The Concise History of Greek Food & Greek Cuisine

Is meze Greek? Is Greek food Mediterranean or Middle Eastern? Do Greek people eat lamb on a regular basis? And why are Greeks so obsessed with olive oil? Today, Helinika unravels the history of Greek food and Greek cuisine.

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What is “Greek” Anyways?

You are visiting a Greek restaurant somewhere outside of Greece. You sit on a blue-painted wooden chair, next to an Ionic column, and you are given a menu written in an ancient Greek font. You choose between a big range of options: from typical Greek street food, such as gyros and souvlaki, and traditional Greek meze, like  tzatziki and dolmadakia, to more gourmet dishes, such as split peas mousse with prosciutto, chives and sesame paste vinaigrette –a sophisticated way to describe fava. But is this actually… Greek food?

Food plays an important role in a culture. In order to understand what Greek food is, it is important to define the adjective “Greek” and what the Greek culture really is. The modern Greek culture, which is defined as the predominant culture in the state of Greece from 1821 till today, is built upon various complimentary and contrasting cultures and subcultures. These were either developed or adopted by the Greeks and other ethnic minorities that lived in Greece throughout the years.

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Some people, predominately outside of Greece, consider “Greek” anything that is tied solely to the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods of Greece’s history. This is what some consider as the “purest” form of the Greek culture. In Greece, the great majority of people also consider the history of the Byzantine Empire and the religion of Orthodox Christianity as an important influence on the modern Greek culture.

At the same time, there is a time period that is rarely discussed: the Ottoman Occupation, also known as the “400 years of Slavery”. The Ottoman rule in Greece, lasting from the mid-15th century till 1821, had a significant influence on Greeks and their culture and this is the reason why some words, musical instruments, and dishes are common in both Turkey and Greece.

Since the Greek culture has been intertwined with similar but also contrasting cultures, Greek food includes various dishes for every taste. In Europe and most parts of the world, Greek cuisine falls under Mediterranean cuisine, whereas in the United States, they consider it “Middle Eastern”. This is why you might come across Greek restaurants with a contrasting décor and menu. The owners are simply trying to accommodate the needs of various people who perceive Greek cuisine differently. Before mentioning some popular and some lesser known Greek dishes, let’s see some ingredients that are predominately used in Greece.

Commons Greek Ingredients

Greeks love using their “liquid gold” in every single meal. The Greek extra virgin olive oil is used in cooking, but it is also used raw as a garniture in salads and cold dishes. It is actually Greece’s fourth most important export and its importance can be traced back to ancient times.

Now, some people, mostly in the US, believe that Greek food is spicy. However, authentic Greek food is savory and Greeks usually cannot tolerate spicy food. You might already know that oregano and basil are two of the most used dried herbs in Greece (and in other Mediterranean countries).

When it comes to dairy products, feta cheese and Greek yoghurt (simply called “yoghurt” in Greek) are consumed on their own or used in various dishes. Last but not least, let’s not forget honey. Greeks have been consuming honey since ancient times, not only for its sweet taste, but also for its various health benefits.  

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Popular Greek Dishes and Their History

If you ask someone to name a Greek dish, they will mention “moussaka”. This eggplant and potato-based dish is consumed in most Balkan countries, in Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere. Moussaka has roots in Ottoman Greece and it is not universally considered a traditional Greek dish. Due to the fact that it requires a lot of preparation, it is served hot, and it is high in calories, this dish is not consumed regularly. The generally warm climate in Greece requires light and easy-to-digest dishes: fish, salads, vegetables, and legumes.

A lot of people also believe that Greeks consume lamb very often. The truth is that many Greek families roast lamb on Easter Sunday, following a long Christian Orthodox tradition. It is not clear when this tradition started. It is also worth mentioning that gyros and souvlaki are rarely served with lamb meat in Greece. Gyros with lamb is mostly served in Greek restaurants in the United States and Australia.

A very-well known Greek side dish that is actually consumed regularly in Greece is the Greek salad. The original Greek salad, called «χωριάτικη» (choriatiki * from the village) in Greek, has no green leaves. It can be eaten as a main dish, since it consists of uncooked pieces of vegetables, mostly tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions. Add some olives, a feta brick, oregano, and lots of extra virgin olive oil and voilà: you made yourself an authentic Greek salad.

Meze Culture in Greece

In Greece, meze is also a huge part of the food culture. Meze is a selection of small dishes (e.g. dolmadakia, eggplant dip, tzatziki, pita bread, stuffed mussels etc.) served with alcoholic drinks, such as ouzo and rake. Each person on the table gets a small empty plate and tries a little bit of everything. Since the meze culture was introduced in Greece (and elsewhere) during the Ottoman occupation, some people refuse to consider it “Greek”.

It is important to note that meze culture is also present in the Middle East, however, the dishes are usually a bit different. For example, instead of a dip called fava, other countries consume hummus. These two look a lot alike but the first consists of fava beans and the latter consists of chickpeas. Hummus is rarely consumed in Greece; in fact, people who are now in their 80s and 90s have never heard about it. But if you visit a Greek restaurant in the US or Australia, hummus will most likely be in the menu.

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Ancient and Byzantine Cuisine

The “purest” form of Greek cuisine is what we consider “Mediterranean Cuisine”. Ancient Greeks ate a lot of cereals, olives, grapes, legumes, and barley bread (often dipped in wine). All of these are still consumed at great amounts in Greece and are also exported abroad. Ancient Greeks also ate a type of pancakes called «τηγανήτες» (teganetes). These are widely eaten to this day.

Other authentic Greek dishes are the ones that were consumed in Byzantine times. Cheeses such as anthotyro (ανθότυρο) and kefalotyri (κεφαλοτύρι) were consumed by Byzantines and are still produced and consumed by Modern Greeks. That was the time when Greeks started using spices and sugar to their meals as well. On very special occasions, rich Byzantines consumed lamb, which is why Modern Greeks consume lamb on Easter Sunday. A very popular Byzantine omelet dish consumed till this day is «σφουγγάτα» (sphoungata). Many scholars also believe that the Greek pies that Modern Greeks love originate from the Byzantine Empire.

Some of the most sophisticated Greek restaurants today have started experimenting with ingredients that were widely used in ancient and Byzantine Greece but are now forgotten. There is also a resistance towards a demand for Greek restaurants that serve all tastes: the humble but rich in taste meze dishes of the enslaved Greeks, the simple yet sophisticated ancient Greek delicacies, and the delicious Byzantine meals.

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You have been debating whether you should start learning modern Greek and you constantly postpone it. Whatever the reason might be, here is the sign you were looking for. Start learning Greek today.

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