Plate Tectonics Premiere: Greece

Hi all! Here is the first installment of FH&H’s featured original content, Plate Tectonics! Thanks for visiting the site, and we hope that you’ll join us on this journey around the world.

We’re starting our world tour in Greece! Greece, officially known as the Hellenic Republic and locally as Ελλάς, was (allegedly) the cradle of democracy as well as the birthplace of many schools of philosophy. Greek cuisine is also one of my favorite styles of food, so that’s another reason why I am placing it at the beginning of our tour. I visited Greece in 2008, and so I’ll intersperse some pictures from my vacation into the post as well. Without further ado, let’s board the metaphorical flight to Greece! (With luck, you won’t have to deal with an angry woman screaming at you in German and her child sprinting up and down the aisles at 4 a.m.)

Taken from the window while flying over the Alps

Wha-BAM! Welcome to ancient Greece! While the ancient Greeks ate foods that were generally similar to modern Greek cuisine, they didn’t have any of those pesky yet-to-be-discovered foods of the New World. Sorry, no tomatoes, corn, bell peppers, chiles, wild rice, or potatoes! Instead, the ancient Greeks focused on a Mediterranean triple-play of sorts: wine, wheat, and olive oil. In addition, the ancient folks lived a fairly simple lifestyle due to rather unpleasant agricultural conditions.

The ancient Greeks dined differently than their neighbors to the west, the Romans. The ancient Romans lounged on couches to eat, while the Greeks sat in more traditional chairs instead. In addition, the Romans generally used round tables (mensae), but the Greeks originally preferred to use rectangular tables before switching to a round table style around the fourth century B.C.E. There was no silverware to be found at a Greek table, either, and the Greeks used pieces of bread à la trenchers in order to scoop foods that couldn’t be eaten with fingers. Those on the run or in the military ate a wonderful combination of cheese, onions, and garlic—halitosis alert! Meanwhile, athletes ate almost entirely meat and legumes in order to take in as much protein as possible, and many of the wrestlers would coat themselves in olive oil for lubrication.

The athletes needed their protein-rich diets so that they could compete here in Olympia.

People in different regions of Greece also ate different styles of food, similar to modern times. The Spartans ate a pork stew that sounds positively … well, Spartan. The stew consisted of an austere combination of salt, vinegar, blood, and pork scraps—I’ll pass, thanks. Occasionally, they would add game or fish if the hunts went well, but that was never guaranteed. Farther north, the Athenians tended to prefer salt-cured fish such as sardines or anchovies with their bread and fruit, and always enjoyed supplementing their diet with wine and olives. However, most of the coastal regions of Greece are not very fertile, so the residents along the sea ate loads and loads of fish and seafood. The Greeks enjoyed tuna, mullet, swordfish, sturgeon, and eel, but they also ate some “less ideal” choices such as carp and catfish.

As time passed, the Greeks (especially the rich) gave up their self-loathing food characteristics and began to expand their palates. Exploration of Europe and Asia continued, and so all sorts of new items and treats were brought home. Enough about the old stuff, though—we can’t get traditional ancient Greek food anymore! Now it’s time to discuss modern Greek cuisine.

Old and new come together outside of the Temple of Hephaestus in central Athens.

Modern Greek cuisine follows many of the same methods of ancient times, but thanks to technological innovations, we are able to appreciate a plethora of new dishes as well. μεζές (“mezes”) are served as appetizers throughout Greece, and most ταβέρνα (“taberna,” a small restaurant) serve them alongside drinks as well. Common appetizers include ντολμάς (“dolmas”), stuffed grape leaves with rice and meat; χόρτα (“horta”), steamed greens dressed with citrus juice and olive oil; and κεφτές (“keftes”), crispy meatballs. In addition, there are some common appetizers that we see in the United States. Most of us have seen the requisite σπανακόπιτα (“spanakopita,” spinach pie); τζατζίκι (“tzatziki,” cucumber and yogurt sauce); and σαγανάκι (“saganaki,” literally “small frying pan” but usually made with flamed kasseri cheese) at the local diner, and they’re quite delicious.

In addition to food items, many Greeks drink ούζο (ouzo) as an aperitif before meals and in between courses. Ouzo is an anise-flavored liqueur, and it is served extremely cold but never on the rocks. When water or ice is added to ouzo, the liquor will turn cloudy and separate slightly, creating a similar effect to preparing absinthe. By Greek law, ouzo cannot be lower than 75 proof and most varieties are 80 proof, but some brands produce ouzo as high as 120 proof. It’s some dangerous stuff.

The view from the patio of a small taberna in the hills below Delphi. They had darn good avgolemono.

The final appetizer that I would like to mention is the (in)famous Greek salad. You can probably see it now—a limp bed of iceberg lettuce topped with some onion strips, a few stray crumbles of feta cheese, some pepperoncini, some tomatoes and olives if you’re lucky, and maybe some beets if you grew up near Detroit like I did. Then drown it all in a generic bottled vinaigrette or Caesar salad dressing, and voilà! You don’t have a Greek salad! I am pleased to announce that the American version of “Greek Salad” is not what you will find at all in Greece. Instead, the true Greek salad is known as χωριάτικη (“horiatiki,” which translates to “rustic”). There is no lettuce to be found in a horiatiki, thankfully.

