Greek Food Culture: 11 Local Dishes You Must Try

A hand pouring olive oil from a jug onto a bowl of Greek salad.
A Greek salad via Pixabay.
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Greek food culture is one of the most famous on the planet. Iconic ingredients like uber-fresh olive oil, tasty Mediterranean fruit and veg, and farm-made feta cheeses come together to create something truly unique and special, while the cooking methods are homey and traditional, sometimes going back thousands of years.

There’s good pedigree here. The first recorded cookbook was written by the ancient Greeks in 350 BC!  Since then, history has given Greek kitchens an influx of both western and eastern influences, most notably from the explorations of Alexander the Great into Asia and forays with the Ottomans in Turkey. That all added exotic spices and new ways of cooking into the mix, creating a varied and intriguing set of dishes that we think every traveler simply has to try.

This guide will run through 11 of the most famous staples of the lot. Look at it as a bit of a 101 on Greek food culture, or a checklist for dedicated foodies who really want to explore the tastes and flavors of this sun-kissed land at the southern end of Europe.

Gyros

Greek gyros
Photo by Marquise de Photographie/Unsplash

Gyros are the most iconic fast food in Greece. They are served from roadside stalls all over the country, in the bustling heart of Athens beneath the soaring Parthenon and on the heady streets of 18-30s resorts like Kavos and Faliraki (where they’ve fast become a favorite post-drinking snack). Much like the Turkish doner kebab, a gyro is made from slices of spiced meat, wrapped in warm pita bread, and covered in sauce of your choosing.

Typically, gyros are filled with pork or lamb. However, some recipes also use chicken or beef. It usually depends on the particular grill house you go to. The cooking method is what really makes it unique, as your choice of protein is hooked onto an upright rotisserie and allowed to spin as it chars and sizzles.

In terms of fillings, there’s a veritable Subway’s worth of options here. You can pick what you like, but most establishments offer onions, feta cheese, lettuce, those famous Greek tomatoes, and freshly cut cucumber slices. Most locals choose to eat a gyros with a garlicky tzatziki spread across the finished dish, or a topping of spicy Greek peppers and capsicum.

Olives

Olives in Greece
Photo by Emre/Unsplash

Okay, so olives alone may seem an incomplete dish compared to some of the others on this list. However, olives are often served as a starter dish or as a social snack to share with a drink in Greece. The Mediterranean region is also particularly famed for its olive produce, and Greece is right up there with the best of the bunch.

Greece does not just grow one type of olive. If you visit Zante or Crete, the Cretan green olives will likely be the most readily available. Whereas, in and around Messina and the Peloponnese, Kalamata black olives are mostly grown. If you visit Thassos, you should make sure to try the wrinkled black olives named Throubes black olives, which are zingy and salty.

The olive has lots of importance outside of being basically delicious. It is regarded as a symbol of peace. Tracing this back to Ancient Greece, an olive branch belonged to the Goddess of Peace, called Eirene, so it held lots of religious and social importance. On top of that, they are the base ingredient (or the only ingredient) for Greece’s famous olive oil – we’d say the tastiest around!

Gigantes

Photo by v2osk/Unsplash

Ah, gigantes – the mouth waters at just a mention of the name. This is Greece’s answer to the humble baked bean, but it’s WAY better than what you scoop out of the tin back at home. Trust us.

Here, big white butter beans are cooked up in a sauce of veg stock and tomato, infused with plenty of sea salt and wild herbs, sauteed onion is added, and there’s a touch of chili to boot. That’s mixed with fresh olive oil to bring out an earthy flavor and finally served as one of the main components of a Greek feast or even as a small plate in a mezze selection.

Gigantes are a top option for meat-free eaters since they are usually fully veggie, but be sure to check that with the taverna staff as recipes vary from family to family. There’s also a stew called gigantes plaki that includes these beans under a top of crispy cheese and plenty of spinach.

