Pita gyros, souvlaki, mousakas, pastitsio, Greek salad. Whoever visits Greece tries at least some (if not all) of these Greek dishes, all being worthy representatives of Greek food. Yes, they are all delicious and you can find them in (literally) every restaurant… But is this what the Greeks eat on their everyday? Being Greek and a food lover myself, I always wanted to dig into the Greek culture. Each city and island in Greece is famous for its different specialties. Mouthwatering dishes, with recipes that pass from generation to generation. And during my travels, I tried to taste these dishes, each one at each “origin city”. Below you can find the top-10 of these traditional Greek specialties. Most of them are only available in their originating place – so be sure to try them at least once when you visit!
10. Fish plaki (pescetarian, Greek Food found in Chalkidiki)
Although Northern Greece is famous for its cuisine, Chalkidiki, in particular, does not have a rich history when it comes to traditional Greek food. Nevertheless, fishes are part of the daily diet of the locals. The place is surrounded by sea, so this only makes sense. One particularly tasty dish is the “fish plaki”. It literally means “flatfish”, but its name doesn’t come from the sole fish (also called flat fish), but from the way this Greek food is cooked: The fishes are slashed and laid flat in the oven or on the grill. Although you can find this dish more or less everywhere in Greece, in Chalkidiki, the big difference is that the dish is made with small fishes: sardines, minnows, “safridia” and other small local fishes give their taste to this simple but wonderful dish. Fresh tomato puree and freshly squeezed lemon are added for extra taste. My personal favorite is “gopa” (minnow) plaki. Different from sardines but with an extraordinary taste – a definite must-try when in Chalkidiki!
9. Pitaroudia (vegetarian, found in Rhodes)
Dodecanese is famous for its traditional Greek food“pitaroudia”. You can find this Greek food in Kos, Karpathos, Kalymnos, practically every island has each their own version: With squash, mushrooms, tomato, as long as it’s vegetarian. But when you ask for “pitaroudia” in Rhodes, there’s only one version (and in my opinion the best): with chickpeas. Rhodes’ pitaroudia should not be confused with the chickpeas balls that can be found in other Greek cities. And they have also nothing to do with the Egyptian falafel, although they do share more or less similar ingredients. The pitaroudia in Rhodes are usually quite big (much bigger than meatballs) and their shape resembles pancakes. Their ingredients are quite common: chickpeas, onions, flour, spearmint, all mushed up, formed and deep-fried, but their taste is out of this world! Crunchy on the outside, soft and moist on the inside. No wonder why this is considered to be Rhodes’ national dish!
8. Fava (vegetarian, found in Santorini)
A recipe doesn’t need much to be yummy. And Santorini’s fava is proof for this argument. A visit in Santorini would be a unique experience, even if the food was mediocre. But how can this happen, when all the vegetables grow in the fertile volcanic soil, under the Aegean breeze? The result is top quality and extremely tasty products, with fava being one of them. For those who never tried, “fava” (or “fava beans”) is a legume, closer to lentils than beans, which grows in abundance in Santorini. It a natural gift to the island and has a protected designation of origin. Fava was included in the diet of the ancient Minoan civilization, and this Greek food comes to our plate in the same way that ancient Greeks used to prepare it. Used in many recipes, you can taste it with eggplant sauce, with rice, in an omelet, or in it’s simpler – and probably the best way to eat: Plain mashed fava beans, “married” with caramelized or fresh onions and capers. A divine and authentic Greek food, that one must try, whether vegetarian or not.
7. Pligouri with pork (meat, found in Kos)
“Pligouri” (also known as bulgur) is a groat made usually from crushed durum wheat. It is a very healthy Greek food and one of the tastier whole grains. It is widely known that Greece and Turkey have a lot of ingredients in common, with pligouri being one of them. You can find pligouri in many traditional taverns in Greece, but its pork version is one of Kos specialties, and while on the island it’s a dish you need to try. The pligouri with pork is considered a festive dish and is mainly prepared in the homes of Kos during big celebrations, but you can easily find it in almost every restaurant of the island. Samos has a similar dish, but the main difference (which really adds to the taste) is that Kos chefs add chickpeas in the durum wheat mix. The secret for this dish with the mouthwatering and full flavor is that the pork is boiled with its bones, producing an excellent stock in which the pligouri is cooked. Another small secret is that an amount of pork butter is added at the end – and when you hear “butter”, the result is always yummy.
6. Ntakos (vegetarian, found in Crete)
Everybody knows Greek salad. But what about the Cretan version of it? Ntakos (or dakos) is more of a starter, not exactly a salad, but can constitute a whole meal for somebody who is vegetarian, as it is full of nutrients. It has a base of a very crispy barley rusk, slightly soaked, topped with chopped tomatoes and crumbled sour mizithra cheese. Capers, olive oil and dried oregano finish this lovely dish. Nowadays, you can find a feta cheese version of it almost in every single tavern throughout the country, but its origin is from Crete. Ntakos in the old days used to be the food that poor people would eat. Everything, including the bread, was homemade and nothing was in abundance. So, people would preserve the bread by drying it under the sun, add some fresh tomatoes and cheese from their own production, a drizzle of olive oil, and their meal was ready. Another of the great Greek food recipes, glorious and so humble at the same time!
