.  The flavors are very good, but the green beans are too soft for my personal taste, as I prefer crisper vegetables.  If you do enjoy this dish, get your fill in Greece, because in Greece they use special green beans that are wide and soft, different from the green beans we have in the US.


Traditional Greek Foods: Gyro (γύρος)

Gyro (γύρος) is meat on a spit, not to be confused with souvlaki.  The meat turns on a vertical spit in front of a heat source, cooking and getting crispy, before being shaved off for serving.  Gyro is usually served in a rolled pita with tzatziki, onions, tomatoes, and sometimes french fries.

Horiatiki Salata (Greek Salad)

Traditional Greek Foods: Horiatiki Salata (χωριάτικη σαλάτα)

In case you thought Greek salad was an American invention, rest assured it is not, though the original is a bit different than what is usually served in the US.  For one thing, it doesn't contain lettuce.  Horiatiki salata (χωριάτικη σαλάτα) is on every single menu in every single restaurant.  It is a very simple combination of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and feta cheese, all drizzled with olive oil.  A warning, you might get sick of Greek salad before the end of your travels through Greece.  The vegetables are good, but the feta can get to be too much.  I love feta cheese, but each salad comes with a huge block of feta on top, and it’s kind of against my religion to leave any cheese uneaten, which means I usually overindulged on cheese.


Hortopita (χόρτα πίτα) is a savory pie with cheese and greens layered between crispy phyllo dough.  Hortopita can easily be mistaken for spanakopita.  Pita stands for the bread or phyllo dough portion and horto references leaves.  Spanakopita is what we’re used to seeing in the US and is made with spinach.  Spanakopita is related to hortopita, but hortopita contains a mixture of various greens that are abundant through Greece, more plentiful than just spinach, meaning hortopita is more common to find in Greece than spanakopita.


Traditional Greek Foods: Kalitsounia (καλιτσούνια)

Kalitsounia (καλιτσούνια) are pastries from Crete and can be filled with either sweet cheese or mountain greens.  Crete has a special kind of greens, stamnagathi, which are bitter wild greens that grow in the mountains.  These greens taste good no matter their preparation, cold in a salad, sautéed as a side dish, or stuffed in a pastry like kalitsounia.


Traditional Greek Foods: Keftethes (κεφτέδες)

Keftethes (κεφτέδες) are Greek meatballs, sometimes served with a tomato sauce.  What makes them good is that they are fried, giving them a nice crispy texture on the outside.


Traditional Greek Foods: Lahanodolmathes (λαχανοντολμάδες)

Lahanodolmathes (λαχανοντολμάδες) are Greek cabbage rolls.  A number of countries have their version of the cabbage roll.  The Greek cabbage roll is stuffed with ground meat and rice and is served in a light broth with egg and lemon called avgolemono.


Traditional Greek Foods: Lavraki (λαβρακια)

Lavraki (λαβρακια) is a European sea bass found off the shores of Greece.  Lavraki is best enjoyed grilled and butterflied with a squeeze of lemon.  If you can arrange it, a sea view makes it taste even better.


Traditional Greek Foods: Moussaka (μουσακάς)

Moussaka (μουσακάς) is sort of like shepherd’s pie.  Moussaka is made with layers of eggplant, seasoned beef, and béchamel, baked in a dish and served in pieces.


Traditional Greek Foods: Paidakia (παϊδάκια)

Paidakia (παϊδάκια) are grilled lamb chops.  The paidakia we had in Greece were incredibly tender and perfectly seasoned with pepper and salt.  The lamb chops are marinated before being grilled over a charcoal fire.  I tried to be proper at first by using a knife and fork, but the best way to eat paidakia is with your hands so you can get every succulent morsel.


Traditional Greek Foods: Pastisio (παστίτσιο)

Pastisio (παστίτσιο) is another baked dish served in square pieces.  Pastisio is a pasta based dish somewhat similar to moussaka except instead of eggplant, macaroni noodles are layered with ground meat and topped with béchamel.


Traditional Greek Foods: Saganaki (σαγανάκι)

Saganaki (σαγανάκι) is an appetizer of seared cheese.  Saganaki can be made with a variety of cheeses.  We had the best saganaki at Taverna To Patrikomas in Delphi, which used formaela, a traditional Greek cheese made from sheep’s milk.  The formaela cheese was dipped in a light batter before being fried, and the warm cheese was delightfully squeaky between my teeth.  We had good saganaki in Athens too, but nothing compared to the saganaki in Delphi.


