The basics of authentic Greek food have changed very little since the days of antiquity. We know this because the very first cookbook was penned in 330 BCE by a Greek, Archestratos, who obviously thought the world would be a better place if only everyone followed his mother’s recipe for spanakopita, a savory spinach pie.
Since then, republics and emperors have come and gone, yet the food—the tender grilled lamb and chunky salads, the fresh-caught fish and finger-licking pastries—has stayed the same. Why tamper with perfection? Healthy, flavor-packed and visually resplendent, Greek cuisine may be difficult to pronounce—just try wrapping your tongue around kolokithokeftedes when ordering zucchini fritters—yet it’s relatively easy to prepare.
That’s because the best Greek food is founded on four traditionally-respected pillars: start with fresh, local products; add just the right amount of herbs and spices; use the world’s best olive oil; and keep the recipe simple.
Really Eat Fresh
Getting your hands on fresh produce, cheese and meat is never difficult in Greece. Thanks to a millennia-long embrace of the farm-to-table movement, fresh sugar beets, carrots and onions are often grown and cultivated just a few miles from where they’re consumed. And since no part of the Greek mainland is more than 90 miles from the sea, the calamari you’re dipping into that marinara sauce for dinner was most likely swimming in the Adriatic that morning. This level of freshness stands out in a traditional baked dish like moussaka, which packs rich flavors into layers of aubergine, tomatoes and minced meat topped with a white béchamel sauce.
Spice It Up
Fresh ingredients are the building blocks of a meal, but herbs and spices cement the flavors together. Oregano, mint, rosemary and more grow wildly across the land and are used with utmost precision to coax the perfect smell and taste out of a juicy lamb skewer or succulent sea bass. Spices can also take over a food’s flavor profile with delicious results, as you’ll notice when biting into dolmades, classic grape leaf-wrapped rice parcels seasoned by a heady combination of thyme, fennel and oregano.
The final ingredient of dolmades, like most Greek foods, is a light drizzling of olive oil. The smooth, green oil is the A and Z of their cooking, or the alpha and omega if you want to stay in a Greek frame of mind, since it’s often the first ingredient used to coat the pan and then the last to drizzle over the finished product. When mixed with lemon dressing and oregano, it makes a latholemono sauce that makes seafood smile on your plate.
Every ingredient—from olive oil to octopus—is never asked to do anything except be itself. Because in the end, Greece’s best dishes are made of fresh foods simply prepared with love and respect. The recipes are seemingly etched in marble, unchanged since appearing on Plato’s plate. And it’s that ode to tradition and simplicity that keeps these regional dishes treasured worldwide.