Instead, horiatiki is made from chunks of fresh tomatoes (I personally prefer Roma tomatoes), sliced fresh cucumbers, and thin strips of red onion. The salad is then topped with cubed feta and is simply dressed with olive oil and vinegar (I usually use red wine vinegar). Sometimes fresh oregano might be added, but it isn’t as common. I had no idea that there was a difference between the Americanized salad and the true Greek version when I was on vacation, and I was pleasantly surprised. You will be too—please try it sometime. The beauty of a horiatiki is that the amounts are very versatile, depending on how many vegetables you have. I usually cut four or five Romas into bite-sized chunks along with a cucumber or two, depending on their size, cut to a similar size. Slice half of a red onion into long, thin strips (or rings if you prefer), and then cube about 250 grams/8 ounces of feta over the top. Toss it all in a large bowl, and drizzle the top with olive oil and lightly with vinegar. Let the flavors mix in the fridge for a while, and enjoy! Greek salad is a very tasty and very simple summer dish, and I have been known to just make a massive bowl of it and eat it on my front porch.

Poor Apollo. He would never have been able to try horiatiki, since tomatoes were not available in ancient Greece. Mortals 1, gods 0.

OK, now I’m really hungry. It’s time for the second course—soups! The most widely known Greek soup is Κοτόσουπα (“kotosoupa”), which is a chicken soup that usually contains avgolemono (a mixture of rice and lemon). This is the requisite Greek diner soup—go into any moderately respectable restaurant and they are sure to offer a variation of chicken, lemon, and rice soup. However, there is a more traditional Greek soup that is largely forgotten in the United States. This gem is φασολάδα (“fassoulada”), and it is widely known throughout Europe as “the national food of the Greeks.” Recipes for fassoulada vary quite a bit, but the main ingredients include white beans, assorted vegetables (usually carrots, onion, and celery, and occasionally lima beans), and olive oil. However, a true fassoulada will never contain meat, and as such it is a common dish to serve during Lent. Some other soups of note include Πατσάς (“patsas”), tripe soup; ψαρόσουπα (“psarosoupa”), fish soup with vegetables; and Ρεβύθια (“revithia”), chickpeas and onions with olive oil and broth.

Greek cuisine is also well known for its entrees, the most famous of which are probably μουσακάς (“moussaka”) and παστίτσιο (“pastitsio”). Both moussaka and pastitsio are baked dishes topped with béchamel, and moussaka is made with sautéed eggplant and lamb while pastitsio is made with tubular pasta and ground meat. Both are absolutely delicious, and they are staple dishes throughout Greece. Two other well-known dishes are γύρος (“gyros,” literally translated as “turn”) and σουβλάκι (“souvlaki,” literally translated as “skewer”), both of which are commonly served as street food. Gyros are made with meat that has been roasted on a vertical spit and then shaved, and it is usually served crispy with tzatziki sauce, sliced onion, and tomato in a lightly grilled pita—yum! Souvlaki is somewhat similar, although instead it is made from skewered pieces of marinated meat (usually pork, but lamb and beef are common too) and then grilled. Souvlaki plates are often served with pita or fried potatoes along the side, and generally have tzatziki along the side as well.

Looking up at the Parthenon from below. There was a small cart about a block away from here that served the best gyros that I have ever had.

One of my favorite seafood dishes from Greece is χταπόδι στη σχάρα (“chtapodi sti schara”), which is grilled octopus that has been marinated with vinegar, olive oil, and oregano. Sometimes octopuses (yes, that’s the correct term, not “octopi”) are hung out to dry in the sun before cooking, but it’s not a necessity. Some other common dinner ingredients include stewed rabbits, marinated pork, copious amounts of seafood, and lamb of all sorts.

The harbor on the island of Poros. Fishing boats go out daily to bring back the freshest seafood to the island.

And now it’s time for my favorite part: dessert! Everyone knows about baklava and all of its delicious, buttery, flaky layers, but there are many other desserts. In addition, the traditional Greek rice pudding does have a special name: pύζoγάλo (“rizogalo,” literally “rice milk”). Greek pastries include λουκουμάδες (“loukoumades”), which are fried dough balls drizzled with honey similar to an Italian zeppole, and κουραμπιέδες (“kourabiedes”), which are small Christmas cookies similar to a shortbread. They contain copious amounts of crushed almonds and are tossed in powdered sugar after they are baked.

The final Greek dessert that I’ll cover in this post is γαλακτομπούρεκο (“galaktoboureko”). Galaktoboureko is a baked custard dish with phyllo dough, and it is usually flavored with lemon but can also be flavored with rose water or any citrus. The custard is baked with the phyllo dough, resulting in a tasty little slice of heaven that is crispy on the outside and soft in the center. If that isn’t enough, the dish is then drizzled with sweet syrup, sometimes flavored with rose water or a little bit of ouzo.

In closing, I offer a comparison test of feta cheese, based on its origin. I found that absolutely nothing beats a Greek feta cheese, in terms of flavor and texture.  Greek feta uses mostly sheep milk, and can legally use up to 30% goat milk in place of the sheep milk. However, American feta is almost totally made from cow milk, and as a result it is quite bland. In addition, feta made with cow milk tends to be rather grainy, whereas a traditional Greek feta is quite creamy yet still crumbly. Finally, always buy your feta in blocks that have been packed in brine! Pre-crumbled feta or feta that has not been brined will be dry in texture, and it won’t have nearly the same salty, delicious flavor, either.

Mmmmm, look at all of the olives and fruit, as seen from the Mycenaean acropolis near Corinth.

Well, there you have it—Greek cuisine in a nutshell! I hope that you’ve enjoyed this first post in our new series of featured content. Please join us next week for the next post! If you have any questions or input for us, please let us know. We’re happy to hear from you.

Alas, my vacation had to end and I had to return home to Michigan. Dammit.

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