I am the victim of my own aggressive order at a Greek takeaway restaurant. An extra helping of roasted potatoes with lemon seemed like a good idea at the time, particularly as they accompanied a small vat of spit-roasted beef and lamb served with a surprisingly decent tzatziki, a sauce made from yogurt, shredded cucumbers, garlic, salt, olive oil, and herbs. I like these potatoes, and they’re a dish that’s basically ubiquitous when it comes to Greek-American food. But really, how reflective of true Greek cuisine are they?
Most people’s familiarity with Grecian cuisine is likely limited to a few key dishes. Souvlaki, which is basically pieces of marinated meat grilled on a skewer, is popular in many Greek-owned pizza joints and diners, as is the gyro (correctly pronounced ‘yeer-oh’), which is typically a combination of spiced and seasoned ground beef and lamb (or chicken cutlets) packed into a cylinder-like shape, cooked on a rotating vertical spit, and shaved off on-demand. Moussaka, a casserole made from layered ground meat, eggplant and/or potato, tomato, and bechamel is easy to find, as are dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice and sometimes meat), and a range of other dips which show up in meze platters. And, of course, saganaki, that crazy flaming cheese everyone loves.
Beyond the baker’s dozen of Greek dishes you can most easily find in the States lies a cuisine with more nuance than a lot of people are familiar with. This is something Argiro Barbarigou speaks about with passion and insistence. A chef and restaurateur in both Greece and the U.S., Barbarigou is one of the most prominent celebrity chefs in Greece. She also pushes for some of the best aspects of Greek food to be more widely recognized: freshness and seasonality.
“While a broad generalization, Greek food in America is far richer and can be difficult to stomach,” she says. The American version of moussaka, for example, relies heavily on the addition of flour and butter to form a very heavy bechamel, and it’s not uncommon to find the dish resting in a heavy pool of olive oil. In Greece, moussaka is much lighter and care is taken to not overcook the vegetables in the dish.
Barbarigou says the same type of issues plague pastitsio, a dish where pasta such as ziti is layered with lamb and tomatoes. The version from Greece is less likely to be swamped by cream or the over-application of cheese, whereas the American iterations are closer to a heavy lasagna.
Seasonality also plays a significant role in making Greek food lighter and healthier than we might be used to. “In winter, dolmas are made with cabbage while in the summer with vine leaves,” Barbarigou says. Gemista is a dish where vegetables are hollowed out and filled with rice, and sometimes meat. In the winter the vessel may be onions or potatoes, while in summer it will be tomatoes, peppers, or eggplants.
Eleni Domazaki sits on the board of directors for a large food producer based in Greece named Creta Farms, which makes products like deli meats and frozen foods. She says, “when you eat the herbs and when you eat the food that’s raised in the Cretan Greek lands, it’s super different.”
Americans are used to thinking of Greek cuisine as being meat-heavy, and that’s not a completely unfair characterization. Barbarigou says dishes like kokkinisto, a thickened stew made from beef and vegetables are worth knowing and seeking out, as is giouvetsi, a baked dish of meat (such as beef or lamb) with orzo, spices, and tomato sauce.
Both Domazaki and Barbarigou convey how heavily Greek cuisine relies on the application of olive oil, herbs, and wild greens. Fresh vegetables and legumes are also a big deal and form the basis for many dishes, including fasolada, a soup that’s said to be Greece’s national dish, which is made from dried (and reconstituted) white beans and vegetables such as carrots, onions, and tomatoes. Revythada, chickpeas cooked in water and herbs, and fava beans, are two simple but extremely flavorful everyday foods.
Barbarigou says that the Aegean islands, which includes Crete, Santorini, and Mykonos, also have their own culinary characteristics. “The diet consists primarily of a large variety of seafood cooked in different ways, lots of legumes, mainly chickpeas and fava, as well as lots of other fresh ingredients such as wild artichokes, wild greens, asparagus, carob flour, and thyme honey.”
Michael Coll, the wine director for Nerai restaurant in New York City, says Greek wines also play a large role in the Grecian diet. “It’s one of the most ancient wine-producing countries, and it’s also relatively modern in regards to the new wines of Greece.” He says that Greek vintners used to have a “co-op mentality” where quantity was much more important than quality. Now it’s more common to find producers focusing on a particular grape, or a particular type of wine, which has led to better quality. He says, “people generally look at Greece and trust the white wines more than the red wines, but there are some great red wines as well.”
According to Coll, the Aegean islands, as with the Greek mainland, have a number of microclimates which influence horticulture. “If you go up through the coast there are all these valleys and mountains that come up really quickly. So you have the valley microclimates and you have the mountain microclimates. And the islands are all very different.” Coll describes how Santorini’s dry, volcanic environment creates very different conditions as opposed to the clay of clay of Crete, which helps to keep things cool. The salt and wind from the Aegean islands also influences wine development in a way that’s distinct from the conditions of the mainland.
Barbarigou says the best form of Greek foods though are “recipes that have been made in the same way over thousands of years with the same pure and seasonal ingredients, always with Greek olive oil, wild herbs, miraculous legumes and seasonal vegetables.” That’s not impossible to find stateside, but we’re more used to grilled meats and heavy sauces, not the vibrant and light cuisine of Greece itself.