5. Spetzofai with Mykonos sausages (meat, found in Mykonos)
Mykonos is famous among the Greeks not only as a party island but also as an island with prime quality culinary products. When in Mykonos, you need to try the famous Mykonos sausages, filled with good quality pork meat and the wild herb “throubi”. Throubi grows in dry soil and Mykonos climate is the ideal location. For those who are interested in knowing why the Mykonos sausages are considered to be some of the best, here’s the back story: Many years ago, around the end of the summer, the local families were buying a piglet which they were growing themselves. In wintertime, the pig was ready to be slaughtered and become the main dish of the festive Christmas dinner. The remaining bit had to be preserved in order to cover the family’s needs until summer and the sausages were the best way to do this. They were (and still are) dried on the air and have a small percentage of fat, thus they are considered quite healthy among other types of sausages. Spetzofai, on the other hand, is a traditional Greek food and very tasty, made with pork sausages, bell peppers, and tomato. If prepared with Mykonos sausages the result is ambrosial!
4. Tsigaridia (vegetarian Greek Food, found in Kefalonia)
For me, “tsigaridia” is the ultimate comfort food. It brings memories from my childhood when I was going to the countryside to gather local wild greens with my mom. It is extremely easy to prepare – as long as you have a good variety from different greens – and Kefalonia is covered in these! The best time to taste this wonderful vegetarian Greek food is winter and spring. This is because all the wild greens are in abundance during this time. But even during early summer, you can find a version of tsigaridia in local taverns – the rule of thumb is that this dish is cooked only with the greens that are in season. Spinach, fennel, sorrel, chard and other local greens, like “kafkalida” and “zochos” are sauted with onions and finished with some fresh tomato paste and rice. This dish is not only nutritious but also an excellent sample of Greek vegetarian cuisine. The flavors of the greens are not masked by any kind of meat. The olive oil brings out all of the aromas. And the rice added, makes tsigaridia a whole and complete meal.
3. Pastitsada (poultry, found in Corfu)
Corfu spent 400 years under the Venetian domination. This resulted in big influences in the island’s gastronomic and Greek culture. The Venetians introduced their foods and taught the locals how to prepare them – although this was confined to the upper classes. It is no coincidence that many traditional Corfiot recipes have Italian names. At the end of the 19th century, when roads were created, the mainland areas connected with the coastal ones and their cuisines merged, resulting in the Corfiot food we know today. Pasta, previously imported from Italy solely for the aristocrats, started to be produced locally by factories. The locals consequently became very fond of pasta dishes. The high humidity and the heavy rainfalls of the island during winter time, required a high-calory intake and warming foods. The locals found the solution in pasta, infused with lots of garlic, hot pepper, tomatoes, red wine and chunks of veal or cockerel – and this is how the first “pastitsada” was made. Oh, and spices. Lots of them. The secret to this so tasty dish is that the meat or poultry is browned with spices, onions, and garlic, deglazed with red wine, and then simmered with cinnamon, bay leaf, nutmeg, chopped fresh tomato, tomato paste, and sugar. The pasta is only included at the end to compliment the taste of the meat. When in Corfu, prefer these Greek dishes with cockerel instead of veal. It’s not easy to find in other places in Greece, and the free range poultries give an extraordinary taste to this dish.
2. Rabbit stew (meat, found in Zakynthos)
The sweet spot of the Zante cuisine is the homemade Greek dishes. Throughout the island, one can enjoy tense flavors and memorable Greek food. The highlight of the island is hands down the rabbit stew, a dish that you can’t normally find in other places in Greece. For us Greeks, stew (or “stifado” in Greek) means onions. Countless small onions that lend their taste in the meat. But this is not the case for the rabbit stew of Zakynthos, which actually gave its name to the dish, nowadays called “Zakynthino stifado” (meaning stew from Zakynthos). On the island, when you say stew, you mean three things: rabbit, red sauce, no onions. The rabbit is marinated overnight in a wine and garlic marinade and it is slowly cooked in wine and tomato. I love rabbit dishes in every way they may be served, but this particular dish is a heavenly experience. I cannot describe it differently. Try it with grated local “ladotiri” cheese on top and I can assure you this will become your favorite Greek food too! Isn’t Mediterranean food incredible?
1. Antikristo lamb (meat, Greek Food found in Crete)
I cannot stress enough how much I urge you to try the “antikristo”. EVERY single person visiting Crete should try this Greek dish at least once. One of the oldest ways of cooking meat is the “ofto” (or “antikristo” as it’s now called). The first indications of this cooking method are traced back to Homer’s Iliad! Nowadays, this cooking/grilling method can be found only in Crete and more particularly in Rethymno and Chania. The grilling preparation is quite simple: The lamb (or more seldom young goat) should be around 1 year old so its meat is tender. The animal is cut in four large pieces and salt and pepper are added. The chunks of meat are attached to pointy wooden rods (references have been found stating that in ancient years instead of wooden rods the warriors’ spears were used). A hole is dug and in it, the cooks place plenty of woods that are fired up. At the end, the meat is placed around the fire and is roasted for long hours. What makes this grilling technique extremely healthy, is that the lamb is slowly roasted around the fire – never in direct contact with it, which helps the meat not get any of the dangerous hydrocarbons that are usually produced by charcoal. Only this can be a good reason to try! But it’s not the only one. What you will get, is tender meat with full rounded flavor, not masked by any other ingredients. Hands down one of my favorite Greek food recipes – and probably yours too, once you try it. Keep your eyes peeled for our Greek desserts article coming soon!