Everyone knows the gyro. And the scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where Aunt Voula tells Ian, the non-Greek vegetarian fiancé, that lamb is not meat. It’s like, beyond meat. Vegetarians can totally eat it.
Roberta’s visit last week — and our search for different foods as we tooled around — inspired me to make a list of our family’s favorite foods; the ones we think everyone ought to try. Why 48? The number is staring me down. My birthday is this week.
These are not ranked. Trying to assign a position … a number … a grade … to these was pure agony. So instead they’re sort of grouped together as you’d see on a menu: appetizers and salads, main dishes, sides/veggies, desserts.
- Pies: tyropita (cheese), spanikopita (spinach), loukaniko (sausage), kotopoulo (chicken), kolokythopita (zucchini), prasopita (leek) … the list goes on forever. It’s phyllo wrapped around some sort of savory goodness with cheese and herbs. It might be a triangle. Or round. Maybe square. Perhaps D-shaped. Or long and skinny. You find them everywhere, thank heavens. Katerina taught me how to make a big batch of them in 2011. Hers are better than mine.
- Pastourmadopitakia – Phyllo dough with cheese and pastourma (like pastrami). Fried before serving for extra love.
- Koulouri: A round bread product covered in sesame seeds. Looks like a lanky bagel. Michael in particular loves them.
- Kalamarakia: Lightly fried kalamari. It’s so fresh and soft.
- Horiatiki salata: A salad of tomatoes, cucumber, onion, green pepper and olives with rectangular hunk of feta on top, dressed with olive oil, oregano and red wine vinegar. Sometimes a few capers might be tossed in too.
- Horta: Boiled greens, e.g., chard, dandelions, purslane, fennel leaves, beetroot, etc., served with olive oil and lemon. Horta literally means ‘weeds,’ though it’s nicer to say ‘wild mountain greens.’
- Fava: Not fava at all, but rather yellow split peas, pureed and topped with capers, scallions or red onions and olive oil. It can be served cold; we like it warm.
- Fazolia: bean salad (black eyed peas are Demetri’s fave) with fresh dill and finely chopped red onion and dressed with olive oil.
- Spring salad: Lettuce, scallions, and tons of dill with a lemon-olive oil dressing. Bright spring flavors that are traditional for Easter.
- Dakos: A Cretan salad with a crunchy rusk about the size of a hamburger bun, topped with a mixture of chopped tomato, olive oil and onion. A chunk of feta goes on top. The tomato softens the rusk.
- Xtopodi: Octopus. Often grilled and made into a salad with herbs and olive oil; also cooked with pasta in a red wine sauce. It’s better than you think it will be.
- Tzatziki: yogurt with garlic and cucumber and sometimes dill. It’s served on gyros, but my favorite application is french fries. Demetri’s brilliant hack: use the juicer to grate the cucumber. Saves hours of straining.
- Taramosalata: a salty spread made from fish roe. Usually served with grilled pita bread; also good with cut up veggies.
- Gigantes: Giant white beans in tomato sauce with a lot of dill. Our man Manoulis makes them in an olive oil sauce with tons of different herbs.
- Panzaria with skordalia: Boiled or roasted beets sliced (so sweet kids love ’em) and served as a salad with a garlic sauce made from potatoes or bread crumbs. ‘Skorda’ is garlic in Greek.
- Spanakorizo: Spinach, rice, onions, dill and tomato paste cooked on the stove. Vegan comfort food.
- Fakes (say fahk-yes): Lentils. Usually a soup, sometimes a salad. They can be red, black or the traditional greenish-brown.
- Revithia: Garbanzo beans in a savory broth. It has lemon juice to give it a little brightness.
- Fazolakia: Green beans in tomato sauce. I feel like I’m insulting this dish by describing it so simply. It’s the BEST. I love it every time I eat it, but nobody can hold a candle to Manoulis.
- Artichokes with peas: Lots of dill in this one, plus usually a potato. Cooked and served at room temperature.
- Patates lemonates: Roasted potatoes covered in olive oil, oregano and lemon. I haven’t yet cracked the secret of crisping them up.
- Tiganetes patates: French fries. Greece does them well.
- Soutzouki with avga: Soutzouki is a super spicy sausage; our favorite way to eat is with fried eggs and potatoes (french fries) served in a tiny little skillet fresh from the oven.
- Souvlaki: Pork, chicken or lamb grilled on a ‘little’ skewer. Fun fact: bamboo skewers and drinking straws are both called ‘kalamaki’. If you order a chicken skewer, you ask for a ‘kotopoulo kalamaki.’ We had a funny confusion one night where one of our waitress pals offered Peter a straw (saying ‘kalamaki’) and he said, “no I don’t want kalamaki tonight, I want a gyro.”
- Kotosouvli: larger pieces of pork or chicken cooked on the souvla – the large metal skewer.
- Paidakia – grilled lamb chops. Peter’s fave.
- Arni: Lamb in general; from the spit. Little pieces of lamb are called ‘arnaki.’
- Kleftiko: Also called ‘lamb in the oven.’ Slow cooked in parchment; sometimes with vegetables. Fantastic.
- Kebab: Beef and spices rolled into a log and cooked on the grill. My kids would eat them every night. Sometimes they do eat them every night.