Moussaka

Moussaka
Photo by RmX86/Pixabay

Moussaka is a sort of Grecian take on Italy’s meaty lasagne. Lamb or beef mince is cooked in a herbed tomato sauce, with eggplant and potato as additional fillings between the layers. Bechamel, a milk-based white sauce, is then drizzled generously across the sheets to create a rich and fluffy layer that rises when cooked on the top.

Typically, moussaka is served with thick, crusty bread and a salad as side dishes. It’s considered a hearty family meal, ideal for large dinners and celebrations.

Many credit the origins of moussaka to Arab influences, and it is eaten in Turkey and the Balklans, too. The main difference between a Turkish and Greek moussaka is that the Greek adaptation is layered, while the Turkish is not. While the dish’s history is shared, each country in the region has its take on the recipe, with a bit more spice the further east you head.

Saganaki

Saganaki before frying
Photo by DanaTentis/Pixabay

Just when you thought you’d had enough cheese, you settle in the taverna and see that saganaki is up there in the mezze selection. Lucky you. This tangy, salty dish is one of our absolute small-plate favorites. It’s only got three ingredients: The cheese itself, flour, and olive oil.

It’s not rocket science. The chef tosses the dairy in the bowel of flour to get a good coating on the outside. Then, it’s pan fried nice and fast to give a brownish-yellow hue to the outside and a crispiness that’s balanced by a gooey centre. The whole thing – like the WHOLE cheese – is then served, often with a slice of baby lemon plucked from a nearby citrus tree.

The only rule here is that saganaki must be made from Greek white cheese. There are a few options there, but the most common are graviera, kefalograviera, or kefalotyri, and the choice usually depends on the region you’re eating in. In Cyprus, you can get the same dish but with haloumi, which is similar but a touch harder.

Baklava

Baklava is a common dessert in Greek food culture and is shown here on a silver plate. The pastry is layered and delicate with crushed pistachios around the base.
Photo by Baklava7_de/Pixabay.

Another dish that’s got a shared heritage in both Turkey and Greece is baklava. This super-sweet pastry is arguably the most popular dessert in Greek food culture.

Classic baklava is made from layered filo dough and has a sticky, crisp texture. The pastry is held together with honey syrup and filled with crushed pistachio nuts. In Greece, it is often additionally flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg. You will find baklava sold in bakeries and street stalls from Athens to Rhodes. It also often makes an appearance at celebrations and major religious events like Christmas and Easter.

If you have a sweet tooth, baklava is a great treat that you simply have to try. Just keep in mind that baklava is served in small portions as it is extremely rich. Even the biggest sugar-lover may struggle to eat lots of baklava. Mhmm…it’s not for those on a diet.

Koulouri

Photo by Nicholas_Demetriades/Unsplash

A seeded ring of crispy bread, a Koulouri is popular Greek street food or bakery snack that you can dine on while touring the Acropolis in Athens or soaking up the sun on the beaches of the Cyclades islands.

Baking a Koulouri starts with a dough ball shaped into a sausage and dipped into sugary water. The wet coating then allows for sesame seeds to stick to the dough. Then the bread is joined into a circle and baked until an appetizing golden brown.

A koulouri is a popular breakfast snack, especially amongst local commuters on their way to work in a hurry. The bread also makes a good lunchtime filler and is often sold at street food stands on the block corners of bigger towns and cities. Convenient and tasty, a koulouri is one of our top recommendations if you want to combine Greek food culture with a jam-packed day on the go.

Souvlaki

Two meat skewers sit on an oval plate, with potted dips to the right and salad to the left.
Photo by jcvelis/Pixabay.

If you’re craving fast food, souvlaki is the Greek dish for you. This favorite amoing carnivores consists of marinated chunks of meat served on a skewer, often sold by street vendors and at walk-in kebab shops.

