Greek food and Greek cuisine are popular around the world. As we have covered in a previous post, sometimes Greek cuisine is considered part of Mediterranean cuisine – based on fish, vegetables, and legumes. Other times, usually outside of Europe, it is considered part of Middle Eastern cuisine – incorporating many spices and red meat into its dishes.
This might be due to Greece’s geographic location – at the borders of Europe with Asia Minor – and its long history. The European country has indeed many dishes that can be described as “Mediterranean”, such as the Greek salad and the so-called fava spread. But there are also some dishes that can be described as “Middle Eastern”, such as moussaka. This also depends on the part of Greece you are visiting.
If you visit a Cycladic island that wasn’t colonized by the Ottomans, you will find more food options that fall under the “Mediterranean Cuisine” category. On the other hand, traditional dishes in Central and Northern Greece might include minced meat and red tomato sauce with lots of spices. Here is a list of 10 Greek dishes and food items you should try at least once when visiting Greece!
Top Ten Greek Dishes | Greek Food You Must Try
- Greek Salad (Choriatiki)
- Souvlaki or Gyros me Pita
- Fresh Grilled Fish (Big) or Fried Fish (Small)
- Traditional Filo Pie (Pita)
- Zucchini “Fries” or Zucchini “Balls” (Kolokythakia Tiganita, Kolokythokeftedes)
- Horta (Boiled Leafy Greens)
- Sweet and Savory Pastries (Kalitsounia, Baked honey feta…)
- Meze Food (Dolmadakia, Oysters…)
- Mageireuta (Moussaka, Gemista…)
- Traditional Spread on Bread (Tzatziki, Taramas, Fava…)
Traditional Spread on Bread
Instead of ordering a dish per person, Greek people prefer ordering a bunch of dishes and place them at the center of the table. They then pick small portions from each dish and transfer them on their empty plates. Just like a family does at home. Usually, a table is not complete without some freshly baked bread with a traditional homemade dip or spread.
The most popular Greek spread is tzatziki: a condiment consisting of Greek yoghurt, dried pieces of cucumber, minced garlic, olive oil, and vinegar or lemon juice. Other Greek spreads and dips are fava, which is made of split peas and onions, and taramosalata, which is made of fish eggs (tarama) and can be either pale yellow or pale pink in color (avoid bright pink tarama, since it is probably not homemade). Some of these spreads and dips can be found in neighboring countries as well.
Where you’ll find them: Greek dips and spreads are offered in most Greek tavernas and casual restaurants, along with delicious slices of bread or pita bread. Some restaurants might offer a wider variety of spreads, including melitzanosalata (an eggplant-based dip) and htypiti (a feta and vegetable based dip).
Mageireuta: Moussaka, Papoutsakia, Pastitsio, Gemista and More
Some of the most popular Greek dishes are called “mama’s food” or “mageireuta”. Mageireuta translates to “cooked”. These dishes are usually prepared slow-cooked in a pot on the stove or slow-roasted in the oven. Onions, garlic, and tomato sauce are three essential ingredients. Perhaps, the most popular “mageireuta” are moussaka, an eggplant, potato, and minced meat dish, and “papoutsakia” (translates to “little shoes”), a “lighter” version of moussaka. These dishes can also be found in many Eastern Mediterranean countries. There is also the Greek version of lasagna, which is called “pastitsio”.
Since they are served hot and contain lots of spices, mageireuta are usually consumed during the winter months. You don’t want to eat a big portion of moussaka, papoutsakia, or pastitsio during a heat wave. But there are, however, a few mageireuta that are mostly popular in the summer. These are “gemista” (stuffed vegetables) and “fasolakia kokkinista” (green beans in tomato sauce). These dishes are always served with a generous piece of feta cheese.
Where you’ll find them: Some of the most popular mageireuta, such as moussaka, can be found in generic Greek restaurants that you usually see in close proximity to metro stations, tourist attractions, and ports, or even outside of Greece. But it is recommended to try these dishes in tavernas and restaurants that specialize in these types of dishes. If the restaurant you are dining at doesn’t have a wide selection of mageireuta, you might end up tasting a piece of low-quality moussaka that was stored in the freezer and then reheated.
Meze Food (Greek Version of Tapas)
If you have ever visited an “ouzeri” or “tsipouradiko”, places where they serve ouzo and tsipouro respectively, then you might already know “meze” or “mezedes”: small plates with various delicacies.
To begin with, ouzo and tsipouro are both Greek alcoholic drinks that include various herbs, such as anise. They have been consumed for hundreds of years in Greece and they are now a popular summer drink. Greeks usually drink ouzo or tsipouro at an “ouzeri” or “tsipouradiko” and preferably by the sea.
If you want to drink ouzo or tsipouro like a local, you need a tall glass full of ice cubes. You then add a little bit of the spirit and, depending on your mood, you can also pour cold water. In some parts of Greece, people often add sour cherry juice to their glass of tsipouro.
Ouzo and tsipouro are usually combined with meze food. Small cold and hot dishes, such as fried calamari, tzatziki, zucchini balls, oysters… anything that is available on that day. Keep in mind that many main and side dishes are served as meze – just in a smaller portion! In some parts of the country, such as Volos and Pelion, meze is often offered for free to anyone ordering tsipouro.
Where you’ll find them: Almost every Greek city, town, island, and village has at least an ouzeri or tsipouradiko. You can find meze food in these places, along with some traditional coffee shops known as “kafeneio”. Some tavernas also serve meze. It is less likely to find small dishes like these in fancy restaurants.
