1. Well... you guessed it! Is it POSSIBLE to visit Greece and not taste the no 1 delicacy, souvlaki? Of course not. Souvlaki is the first "emergency food" that comes to mind when your fridge is empty, or when you're not in the mood to cook. You can have it on the go, before or after you hop into a bar and you can find it everywhere, 24 hours a day! Seriously, a neighbourhood doesn't always have a grocery store, or a bakery shop, but it will most definitely have a place where you can have souvlaki (or, as it is called in Greek, a "souvlatzidiko").
But what is souvlaki exactly? Well, even the Greeks cannot agree on that! People from Crete claim that Athenians have no clue what the "original" souvlaki is, while the inhabitants of Salonica laugh at the rest for their ignorance. If we want to be precise, though, there are 3 kinds of "souvlaki": Pita with meat in skewers, pita gyros and pita kebab.
Then, the meat is sliced vertically and the end result will be something like this:
Finally, pita kebab is filled with lamb meat, minced and placed on a stick, like this (then, a pita bread is used, and the same "procedure" follows):
2. Now that you are a souvlaki expert, we can move on to other Greek dishes. The second one is not a surprise, either: Mousakas! It is a layered baked dish, consisting of fried potato slices, fried eggplant slices, ground beef, bechamel sauce (made with milk and flour) and ground cheese sprinkled on top. It demands quite a lot of preparation when making it at home and to be honest, it is quite a calorie bomb, but it tastes so good, that it should be illegal! Some people (my mom included!) also use fried zucchini at the bottom, but this is not typical.
3. Pastitsio has some things in common with mousaka, as it is layered as well. A kind of bucatini or other tubular pasta is used at the bottom, then ground beef, seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon, toppped by another layer of pasta. After that, the same bechamel sauce follows and, finally, ground cheese is sprinkled on top.
4. Feeling full, aren't you? Well, I don't blame you at all - even hard core Greeks cannot handle pastitsio after mousaka! So, next day's dinner should be lighter. What about seafood? Fried calamari, or grilled octopus are a staple in Greek cuisine, and can be perfectly accompanied with a glass of ouzo. Ouzo is an alcoholic beverage, consisting of ethyl alcohol (coming from sugar cane), water and a mixture of herbs, such as aniseed, fennel, liquorice, cinnamon, cardamom, mastic and others (each producer uses his own combination). It can be consumed straight, or diluted with water, which produces a cloudy appearance. If not drinked with caution, it can cause a mean hangover!
Ouzo - it accompanies seafood perfectly
1. Well, nowadays, you can buy pretty much anything, regardless of where you live. But if you would like to buy some things that are produced almost exclusively in Greece, so that you would get better quality for lower prices, I would definitely suggest some olive oil (just make sure to check with the safety precautions about transporting liquid stuff in the US - the only thing that I know first hand is that it is OK to transport olive oil from Greece to Germany).
2. Then, I would personally go for some spices. Thyme, rosemary, therapeutical herbs, or whatever else is not widely available in the US in "normal" prices. My personal favourite is mastic, which is a miracle product that deserves a post of its own. It can be used both for cooking/baking purposes, and beauty home treatments (it's been ages since we last had one here, but still...)
3. One cool souvenir is the komboloi. It consists of beads that may resemble prayer beads, but hold no religious significance whatsoever. It can be constructed by any material, but amber is considered to be the best. Greek komboloi typically has an odd number of beads, and it is a good way to relieve the stress, pass the time, or make the people next to you pull their hair out in agony!
4. Greeks are quite superstitious, and they believe in the "evil eye". It refers to a person who is terribly jealous of you, for any reason, and thus consciously or not wishes your unhappiness. As a result, he/she sends negative vibes towards you, against which you have to be protected. Well, it all sounds pretty mystical and voodoo like, but it is much more simple than that. For example, when a person emphatically admires your dress (even if he/she has NO bad intentions at all), it is believed that you are quite possible to stumble, have an accident, tear it or stain it. So, he/she has to say out loud "I don't want to put my evil eye on you" and you have to spit inside your blouse (well, no actual saliva involved, it is just a mimic reaction)!
Ok, by now you definitely think that Greeks are crazy. I won't argue with you - but I will get to the main point of this paragraph, which is talismans against the evil eye! They are a great souvenir, and you can either buy a single blue bead to wear in your bracelet or necklace, or a larger one, to hang at your favourite part of the house (or somewhere private, so that you don't have to explain this whole crazy story!)
5. Finally, it is always a great idea to get Greek sandals, or Greek embroidery - or both.
Well, as always, this post has gotten longer that originally expected. So, I'll show some mercy and stop for now. I will come back soon with the 3rd (and hopefully, the last) part about Greek etiquette, DOs and DON'Ts, and generally some insights on the Greek thinking and way of life. Because I believe that you cannot really see a country, until you've met and tried to understand its people... See you!