Typically, souvlaki meat is pork or lamb, but other meats such as beef or chicken can also be used. Occasionally, you may have the option to have grilled vegetables on the meat skewer or have them as a side accompaniment to the dish. Other typical sides to the skewer include rice, beans, and warm pita bread. You can expect tzatziki sauce to be offered with souvlaki, although popular alternatives such as chili sauce or mayonnaise are usually in the mix too.

Greek salad

A classic in Greek food culture, this Greek salad has tomato chunks, black olives, red onion, and a triangular chunk of feta cheese.
Photo by lukasbieri/Pixabay

Perhaps one of the most popular additions to Greek food culture, the Greek salad is an aspect of Grecian cuisine imitated worldwide.

Everyone has their take on the perfect Greek salad. However, in general, you can expect feta cheese, kalamata olives, onion, and tomato. After mixing all the staple ingredients into a large serving bowl, the salad is seasoned with salt, pepper, and oregano. The final touch involves a generous drizzling of olive oil.

The Greek salad is a common summer dish in Greece and will be present as a side for most dishes. Over winter months, a romaine salad is usually favored instead, as ingredients for the Greek salad go out of season. And another common variation is that in Western Greek salads, lettuce leaves are normally added, whereas authentic Greek salads do not add lettuce.

While in Greece, you will likely come across a classic Greek salad – so savor the experience when it arrives!

Dolmades

Lots of dolmades sit round the edge of an oval silver plate with beans in the center.
Photo by PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

If you are looking for an appetizer or main course, dolmades are an excellent food to consider. A classic Mediterranean dish, variations of the dish can be found in nearby Turkey and are thought to have come from Ottoman influence.

A dolmade consists of herby rice neatly wrapped in an edible vine leaf casing. The technique is similar to rolling up a spring roll and is done entirely by hand. Once wrapped, dolmades are cooked, then allowed to cool. You can then enjoy them as a popular cold dish.

Aside from traditional dolmades, you can find the same dish using cabbage leaves instead called lahanodolmades. While many dolmades are vegetarian, you may also find minced meat fillings.

Spanakopita

A spinach-filled pastry sits horizontally on a blue plate.
Photo by kbmars/Pixabay

The easiest way to describe a spanakopita is as a spinach pie. It is formed out of filo pastry, meaning the dough layers turn crispy when cooked. The filling is formed from a delicious mixture of spinach and feta cheese – creating a classic staple dish.

While the ingredients tend to stay the same, how you eat spanakopita is hugely up to you. You can opt to eat it hot or cold, and it can hold its own as a main dish, side, or snack. You will find spanakopita served in most bakeries in Greece, yet it has the versatility to appear on restaurant menus.

Spanakopita is a great, stereotypical example of Greek food culture and a definite dish to watch for when traveling Greece.

What is the most popular food in Greece?

Spanakopita is our most popular food in Greece, as its versatility means it is sold at many different venues and eaten in many different social scenes.

What is a typical breakfast in Greece?

A typical breakfast in Greece consists of lots of light foods, such as pastries, yogurts, eggs, and fruit. Greek yogurt is famed worldwide, and in Greek food, culture is often eaten with honey as a sweetener for breakfast. Pastries such as spanakopita and koulouri are also popular, as are omelets and cheeses.

How important is food in Greek Culture?

Food is massively important in Greek culture and represents family, connection, and community. Greek dinner culture is a particularly social event and usually takes place late in the evening at around 7 pm.

Even in events such as funerals, food influences traditions, and social norms. ‘Killing plates’ takes place at traditional Greek funerals and involves smashing plates in an expression of grief and mourning. And, a similar tradition occurs at some Greek weddings still as an expression of celebration! The plate and food are central to Greek lives and society, making food very important in Greek culture.

What food is Greece famous for?

The Greek salad, perhaps thanks to its name, is one of Greece’s most famous foods. It is served worldwide as a salad variation, with many different countries adapting the original recipe.

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Eibhlis Gale – Coleman is a freelance writer from the UK who is driven by a fierce love of adventure, unique cultural experiences, native animals, and good coffee. She is a passionate traveller and has explored Europe, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and Australia.