11 Authentic Greek Foods You Need to Eat
Given that the country's name is synonymous with an idiom about misunderstandings, it's no surprise that Greek cuisine is, well, Greek to most eaters.
Stateside iterations of many foods err toward fusion and quality corner-cutting, but authentic Greek food is even trickier to define than most because of its history of changing political boundaries. Luckily we found a source up to the challenge.
David Schneider, the Greek American chef at Taxim in Chicago, spent his childhood summers in Greek fishing villages and is so well-studied in the cuisine that he's currently writing a history book on the subject. Schneider explained to us the roots behind the most popular American dishes, as well as regional specialties to be on the look-out for at more authentic restaurants. Read on, and next time you're at a Greek restaurant, you'll know to save that pita for leftover sauce.
Typically served from unhygienic-looking food trucks, the gyro is by far Greece's biggest culinary export. But that cone of spitted mystery meat drenched in tzaziki is far different from what's actually found in the homeland. “In Greece, if you were served that they'd be offended and not eat it,” says Schneider.
The main distinction is the quality of the meat. Instead of sponge-textured mince meat, Greeks use slices of marinated meat that have been seasoned with allspice, black pepper, garlic, oregano, and thyme, then stacked vertically in a form more akin to Mexican al pastor. That meat is served on a grilled pita with yogurt-based tzatziki that's spiked with garlic, chopped cucumber, mint or dill, lemon, and vinegar. French fries usually make an appearance in the wrapped version, but when it's not eaten on a plate, the pita is traditionally used to sop up the leftover sauce.
Mydia me karydoskordalia
Constantinople was once the largest population center in the world and was colloquially referred to as “the city." This inspired a category of cooking called politika kouzana (“food of the city”). A dish that's still beloved to the Greek communities in now-Istanbul is Mydia Me Karydoskordalia, which roughly translates to mussels with walnut sauce. The meat from the shellfish is removed, battered and deep-fried. It's served skewered on a wooden stick, accompanied by a buttery paste of walnuts and garlic.
The second most popular Americanized dish is the dolma, a finger-shaped wrap of canned grape leaves crammed with a medley of veggies. In Greece, cooks will stuff just about anything, from greens like grape leaves, cabbage, or chard, to tomatoes, peppers, onions, and zucchini. Typically they're loaded with parsley, mint, vegetables, and the type of cheap minced meat that makes it into American gyros.
The first of the authentic regional dishes in this list, lahanodolmades is the specialty of a huge swath of Northern Greece called Makedonia. It's an iteration of the dolma (lahano means cabbage) that's stuffed with pork or lamb, then baked in a pan with stock and plenty of olive oil. It's eaten as a full meal alongside bread and yogurt, which is a traditional accompaniment to just about any Greek dinner.
The third big item is mousaka, a baked dish that originated in Ionia (aka Asia Minor, now a part of Turkey) that's like Greece's version of lasagna. Layers of fried eggplant, ground meat, and spices are topped with grated cheese or béchamel, a sauce that entered the Greek canon in the '20s by way of France thanks to the canonical cookbooks from Nikólaos Tselementes. In the States this actually stays fairly true to form, but a visit to Greece will show that this is just one variation of a category of casserole-type baked dishes called ladera.
The peninsula of Pelopponese and the Central Greek region of Sterea Ellada share an identity based on their rural landscape, which makes the the largest producers of olive oil in the country. The area is also famous for producing a diverse array of eggplant varieties. Both of these crops make it into papoutsaki, a baked ladara dish made with eggplants, loads of herbs, and tomatoes, then topped with shaved nuts. The simple, rustic dish is traditionally served with a feta, a hard cheese, and plenty of olive oil.
Crete was invaded so many times that people stopped settling on the coasts, and instead preferred the mountains. Proteins were scarce, which led to a taste for snails (xoxli) pan-fried in-shell with white rosemary, vinegar, and olive oil.
The smaller Aegean Islands near Crete were historically safer from invaders, leading to a healthy love of seafood like grilled octopus. It's tenderized right on the shore, traditionally by the fishermen's children who beat it to a palatable texture before their parents throw it the grill and serve it as a mezes (small plate) alongside accompanying snacks like fried peppers, olives, and cheeses.
Today Cyprus is an entirely different country, but the people still speak Greek and had a big influence on culinary tradition. Their most famous dish is seftalies, a grilled sausage of pig stomach casing (caul) stuffed with spiced meat leftovers, garlic, parsley, and mint It's crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and served in a similar mezes style as the grilled octopus found on the Aegean Islands.
Ionia (aka Asia Minor), is now part of Turkey, but Greek cooking is still indebted to the region partly thanks to this meatball-like dish flavored with cumin, all-spice, and coriander, then braised in tomatoes and garlic. The dish was originally a refugee innovation created to mimic the taste of a style of charcuterie popular before the Greco-Turkish War in the early 1920s.
Pontos is an area along the Southern coast of the Black Sea that is now in Northern Turkey and most famous for a thin flat bread called sats perek (or fillota). The pizza-thin dough is cooked quickly under a steel wok, then layered with different fillings like chicken, vegetables, and cheese. It's topped with another layer of bread, brushed with olive oil, and baked. The result is something like a Greek sandwich, and one of the more portable foods the country has to offer.
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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. He was happy to Get the Greek... food for several of this story's photos. Follow him to more bad movie puns at @Dannosphere.