How Greece Changed the Way I Think About Food

Now that I’ve been home for a month, I’ve had ample time to reflect on the things I miss most about Greece. It seems like every day I think of something new that I miss–but one of the greatest joys of coming home is figuring out how to work those things into your pre-travel life, and change your lifestyle for the better based on the new things you’ve seen and learned (and tasted!).

What do I miss most? You guessed it. The FOOD! I would do dastardly deeds for some authentic grilled kalamari, kolokithokeftedes (zucchini fritters), or taramasalata (dip made from fish roe).

But, on top of missing specific dishes (did I mention dakos? OK, I’m stopping now–this is torture!!), I’ve started to notice major changes in both my diet and eating habits in general. They’re all positive changes, and I credit them to my time spent in Greece.

Vegetables

The biggest change I’ve noticed is in my relationship with vegetables. The American diet is, of course, largely protein-centered; and, being from Montana, I do love a good steak or buffalo burger! However, like many Americans (I hope!), I’ve realized in recent years that I don’t agree with several of our meat industry practices. So, before I left for Greece, I was in a bind–I didn’t want to go vegetarian, but I’m not a hunter and never will be, and ethical meat can be so expensive. What’s a hungry girl to do?

Enter Greek food. While the Greeks love meat, they also do some really fantastic things with vegetables. There are so many flavorful, nutritious vegetable dishes in Greek cuisine. Before long, I found myself going days without eating meat, simply because I was craving those dishes!

What makes the difference?

1. Grilled vegetables. The Greeks can make a work of art out of a simple eggplant, mushroom or zucchini just by throwing it on the grill. Though this trend is changing, our standard conception of “things that go on the grill” in America is definitely meat. Now that my mind has been opened to the idea of grilled vegetables, my veggie world has been rocked.

Earthy, "meaty" grilled mushrooms from my favorite Cretan restaurant in Thessaloniki.

Grilled zucchini at a taverna in Rhodos.

2. Vegetable pastries and fritters. While less healthy than the other options, they’re still vegetables, so it still counts! I never thought about making or eating savory pastries until I went to Greece. Now, I’m absolutely in love with pitta, or savory pies made with everything from onion to leek to spinach. Vegetable keftedes are another favorite. They’re essentially fritters, again made with every vegetable under the sun. My favorites are made with zucchini and chickpeas!

A close-up of some heavenly spanakopita. Look at all those layers!

The inside of a zucchini fritter. Crunchy, sweet, and remarkably fresh-tasting for something that's been deep fried!

3. Simplicity rules. Before going to Greece, I always felt like vegetables had to go with something. And even when I was eating vegetables by themselves, I always defaulted to having more than one kind of vegetable at once. Not so with Greek food. Several mezedes (the Greek version of tapas) are made up of just one vegetable, treated simply with delicious results. The key here is really good, fresh vegetables, served with basic flavor-enhancers like olive oil and lemon. What more do you need?

If you don't like beets, please don't write them off until you try them in Greece! The beet salad pictured here is quite typical; they're usually served with fine olive oil and a garnish of oregano. I'm hooked!

A big bowl of horta, or boiled greens, which is a very common salad option in tavernas. It's particularly popular in Crete.

Now that I’m home, I find myself seeking out vegetarian dishes more often, and being more creative in my treatment of vegetables at home. It’s cheaper, tastier and healthier. What’s not to love?

Sharing

In Greece, the usual style of eating (whether at home with family or out in a restaurant) is to make or order several dishes for the whole group to share. It took some getting used to, but I definitely prefer this way of eating now!

Why do I prefer it?

1. You get to taste more things. And when “taste” and “more” are in the same sentence, I’m in! Having a smaller amount of several different things is far more satisfying to me, and it’s also great to try that many more new dishes.

2. It promotes food talk. When you each order your own dish at a restaurant, you don’t really end up talking about the food much–who wants to hear so-and-so go on and on about their chicken? But when everyone is eating the same food, you can all talk together about the different tastes and textures. And on a more basic level, reveling in a “This is soooo good!!” is much more satisfying when there’s someone with you to back you up!

