Greek cooking offers an incredibly rich and diverse array of foods and beverages that are the culmination of literally thousands of years of living, cooking, and eating. While each Greek meal is fresh and inviting, it is also a trip back through Greece's history.
The names of foods, cooking methods, and basic ingredients have changed little over time. Bread, olives (and olive oil), and wine constituted the triptych of the Greek diet for many centuries, just as they do today.
Greece is a nation of small farmers who produce an incredible array of mainly organically produced cheeses, oils, fruits, nuts, grains, legumes, and vegetables, supplemented by an array of greens and herbs that grow in the wild. These are the foods that form the base of the traditional Greek regimen, to which they add both variety and nutrition. Greece's climate is perfect growing for olive and lemon trees, producing two of the most important elements of Greek cooking. Spices, garlic and other herbs such as oregano, basil, mint, and thyme are widely used, as are vegetables such as eggplant and zucchini, and legumes of all types.
With 20 percent of Greece made up of islands - and no part of the Greek mainland more than 90 miles from the sea - fish and seafood are a popular and common part of the Greek diet. Lamb and goat (kid) are the traditional meats of holidays and festivals, and poultry, beef, and pork are also in plentiful supply.
Vineyards cover much of Greece's hilly terrain and the country has become known for its array of fine wines and spirits, most notably ouzo, an anise-flavored liqueur that is the national spirit.
A History of Culinary Influences
While Greek cooking has influenced and been influenced by other cultures, as have the cuisines of most countries, of all of those countries, Greece must be foremost in the ranks of having a "fusion" cuisine which is easily traced back to 350 B.C.
- In c.350 B.C., when Alexander the Great extended the Greek Empire's reach from Europe to India, certain northern and eastern influences were absorbed into the Greek cuisine.
- In 146 B.C., Greece fell to the Romans which resulted in a blending of a Roman influence into Greek cooking.
- In 330 A.D., Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, founding the Byzantine Empire which, in turn, fell to the Turks in 1453 and remained part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years. During that time, dishes had to be known by Turkish names, names that remain today for many Greek classics.
With each successive invasion and settlement came culinary influences - from the Romans, Venetians, Balkans, Turks, Slavs, and even the English - and many Greek foods have names with origins in those cultures, most notably the Ottoman Empire. Dishes with names like tzatziki (from the Turkish "cacik"), hummus (the Arabic word for chickpea) and dolmades (from the Turkish "dolma"), that can be found in kitchens from Armenia to Egypt, have also found a home in Greek cooking, and been adapted over hundreds of years to local tastes and traditions.
And during those times, the classic elements of Greek cuisine traveled across borders as well, adopted and adapted in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and ... with Alexander the Great, farther east.
Note about hummus: Hummus is a Middle Eastern dish with an association to Greek food only because it appears on the menu in many Greek restaurants around the world... brought there by restaurateurs catering to local tastes.
Did You Know...
- The first cookbook was written by the Greek food gourmet, Archestratos, in 330 B.C., which suggests that cooking has always been of importance and significance in Greek society.
- Modern chefs owe the tradition of their tall, white chef's hat to the Greeks. In the middle ages, monastic brothers who prepared food in the Greek Orthodox monasteries wore tall white hats to distinguish them in their work from the regular monks, who wore large black hats.
- To a large degree, vegetarian cuisine can be traced to foods and recipes which originated in Greece.
- Many ingredients used in modern Greek cooking were unknown in the country until the middle ages. These include the potato, tomato, spinach, bananas, and others which came to Greece after the discovery of the Americas – their origin.
Greek food is simple and elegant, with flavors subtle to robust, textures smooth to crunchy, fresh and timeless, nutritious and healthy. Preparing and enjoying Greek food, anywhere in the world, is an adventurous journey into the cradle of civilization and the land of the Gods of Olympus. Discovering, tasting, experiencing Greek food: truly one of the joys we can all share.