Traditional Greek Foods: Skopelitiki (Σκοπελίτικη τυρόπιτα)

Another phyllo based dish is skopelitiki (Σκοπελίτικη τυρόπιτα), a traditional handmade cheese pie from Skopelos Island which is formed into a spiral shape.  Skopelitiki is another Greek dish that combines two of my favorite ingredients, phyllo and cheese.


Traditional Greek Foods: Souvlaki (σουβλάκι)

Souvlaki (σουβλάκι) and gyro are sometimes used interchangeably in the US, but in Greece they are not the same thing.  Souvlaki is a fast food like gyro, but souvlaki is grilled skewered meat.  Souvlaki can be served in a pita sandwich or on a dinner plate.

Tiganites Patates

Another Greek dish that surprised me by its familiarity was tiganites patates (τηγανιτές πατάτες).  The Greeks make their French fries nice and crispy and they are the perfect accompaniment to paidakia, biftekia, gyro, souvlaki, and even tzatziki.  


Traditional Greek Foods: Tzatziki (τζατζίκι)

Tzatziki (τζατζίκι) is a Greek sauce that is served with meat and used as a dipping sauce.  It is yogurt based and contains cucumber, garlic, salt, and olive oil.  I’ve had tzatziki many times before, but what surprised me was that every place made theirs differently.  One restaurant made their tzatziki with tons of garlic while another added some sort of chili, making it pretty spicy, a surprise in Greece.  Tzatziki tastes great on grilled meat and it’s also good for dipping your bread or fries.


Traditional Greek Foods: Domates Yemistes (ντομάτες γεμιστές) and Yemistes Piperies (yεμιστές πιπεριές)

There are two kinds of yemistes: domates yemistes (ντομάτες γεμιστές) and yemistes piperies (yεμιστές πιπεριές).  Yemistes domates are stuffed tomatoes and yemistes piperies are stuffed peppers.  The tomatoes and peppers are stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and rice.

Sweet Greek Dishes


Traditional Greek Foods: Baklava (μπακλαβά)

Baklava (μπακλαβά) is one of those Greek dishes that pretty much everybody knows and loves.  However, baklava is not unique to just Greece, but rather originated with the Ottoman Empire.  Baklava is a delightfully sticky baked dessert made with layers of phyllo, chopped nuts, and honey.


Traditional Greek Foods: Bougatsa (μπουγάτσα)

Bougatsa (μπουγάτσα) is my favorite Greek breakfast treat.  Bougatsa is a Greek breakfast pastry made with phyllo dough and a custard filling, served warm, with a sprinkling of powdered sugar.  The savory version of bougatsa is filled with cheese.

Ekmek Kataifi 

Traditional Greek Foods: Ekmek Kataifi (Eκμέκ Κανταΐφι)

Ekmek kataifi (Eκμέκ Κανταΐφι) looks sweet, but is actually perfect for the person who loves a not-too-sweet dessert.  Ekmek kataifi is a creamy custard on a base of kataifi dough, which is basically shredded phyllo dough, with flavors of lemon and pistachio.


Traditional Greek Foods: Galaktompoureko (γαλακτομπουρεκο)

A favorite Greek dessert is galaktompoureko (γαλακτομπουρεκο).  Galaktompoureko is a custard pie, somewhat similar to bougatsa.  However, galaktompoureko is taller and the custard is thick, made with milk, eggs, semolina, and sugar.  The custard is sandwiched between phyllo dough and covered in a syrup made with sugar, water, lemon, and brandy.


Kataifi (Κανταΐφι) is very similar to baklava, but is made with kataifi dough, which is shredded phyllo dough, so it looks like a really large Shredded Wheat.


Traditional Greek Foods: Loukoumades (λουκουμάδες)

Loukoumades (λουκουμάδες) are simple yet so delicious.  They are fried pastries that look like small, fat donuts, and they are covered in honey.  They are best eaten fresh and warm and can also be enjoyed for dessert.


Traditional Greek Foods: Meli (μέλι)

Meli (μέλι) is the Greek word for honey.  Honey obviously isn’t unique to Greece, but it is a very prominent ingredient in Greek foods, especially breakfast pastries and desserts.  You can even find honey mixed with warm wine as an after-dinner drink.  While driving around Greece we were reminded constantly just how important honey is in Greece as there were beehives along the road wherever we went.