A typical taverna spread at one of my favorite little places in the Ladadika neighborhood of Thessaloniki--grilled haloumi, grilled mushrooms and rocket salad.

With this in mind, I’m cooking for friends and family a lot more regularly, as this naturally sets up a sharing situation. And when I go out to eat, I gravitate toward shared dishes like pizza, and propose splitting dishes with my friends much more often.

Lemon

The Greeks add lemon to almost everything! I’ve always loved what a little lemon or lime juice can do, but I never thought of sprinkling it on sausage or burgers like you see so often in Greece. I found that even just a little lemon livens up just about any dish, and makes it taste even more fresh. (In addition to the photos below, there’s a lemon in many of the photos above too!)

The best sausage I have EVER had, at a mountainside taverna in Arahova. The fresh lime to squirt over it took it to a whole new level!

Classic Santorini fava, a dip made from yellow or green split peas. Traditionally served with raw red onion and--you guessed it--fresh lemon.

The other day, I made a pasta with roasted asparagus and fresh tomatoes, and instead of just my standard butter and parmesan cheese, I added a little lemon juice too. As always, it really brightened up the dish!

Honey

My first word was “chocolate.” I kid you not. My parents came into my room one morning, looked down at me in my crib, and said, “Good morning, Katie!” My response (logically) was, “Chocolate.”

Needless to say, I’ve grown up with a bit of a sweet tooth. I love pastries, cookies, caramels… you name it!

However, the go-to sweetener in Greece is honey. That’s not to say that they don’t use sugar–rather, it just means that honey is used to sweeten things much, much more often in Greece than in America. Not only is it more healthy, but it’s perfectly sweet enough, and can be used in a variety of situations.

OBSESSED. Loukoumades, or Greek doughnuts, covered in honey and sesame seeds. Drooooooool.

Strawberries, honey, and sweet Myzithra cheese from Crete. All credit for this fabulous creation goes to the lovely Ms. Georgia Christakis. Anyone know where a gal can get myzithra in Ameriki? These shakes & sweats have got to stop...

Eating more vegetables and sweetening things with honey instead of sugar have inspired other changes along the road to eating healthier, like seeking out whole-grain products and (eureka!) stopping eating before I feel like I’m made out of bread/peanut butter/cheese/other culinary vice of choice.

Once again, I’m amazed by how contact with an “other” can affect the familiar. Here, being in Greece put into practice eating habits that I knew would make me feel better, but had yet to experience firsthand. Αγάπη μου Ελλάδα, ευχαριστώ για όλα!

Καλή όρεξη,

Kate

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About wrap me in phyllo dough

travel addict. greece-obsessed. grad student. bottomless pit.
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15 Responses to How Greece Changed the Way I Think About Food

  1. I loved every bit of this post. Such gorgeous photos. Grilled veggies do rock!

  2. Oooh, my goodness. I am such a foodie, and this post just did it (whatever “it” is) to and for me. I now need to go to the grocery store. And spend quality time in my kitchen. Sweet maker of food!

  3. trialsinfood says:

    the zucchini fritters look delicious! hoping to try authentic Greek food this Oct. we’re planning our trip to Greece as we speak! any recommendations of where to go or eat would be great appreciated!

    • AAAAA this is so exciting. When anyone tells me they’re going to Greece I just get so excited! Oh man, where do I begin? My favorite places I went to were, in no particular order:

      1. Crete. It’s a must-see, as it has a culture and cuisine all its own. I loved Rethymno most, but Chania (though touristy) and Irakleio (though urban) were both great too. Don’t miss trying dakos (salad made with barley rusk, tomato and myzithra or feta cheese), horta (boiled mountain greens), or snails (a traditional specialty–I missed out on these while I was there, so you’ll have to report back & tell me what you think!). While in Chania, go to the taverna called “Portes” and get the gavros marinatos–the tastiest little fishes I had in Greece!
      My post about Crete #1: https://k8peterson.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/a-comparative-analysis-of-the-three-largest-cities-in-crete/
      My post about Crete #2: https://k8peterson.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/nerding-out-in-crete-my-kazantzakis-pilgrimage/

