Greek Food Culture

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Greek Food Culture
Simple, local, and seasonal are the definition of Greek food. Naturally, the islands have an abundance of straight-from-the-boat seafood, served grilled or fried with nothing but a drizzle of lemon and olive oil. Family-run tavernas dish up Greek classics like stuffed tomatoes, served with a slice of feta, and barbecued lamb chops, sold by the kilo. Ouzeries offer a tantalizing selection of mezes—small sharing plates that showcase local ingredients, such as stewed octopus, crumbly goat cheese, or simply the juiciest tomatoes with a sprinkling of olives.
By Rachel Howard, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Ernst Kremers/age fotostock
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    Exceptional Wines
    Greek wines are incredibly underrated, although they've been quietly picking up international awards. The star wine-growing island is volcanic Santorini, which has produced exceptional wines since antiquity. There are around 50 indigenous grapes, notably crisp white assyrtiko and sweet vin santo. The vines are coiled around the grapes like baskets to protect them from the fierce sunlight and meltemi winds. Santorini Wine Trails offers bespoke tours of the island's finest wineries, run by an enthusiastic enologist, Iliana Sidiropoulou.
    Photo by Ernst Kremers/age fotostock
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    Coffee Culture
    Coffee is expensive in Greece. That's because locals, young and old, can spend hours smoking and drinking a single coffee at their favorite table. A popular local invention is frappé, instant coffee over ice, whipped to a froth and sweetened (order it sketo if you want it unsweetened). Hipsters prefer cappuccino freddo, best enjoyed on the rocks, and in your swimsuit, at Hydronetta. Old-timers sip Greek coffee at traditional kafenio such as Prekas—just don't drink the muddy grounds at the bottom of the cup.
    Photo by Elina Manninen/age fotostock
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    Classic Tavernas
    The best Greek food is made not to decorate the plate, but to highlight seasonal, local ingredients. Most family-run tavernas have standard menus that cover the classics: moussaka, yemista (stuffed vegetables), grilled chops or fish. Whether in village squares (like Nikolas on Nisyros), on the waterfront (like Tholos on Symi), or on a desert island (like Venetsanos on Kato Koufonisi), the timeless simplicity of the taverna sums up laid-back, unpretentious Greek island life.
    Photo by Ellen Rooney/age fotostock
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    Fresh from the Sea
    With a culture so connected to the sea, fish restaurants are predictably excellent on the Greek islands. To be sure the fish is fresh (not frozen), ask the owners whether they have their own fishing boat (like the Kaloskami brothers at Tarsanas) or look for octopus tentacles hanging in the sun, tenderizing for tonight's dinner. The restaurants clustered around the fish market on Aegina are all reliably good, but Ouzeri Skotadis serves some of the most delicious seafood you’ll ever eat. You can't go wrong with simple grilled fish, but for something more innovative try the gray taramosalata with squid ink at Thalassaki on Tinos or the amberjack tiradito at Omega 3 on Sifnos.
    Photo by Alvaro Leiva/age fotostock
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    Delicious Dairy
    Greek dairy is usually made from sheep or goat milk. For a healthy but decadent breakfast, have a bowl of Greek yogurt sprinkled with walnuts and lashings of honey or vyssino (sour cherries in syrup). Make sure you get the yogurt known as straggistó (strained), as it’s thicker and creamier. At Yefuri Restaurant on Ithaca, the lemon tart is served with a dollop of yogurt instead of cream. Most Greeks wouldn't dream of eating a meal without a wedge of feta. But every island produces other distinctive cheeses, too: myzithra (used for sweet cheese and honey pies) on Crete, manoura (matured in red wine) on Sifnos, and ladotyri (cured in olive oil) on Lesvos, which you can pick up at one of the many delicatessens on Ermou Street.
    Photo by Cem Canbay/age fotostock
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    Sweet Treats
    The Greeks have a sweet tooth. Of course, you'll find ice cream parlors everywhere; but also patisseries selling syrup-soaked phyllo pastries such as baklava and galaktoboureko, a legacy of centuries of Turkish rule. But there aren't many traditional confectioners like Theodorou, run by the same family on Sifnos since 1933. Here you'll find old-fashioned sweets such as amygdalota (ground almond confections), ypovrichio (sugar paste perfumed with mastic, bergamot, or rosewater), and pastelli (sticky honey and sesame bars)
    Photo by Veronika Studer/age fotostock
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    Small Plates, Many Flavors
    Most meals in Greece are a convivial affair: a succession of mezes, or small plates, delivered in random order for everyone to share. It's a great way to try as many different dishes as you can in one sitting. Mezzedakia—little saucers of stewed octopus, pickled cabbage, marinated anchovies, or spicy sausage—are also a standard accompaniment to a glass of ouzo. There's no better place to sample these little treats than Lesvos, the island where ouzo is produced. Everyone who comes here makes a pit stop at Ermis for an ouzo-mezze.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    The Cult of Souvlaki
    Greece does fast food right. The most famous street food is souvlaki—either kalamaki (skewers of pork or chicken) or gyros (stuffed into pillows of pita with tomatoes, lettuce, onions, French fries, and plenty of pungent tzatziki, a yogurt, garlic, and cucumber sauce). Done right, it's a delicious dinner for just a couple of euros. At Cine Manto, an outdoor cinema hidden in the botanical gardens of Mykonos, you can snack on souvlaki while watching a movie under the stars.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Modern Greek Cuisine
    If you want a break from Greek salad and grilled meat, head to Selene, the pioneer of Santorini's fine-dining scene. On the other side of the island, the tasting menu at Domaine Sigalas—arguably the island's finest winery—is a beautifully presented succession of refined dishes to rival the intense wines. Tinos is known among Greeks as an island for gourmets. That's partly thanks to Thalassaki, a laid-back waterfront restaurant where the dishes are completely unexpected. Try the baked cod with artichokes and goat cheese with bee pollen.
    Photo by Charissa Fay