Sweet and Savory Pastries
Since you will be tasting Greek pitas, you should also try the lesser known sweet and savory pastries that are served as desserts. They are usually filled with cheese, such as feta, and then covered in honey and sometimes thyme and sesame.
The most popular sweet and savory pastry is “kalitsounia”. Kalitsounia are small cheese and herb snacks from the island of Crete. They are usually filled in with mizithra, cinnamon, lemon zest, and then covered in honey. In other parts of Greece, it is common to eat baked feta with honey and thyme.
Where you’ll find them: You will find these pastries in most Greek bakeries (fournos) and in some Greek restaurants and tavernas. Kalitsounia are eaten widely in Crete, whereas baked feta with honey and thyme is a popular desert in the Cyclades and other parts of Greece.
Horta (Boiled Leafy Green)
A lesser known but delicious Greek side dish in the summer is “horta”. Horta are wild greens such as wild amaranth, wild radish, prickly goldenfleece, duckweed and more. Greeks wash them carefully, boil them, and add olive oil, lemon, and salt.
Horta is a dish that few people who visit Greece try. However, it is a must! Fresh, healthy, and delicious. An authentic Greek dish that you should try at least once during your stay in Greece.
Where you’ll find them: Most Greek tavernas offer Horta, depending on the season. Keep in mind that this is a dish that is rarely offered in Greek restaurants abroad.
Zucchini “Fries” and Zucchini “Balls”
Zucchini is a common ingredient in various Greek recipes. In the summer, it is common to deep-fry zucchini slices that may or may not be coated with flour. This crunchy side dish is known as “kolokythakia tiganita” and it is a common alternative to potato fries. Locals usually eat them dipped into a yoghurt-based Greek spread, such as tzatziki.
Another popular zucchini-based dish is “kolokythokeftedes” (zucchini balls or zucchini fritters). Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, kolokythokeftedes is a popular Greek main, side, or meze dish.
Where you’ll find them: Kolokythokeftedes and kolokythakia tiganita are served in most tavernas and Greek restaurants.
Greek Pies (Pitas)
You may have already heard about spanakopita – the traditional Greek spinach and feta cheese pie. But Greece is known for its great variety of pitas: sweet and savory pies with different fillings and types of dough.
Perhaps, the most popular type of dough is “filo” (also seen as phyllo). The word “filo” (φύλλο) means “leaf”. Pastries made with filo consist of multiple layers of dough that are as thin as a leaf. Other types of dough are: kourou and choriatiko.
When it comes to fillings, Greek pitas usually contain vegetables, such as spinach, zucchini, and leek. Adding white cheese, such as feta or manouri, is quite common. There is also “kotopita” and “kreatopita” – chicken and ground beef pies. In Northern Greece, people often eat “bougatsa”: a sweet custard pie with filo. Every place in Greece has its own type of pie with the Epirus region being the “pie capital of Greece”.
Where you ’ll find them: You will find such pies on every “fournos” (bakery) in Greece. A piece of savory pie is a popular breakfast snack in many parts of Greece. Some restaurants and tavernas also serve hand-made pies.
Fresh Fish from the Sea
Seafood is an important part of the Greek and Mediterranean diet. Eating fresh fish from the sea in one of Greece’s many fisherman villages, is a must.
It is common to eat large fish such as “lavraki” (European bass) and “tsipoura” (gilthead seabream), grilled with “avgolemono”: a sauce made with eggs and lemon. Smaller fish, such as “gavros” (anchovy), are usually fried.
Where you’ll find them: It is recommended to eat fish at a “psarotaverna” (fish tavern) or a fish restaurant in one of Greece’s countless fisherman villages and ports.
Souvlaki or Gyros me Pita
The most popular street food in Greece is souvlaki with pita bread. It is a type of sandwich consisting of meat, lettuce, fries, tzatziki, tomato, and onion – all wrapped in pita bread. You should try souvlaki at least once while traveling in Greece!
Keep in mind that this street food item has different names in northern and southern Greece. This might have to do with the type of meat that is added in the sandwich.
In Athens, it is common for the meat of the sandwich (usually pork or chicken) to be grilled horizontally on a skewer. Souvlaki means skewer in Greek – hence the name “souvlaki me pita”. Even if an Athenian asks for a souvlaki with a different type of meat, such as gyros or kebab, he or she will still ask for a… souvlaki. Souvlaki with gyros.
In Thessaloniki and other neighboring areas, people prefer adding gyros meat in their pita bread sandwich. Gyros are thin, flat slices of pork or chicken, stacked on a pit and seasoned. In the United States, lamb is a popular meat of choice, but this doesn’t apply to original Greek gyros. In Northern Greece, people don’t call this sandwich “souvlaki” but rather “gyros” or “pitogyro”.
Where you’ll find them: Souvlaki or gyros can be found in almost every neighborhood in Greece. You can order them from places called “souvlatzidika” or “gyradika”, depending on where you travel in Greece. It is a “casual” street food item and you wont find it in fancy Greek restaurants. Some restaurants do offer a “fancier” version of this dish. They call it “merida”. All the ingredients are served on a plate, rather than in a sandwich form.
Greek Salad (Choriatiki)
Although a salad, Choriatiki, known as “Greek Salad”, is a nutritious and delicious full meal. The salad doesn’t contain leafy greens but rather fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. Some Greeks add peppers and caper. Feta cheese or any other locally produced cheese, oregano, and extra virgin olive oil are a must.
Where you’ll find it: Most Greek tavernas and restaurants serve Choriatiki in its different variations.
Have you tried any of these dishes before? Comment down below!