      2. Meteora. Centuries-old monasteries atop huge pillars of stone: what’s not to love? Stunning scenery, neat history and a great opportunity to get out & walk. Also a photographer’s dream! Definitely stay in Kastraki, not Kalambaka (Kalambaka is fine, but it was almost entirely destroyed in WWII, so if you want a more traditional experience, Kastraki’s your village!). While there, stop in at Taverna Paradisos for some of the best moussaka I had while in Greece!
      My post about Meteora: https://k8peterson.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/october-trip-part-1/

      3. Kastoria. A small city near the northern border, Kastoria is simply gorgeous. It’s set on the edges of a beautiful lake, with stunning mountains in view. Check out the Dragon’s Cave while you’re there!
      https://k8peterson.wordpress.com/2011/05/11/my-weekend-with-sokratis/

      4. Thessaloniki. My second home! Thess is the 2nd largest city and is home to dynamic student life, great nightlife and AMAAAAZING food. I recommend Panellinion (fantastic traditional taverna, on the far edge of the Ladadika neighborhood), Athivoli (Cretan fare in Ladadika), Paparouna (great gourmet dishes with a Greek flair, in Syggrou), and for some of the best of the typical Thessaloniki scene, Kitchen Bar (various dishes, right on the waterfront).
      (Stay tuned for a whole Thessaloniki post soon–I realized I didn’t write nearly enough about my home city in the face of all that traveling!)

      5. The Pelion Peninsula. Right by Volos, this peninsula has it all: quaint villages, mountains, and the sea. I visited Makrinitsa, Portaria, Zagora and Agios Ioannis, and loved them all. While in Zagora, stay at Magda’s Domatia for clean rooms at an affordable rate. And in Agios Ioannis, eat at the upstairs place with the octopus tentacles hanging from the sign–you’ll surely recognize it when you see it! 🙂
      Post about Pilio: https://k8peterson.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/riding-in-pickup-trucks-with-greek-boys-and-other-adventures-from-my-trip-to-pilio/

      6. Nafplio. One of the most popular towns in the Peloponnese, Nafplio gained its reputation for beauty and charm for a reason! Don’t miss Liz’s Cupcakes, Antica Gelateria di Roma or, for the best food in Nafplio, the taverna called Ta Fanaria. I had amazing lamb while I was there!
      Post about Nafplio: https://k8peterson.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/lovely-lively-nafplio/

      Okay, I could go on and on forever, but I suppose I’d better stop there. If you have any more questions, please don’t hesitate to ask–you can reach me on here or at kathleen.peterson@fulbrightmail.org. I’m so excited for you! Have fun planning your trip and kalo taxidi! 🙂

      • trialsinfood says:

        wow, thanks for all the info! i don’t know anyone who’s been there, so your input is very helpful!

      • trialsinfood says:

        ahh…so many places to go, so little time. we’re only going to be in Greece for about 12 days. 😦 so, we’re thinking of flying into crete (since we hear the weather should be better the farther south we go in October) and then work our way to Santorini and then Athens for a couple days. but Meteora seems so magical, I really want to try to squeeze it in. you’re lucky to have been able to spend so much time in Greece!

  4. shoeshoegirl says:

    I noticed you asked about where to get Myzithra – I haven’t tried it from this place, but they have it: http://www.igourmet.com/search/search.asp?keywords=myzithra&search.x=0&search.y=0

    Kali Orexi!

  5. Zaharenia says:

    Another amazing post Kate 🙂

    Just a suggestion: if you go after myzithra, be careful because there is a bit of intra-greece misunderstanding of sorts.

    In Crete, we call myzithra the soft, white cheese you ate with your strawberries. Other places in Greece call myzithra the salty, hard cheese you can grate on pasta and anthotiro the soft one.

    Just be sure to ask for the soft one 😉

  6. Tinkerbelle says:

    i love this post. i could die right now with all this reference to divine food!
    http://www.tinkerbelle86.wordpress.com

  7. One of the great things about travel is what you literally and figuratively bring home.

  8. Pingback: The Wrap Me in Phyllo Dough 100th Post Spectacular! | wrap me in phyllo dough

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