Cooking is an art form in Greece, and one that’s taken very seriously. Meat is expertly cooked and the herbs skilfully blended – the proof is in the flavours. But don’t let that put you off from trying to recreate your favourite Greek dish at home – you’ll find that most recipes are remarkably simple, and only really require a handful of fresh ingredients and an oven or a stove.
Preparing Greek food takes a little patience and TLC, but the payoff is worth it. If you need more convincing, here’s our four-part recipe that’ll show you the secrets behind authentic Greek cooking.
The mantra of Greek recipes is to keep things simple. The top methods of cooking are grilling, baking, stewing, roasting and frying. You won’t need a fancy spiralizer for these mains – just some sturdy pans and fresh ingredients.
The cuisine in Greece changes largely depending on the season and region. Greek people are known for being resourceful when it comes to cooking, so the dishes are inspired by the ingredients they have at their fingertips – that’s why you’ll see scores of fresh seafood and dishes steeped in local olive oils.
‘Premade’ isn’t a part of the vocabulary in these kitchens – you’ll have to roll up your sleeves, because everything here is made from scratch.
One part fresh ingredients
Freshness is of the utmost importance when it comes to Greek cooking – locals embark on trips to the shop daily for the best ingredients. So before you even begin whipping up your own Greek dish, it’s essential your ingredients are fresh.
The most-used ingredients in the Greek diet are olives, cheese, honey, aubergine, courgette, bread and yoghurt. The most common meat is lamb, followed by rabbit, chicken and pork. Fresh fish and octopus are also staples. On top of that, you’ll very rarely see a dish without a huge helping of fresh, sauteed vegetables on the side or stirred in.
When visiting Greece, you’ll have the chance to pick up handmade ingredients sold by the locals. The country and surrounding islands are dotted with olive oil mills producing the oils you’ll taste at tavernas, and can be purchased for your own dishes. But if Greece isn’t on your holiday radar yet, extra virgin olive oil from your local shop should do just fine. The same goes for olives to top off your Greek Salad – when wandering past the wall of jarred olives, opt for kalamata for the flavours closest to your favourite taverna.
If possible, you should always try to avoid substituting ingredients listed in your recipe – nowadays, many Greek ingredients are easily available in world markets or your neighbourhood supermarket, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding the real deal.
Two parts patience
If you’ve ever dined in an authentic Greek taverna, you’ll know that life here moves at a slower pace. That’s because good food takes time, and cooking over longer periods allows for the flavours to mingle together. While ‘slow-cooking’ means a crock pot to some, to Greeks it means, quite literally, spending four to five hours on a traditional Sunday meal.
Mezze dishes were incorporated into Greek cuisine because they’re generally easy to prepare and can be served quickly. They’re smaller, starter-style dishes that, when you have enough of them, can act as their own main course.
Simple dips like hummus and tzatziki – yoghurt with spices and cucumber served with freshly-baked pitta bread are top choices, as they look and taste much more complicated than they actually are. And when in doubt, feta cheese – the creme de la creme of Greek cheeses – drizzled with olive oil makes for a delicious and stress-free starter.
Slow-cook the lamb
Lamb is something Greek chefs know a lot about – it’s served in a wide array of dishes, on skewers or baked in the oven. One of the most popular ways to eat lamb in Greece is in a dish called ‘gyros,’ which is lamb cooked on a spit that’s shaved down and served with pitta bread.
As a spit isn’t exactly standard in most suburban homes, there are other alternatives to cook lamb in a gyros-fashion. You can instead opt for ground lamb and form it into a loaf. It’ll need to be hardened overnight in the fridge before putting it on a rotisserie and cooking it over a grill. From there, you can slice it up, top with fresh veggies and sauce and slide it into an opened pitta for a takeaway-style dish with all the homegrown flavours.
Sprinkle in herbs
When it comes to Greek food, herbs are non-negotiable. Savoury is valued more than spicy, as the herbs are meant to work together rather than highlight any one flavour. Citrusy flavours like lemon and orange are also widely popular, especially where seafood is concerned.
There are an incredible range of herbs used in Greek cuisine, but the most used are oregano, mint, garlic, dill, basil, thyme, fennel seed, cinnamon and cumin. It’s advised that you always use fresh herbs over dried, unless your recipe specifies otherwise. If this isn’t an option, a general rule of thumb is one teaspoon of a dried herb equals one tablespoon of fresh.
Or, maybe a trip to Greece to freshen your memory of the delicious cuisine will give you some extra inspiration…