Guide for Travelers to Greek Restaurants and Foods
In addition to her cookbooks, Kremezi is well known for developing the menu at Molyvos, New York City’s groundbreaking Greek restaurant, which exploded the myth that Greeks exist on souvlaki, gyros and baklava.
“Greek home cooking is based on flavorful seasonal ingredients,” says Aglaia Kremezi, esteemed author of Foods of Greece and Foods of the Greek Islands. “Souvlaki and gyros are foods served in taverns and Greek fast-food restaurants, not foods cooked at home. Baklava is a festive sweet, maybe baked once or twice a year in some homes, while the good home moussaka is different from the greasy dish with the thick bechamel topping served at most diners.
“At home, Greeks cook usually one-pot meals, such as lamb with artichokes, or fava beans in egg and lemon sauce ([the ubiquitous, tangy avgolemono,), or a stew of veal and green beans or zucchini in tomato sauce,” she adds. “We also make lots of vegetable stews, rice and herb-stuffed tomatoes and peppers, and beans, fish and lots of pastas.”
As in the rest of the Mediterranean, Greek cooking takes advantage of local abundance. The first cultivation of olives has been traced to ancient Greece, and olive oil is used almost exclusively as the cooking fat and seasoning of choice. Visitors unfamiliar with Greek food are often surprised by la-deres, a dish of meat or seafood, such as octopus or squid, that is braised in large quantities of olive oil until very tender and then served at room temperature, floating in the golden oil. The cuisine’s intense flavors echo the intensity of the Greek sun. Herbs and vegetables that grow well in a brilliantly sunny land are common, such as oregano, thyme and mint, and eggplant, artichokes, tomatoes and fave beans. Though there is an abundance of fresh herbs, dried herbs such as oregano and thyme, which have a more concentrated flavor than American varieties, are common in Greek dishes.
Whether dining at home or in restaurants, Greeks enjoy their maze (also called mezethes or mezedes), an assortment of appetizers that always accompanies a beverage. Greeks are known for their open-armed hospitality, and a drink, whether the potent anise-flavored liqueur ouzo or the pine resin-flavored wine retsina, must have meze, even if it’s just a dish of Kalamata olives and a bit of sheep’s milk cheese. “Meze are very important,” says Kremezi. “They are the sharing table, the dishes we savor leisurely with our friends, especially in the summer.”
There is a huge variety of meze. Typical cold dishes include dolmathes, grape leaves stuffed with meat or rice, taramasalata, a salty dip of cod’s roe whipped with bread and olive oil until creamy, tzatziki, a salad of cucumber, thick yogurt and mint, and melitzanosalata, an eggplant puree. “Every Greek cook has a version of melitzanosalata, a much-loved summer appetizer,” Kremezi says.
Hot meze include crispy fried fish, such as rings of squid and little fried anchovies. Salty kefalotiri cheese is fried in strips and served as a dish called saganaki, and paper-thin, flaky filo pastry is wrapped around a huge variety of fillings, often enriched with cheese, including spinach (spanakopita), chicken livers (sikotakia) and mushrooms (manitaria).
The intense flavors in savory Greek dishes are matched only by the intense sweetness of Greek desserts. The most famous dessert is baklava, layers of filo and nuts drenched in honey (ideally Greek honey flavored by wild thyme). Melopeta is a pie filled with honey and ricotta, and popular cookies include kourabiedes, balls of shortbread nestling in powdered sugar. To balance all that sweetness, try the potent shock of thick, black Greek coffee – or perhaps just another glass of ouzo.
The most common Greek restaurant is the taverna. (You may see a small taverna described as a “koutouki,” an old-fashioned term that’s nearly obsolete, according to Greek cookbook author Aglaia Kremezi.) Like French brasseries, tavernas are comfortable places where people are content to sit for hours, perhaps drinking ouzo or retsina and nibbling at meze.
Smaller tavernas and out-of-the-way restaurants may not have written menus. If you simply ask for “meze,” you’ll receive a generous flow of whatever small, savory dishes the chef has prepared, including perhaps a small portion of whatever main dish is bubbling on the stove. And if you smell something good cooking in the kitchen, just ask. “Greek restaurateurs are amenable to diners putting themselves in the cook’s hands,” says Kremezi. “Unless people know a lot about Greek food, it is better to ask the restaurateur, or to go into the kitchen, ask to see the cooked foods and choose.”