- Gyro (say ‘yee-roh’): Shaved pork or chicken placed in a pita bread with tzatziki, tomatoes, onions and french fries (yep, inside). Can be served deconstructed on a plate too; called a ‘portion.’ The gyros in Greece are so good. We like the gyros in the US with their beef/lamb meatloaf mixture, but the real thing is so much better.
- Moussaka: Layered casserole with eggplant, ground beef and tomato sauce and topped with bechamel.
- Giouvetsi: Oven baked dish with pasta and meat. While it could be chicken, beef or pork, and the noodle can be any short one, the most traditional is beef and orzo.
- Pastitsio: Hollow, thick spaghetti with ground beef and tomato sauce (that contains a hint of cinnamon), also topped with bechamel. This was Demetri’s favorite food as a kid; his grandmother gave it to him as an after school snack.
- Gemista: Means ‘stuffed.’ Usually this is tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice and then roasted in the oven until the vegetable is soft. Could be zucchini or eggplant too.
- Laxanadolmades: Cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef and served in avgolemono (egg-lemon) sauce. Zucchini can be served like this too. This might be my favorite dinner.
- Papoutsakia: Ground beef and cheese stuffed eggplants with either potato puree or bechamel on top. ‘Papoutsia’ is the word for shoes … and these kinda look like ’em.
- Soutzoukakia: log-shaped meatballs with hints of cumin and mint and sometimes ouzo in tomato sauce. Usually served over rice. Once I grabbed what I thought was leftover spaghetti sauce from the freezer for dinner. When it defrosted, I was beside myself with delight to discover it was Papou’s soutzoukakia made during his last visit. I also think this is the only Greek meal my dad ever had.
- Keftedes: Lamb or beef or chicken or maybe pork meatballs. Tiny ones are ‘keftedakia.’
- Giovarlakia: Meatballs with rice and herbs in avgolemono sauce. Lovely.
- Psarosoupa: A hearty fish soup that’s filling but light at the same time. Eat this for lunch in November when the weather turns.
- Greek yogurt: 10% fat. It’s just that much better. Best topped with honey and walnuts, not stirred around.
- Mezithropitakia: Pictured above. Pastry stuffed with a sweetened mezithra cheese mixture and topped with a little cinnamon. Perfect with coffee. Go for a run and bank some calories first.
- Portokalopita: Yogurt cake with orange syrup.
- Spoon sweets: Fruit preserved in syrup … and there are hundreds of these. Eat solo on a spoon (duh) or over yogurt. Papou’s favorite is quince, followed by sour cherry. Katerina makes a mean one with grapes and almonds.
- Baklava: Layers of phyllo with walnuts and honey tucked inside. Kataifi is phyllo that looks like string with the same stuffing; just rolled up instead of layered.
- Bougatsa: Phyllo with sweet cream inside, topped with powdered sugar. If you come from Thessaloniki, ‘bougatsa’ means anything wrapped in phyllo; savory or sweet. In Athens, bougatsa is only this sweet pie.
- Galaktoboureko: Sweet custard in phyllo in syrup. The Athens pastry shop, Kosmikon, makes theirs in kataifi dough. Tyler loves this one so much that Papou bought a whole cake for only Tyler last year, and left a note saying so.
- Loukoumades: In a word, donut. Fried dough with sugar or powdered sugar.
Honorable mention: cheese
Cheese has ancient roots. Strainers have been found all over the country starting in the Neolithic period. Carvings in the Minoan palace of Knossos on the island of Crete depict men making cheese from goat milk. Most Greek cheese is made from goat or sheep milk. These animals are native to Greece; the rugged landscape isn’t very conducive for cow pastures.
Each island boasts its own special cheese, e.g., San Mixalis only comes from Syros; Graviera is ubiquitous but Naxos has its own. Kefalograviera is different than just Graviera. And there are tons of feta varieties; be decisive when at the cheese counter. Halloumi is grilled and placed atop salads. It squeaks on your teeth. Cheeses are are salty, creamy or nutty. They can be grilled, flambe, mixed together in a pie or eaten as an appetizer with olives. Some are sweetened up for desserts. It’s fun to travel and sample cheeses special to that region.
Extra credit: drinks
- Ouzo: Aperitif liquor made from grapes with anise added, giving it a liquorice flavor. Try it on a really hot day in a glass of ice water.
- Masticha: Digestif liquor made from the ‘tears’ of masticha trees, found only on the island of Chios.
- Tsipouro: Digestif liquor made from grapes.
- Raki, from Crete, is similar to tsipouro. Also a digestif.
- Coffee. Greek coffee (ellinikos kafes) is specially made in a briki – a little pot with a long handle. The coffee is boiled with sugar and served thick and dark. These days, the coffee shops always make greek coffee, but more popular are the espresso drinks, especially the cold ones. Baristas mix the sugar (most Greeks put sugar in their coffee) into the espresso and give it a healthy stir so it all dissolves. Drink it plain over ice and you have a freddo espresso. Add whipped milk or whipped krema (cream) and you’ve got a freddo cappucino. Nurse it for more than an hour and you are a true Greek.
I’d love to hear your favorites. Did I miss anything you love?
photo from mygreekdish.com