Spoon Sweets

Traditional Greek Foods: Spoon Sweets (γλυκά του κουταλιού)

Spoon sweets (γλυκά του κουταλιού) are usually served at the end of a meal with coffee or water.  Spoon sweets are sweet preserves, usually made with fruit, like citrus peels or quince.  Spoon sweets are not always made with fruit, however.  We also had spoon sweets made with carrots.


Traditional Greek Foods: Yogurt (γιαούρτι)

You know that Greek yogurt sitting in your refrigerator right now?  It is nothing like the yogurt (γιαούρτι) in Greece.  Real Greek yogurt has its own unique texture that is just so perfectly thick and creamy.  Every morning with breakfast I had yogurt with honey.  At one dinner we were served yogurt with syrupy grapes, which was also delicious.

Greek Beverages


Traditional Greek Foods: Greek Coffee (ελληνικός καφές)

Greece has an entire coffee culture.  Every day there’s a coffee break.  Greek coffee (ελληνικός καφές) can be a bit of a shock, especially for Americans, if you don’t know what to expect.  First of all, Greek coffee comes in little tiny cups, much like espresso.  Second, no filtering is used for Greek coffee.  The water and coffee grounds are heated together in a pot, called a briki, just large enough for the number of coffees needed, constantly being whisked while over the heat. 

If you want sugar in your coffee, that is actually added as part of the cooking process, rather than adding sugar to your cup, so when you order Greek coffee, you also need to know how to order your preferred sweetness.  There are different levels of sweetness: sketo means no sugar, me oligi means just a little sugar, metrio means a medium amount of sugar, and glyko means very sweet. 

Traditional Greek Foods: Greek Coffee (ελληνικός καφές) Briki

When you’re served a cup of Greek coffee, don’t start drinking it right away.  The trick is to let it set for a while so the coffee grounds sink to the bottom of the cup.  The coffee still has a little bit of a chalky texture, but it’s actually pretty easy to get used to.  When you finish your coffee, there will be a layer of coffee sludge left at the bottom of your tiny cup.


Traditional Greek Foods: Nescafé Frappe (φραπέ)

If you don’t want a Greek coffee, another popular coffee drink to order in Greece is a frappe (φραπέ).  I had heard coffee was a very important ritual for Greeks and wasn’t surprised to learn about their unique Greek coffee, but their love of instant coffee, usually Nescafé, came as quite a surprise to me.  A frappe is made by blending instant coffee, sugar (if desired), and a tiny amount of ice cold water until the mixture foams, practically to the consistency of whipped cream.  Ice is added and then more ice cold water or even milk.  After it sets a little, the coffee and whipped foam separate.  The result is a caffeinated foamy refreshing beverage.


Traditional Greek Foods: Ouzo (ούζο)

The Greeks love coffee and they also love hard liquor.  A traditional Greek liquor is ouzo (ούζο), which is an anise-flavored aperitif.  Ouzo can be enjoyed straight, but it is traditionally mixed with water or poured over ice cubes.  When ouzo is swirled in a glass with ice or water, it changes from a clear liquid to cloudy white.


Traditional Greek Foods: Tsipourou (τσίπουρο)

Before ouzo, there was tsipouro (τσίπουρο).  Tsipouro is similar to grappa as it is made with pomace, the leftovers of wine.  It is a strong spirit that can either taste like paint thinner or have a smooth, pleasing flavor.  The island of Crete has its own tsipourou, called tsikoudia (τσικουδιά) or raki (ρακή).  Tsipourou is served cold after dinner as a digestif, usually alongside dessert.

While many of these Greek traditional foods are filling and don’t look all that healthy, the Greek diet is actually one of the healthiest in the world.  Most Greek food is organic, which is because of tradition rather than trend.  In fact, lately doctors are prescribing Mediterranean diets for their patients.  So while you’re enjoying all of this Greek food, you can be happy in the fact that you’re being healthy too.  How often does that happen on vacation?  So order up, and kali orexi (καλη ορεξη), which is the Greek way to say enjoy your meal.

Thank you to Tripology Adventures for hosting our road trip through Greece, introducing us to all these traditional Greek foods, and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Travel the World: A travelers guide to 33 traditional Greek foods (including their Greek spelling).

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.