Top 10 Foods to Try in Greece | Greek Dishes You MUST Try

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

  1. Greek Salad (Choriatiki)
  2. Souvlaki or Gyros me Pita
  3. Fresh Grilled Fish (Big) or Fried Fish (Small)
  4. Traditional Filo Pie (Pita)
  5. Zucchini “Fries” or Zucchini “Balls” (Kolokythakia Tiganita, Kolokythokeftedes)
  6. Horta (Boiled Leafy Greens)
  7. Sweet and Savory Pastries (Kalitsounia, Baked honey feta…)
  8. Meze Food (Dolmadakia, Oysters…)
  9. Mageireuta (Moussaka, Gemista…)
  10. 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!

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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