Friday, March 6, 2009

Welcome to Athens! (part 2)

In the previous post, we talked about which sights a person visiting Athens should not miss (in my opinion, of course!). This post is about Greek food, Greek mentality and way of life.

5 things to eat (or 10!)

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.

The original "souvlaki" is just the first one: Pita bread, filled with pork or chicken chunks in a skewer, tomato slices, onion slices and tzatziki sauce. Tzatziki sauce is made with greek yoghurt, cucumber, lots of garlic and (sometimes) dill.

What about french fries? Well, it depends on the region you are in. In Athens, no french fries are added, while on Crete, french fries are essential.

So, if you order souvlaki, it will be something like this:

This is the meat in skewers. Of course, you can even order these individually (without any pita bread, meat only). But if you want pita souvlaki, the skewer will be removed, the aforementioned ingredients will be used, and the end result will be something like this:

Pita gyros has the same basic ingredients, but the meat is different. It is now not in skewers, but in a tall vertical spit, which turns around a source of heat. It is quite similar to the Middle Eastern doner 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!

Fried calamari

Grilled octopus

Ouzo - it accompanies seafood perfectly

5. And to give you some vegeterian options as well, if you visit Athens during the summer, you can order gemista, which is a baked dish with tomatoes, peppers (and sometimes zucchini), stuffed with rice. Prior to stuffing, the rice has been simmered in a tomato sauce, with onions, garlic and spearmint as well. This dish is amazing, and it will look like this:

And of course, it goes without saying that you will have to try the Greek salad, or "village salad", as the exact translation would be. In fact, this is a staple in every Greek lunch or dinner. If you want to be true to its "original" form, it will have to contain tomatoes, onions, cucumber, olives and feta cheese, drizzled with olive oil and vinegar, with some oregano sprinkled on top too. It wouldn't be unusual to add some green bell pepper slices, while in the islands people also use capers.

So, that's it with the food suggestions. Before we move on, however, I have to make a small observation. I kind of sabotaged myself with these recommendations - in the previous posts I tried to persuade you about the health benefits of Greek diet, and now I am giving you calorie bombs and fried stuff! THAT doesn't sound healthy at all, does it? Well, Greek people don't eat like this every single day (in fact, my mom complained for a month after having to make mousaka, and we were all doomed to have 5 minute meals for an indefinite time period, until she felt "ready to cook again"! LOL) But you will be here for vacation, and I think it would be ok to indulge a little bit - at least my always-eager-to-go-overboard Greek mind thinks so!

5 things to buy:

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!


  1. Absolutely LOVING this post: The food! The souveniers! And oh so loving those sandals! Gracey, I fell in love with a tzatziki sauce from a local restaurant and it had taken me years to recreate/perfect it. It may not be truly, authentically "Greek" but it is good, none the less. Anyway, it is my only "published" recipe on AR and it is my very favorite thing to have with Greek Chicken or lamb and pita bread. Oh, there's a great, easy pita recipe at AR, too: Peppy's Pita Bread. I highly recommend it. Oh how I'm longing to someday visit your homeland!

  2. I love all of your posts about Greece! It's so much more fun to hear about a place from someone who lives there. Oh, and the Greek city I was wondering about was Mykonos. I watched a travel show about it and it was so beautiful.

  3. Thanks for your kind comments, 5th. I didn't know about your published recipe - I found it now, and I will most definitely try it! :) Willoughby, I have been to Mykonos! It is the most hyped, overpriced and crowded Greek island in the summer (July and August), and it is a must for all Greek celebrities and the gay community. That's what I hate about it - not the gays, of course, but the fact that you HAVE to go there in order to prove that you are IN and not OUT of fashion! Ugh! However, if you go there in June or September, you'll discover that, of all the islands, it has the most beautiful beaches - that's why it became famous in the first place! I would love to go back and enjoy it once again! :)

  4. What a GREAT post! I loved it! I really want to try the #2 picture and the village? salad one, yum. Also I need some of those beads and definitely some cute sandals :)

  5. Well, now that I'm STARVING...and really wanting those sandals (not to cast my evil eye on you or anything)...I LOVE YOUR POSTS!! Keep them coming! I can't wait to hear your "Do's and Don'ts" list! Great post!!!!

  6. Thanks for the info. about Mykonos, Gracey. Overpriced and crowded doesn't sound like much fun! It's definitely beautiful, though!

  7. All foods I love. Did I understand correctly you might be moving from Greece to Germany???

  8. Thanks for your comments, everybody! Yes, hph, we will be moving to Germany (possibly even within the next month) in search for a place to get a medical residency. My fiance, actually. Me, I have to learn German first.

  9. I'm starving now! And that salad - now that is the correct amount of feta. I have been too stingy with mine.