Who better to let you in on some facts about Greek eating habits and traditions than a Greek and a massive foodie? That’s me. Sometimes I identify more with “foodie” than with “Greek”, it’s a problem.
Anyways, living as Greek abroad definitely exposes you to ideas and myths about your own culture’s cuisine and culture. In an attempt to put things into perspective and to offer my view on myths and other questions I’ve encountered, here are some delicious confessions on the matter.
Lamb really isn’t commonly consumed in Greece.
I can count the number of times when I used to have lamb during an entire year living in Athens and it is this: 2.
I found it veeery peculiar when we moved to Australia and found out that Greek-Australians eat a lot of lamb. I also found it weird that there is such a thing here as lamb souvlaki. And I found it even more strange that the wider Australian public thinks that Greeks at large are big lamb-lovers.
I mean, maybe if I had been raised in a mountain village somewhere in northern Greece I would have consumed more lamb overall. But eating lamb is generally very fattening and very expensive in my homeland.
The one time a year when we absolutely justify having lamb is Easter Sunday. Not only do we eat the lamb. Noooo, no, no.
First, we empty its insides and use the guts and inner parts to make a soup called mayiritsa as well as a cylindrical monster of a thing called kokoretsi which is basically guts wrapped around a spit which we then roast. Then we take the intact lamb and basically put it through a spit and roast it as well. Oh and while it’s roasting, we are such pigs that we go and grab bits of the cooked flesh out of the lamb and eat it on the spot – and my God it is cholesterol but the best god damn thing you’ll ever taste. To complete the image of cavemen that I am painting for my people (shame on me), while the lamb is roasting, we put on traditional laika music and dance around the spit.
*This is the point where I apologise to my vegan and vegetarian readers for this graphic description.* It is however a tradition for my people and in all honesty it brings families and friends together. So there you go, we’re definitely not big lamb eaters but the one time of year that we do it, we go all out.
Meat in general isn’t as popular as people may think.
Yeah, look, we do love our meat. We have plenty of dishes that we consume on a weekly basis whose focal ingredient is chicken, beef or pork. I mean souvlaki is our national trademark dish for God’s sake.
IN Greece (I’m not talking about Greek-American or Greek-Australian habits) I would say that the main types of meat that we consume are chicken and pork. This is coming purely from an empirical point of view and from the accumulation of stuff that I’ve been fed since I can remember myself. We don’t consume beef all that much in a traditional context, however obviously due to the influence of westernised foods we consume beef a lot more nowadays (see burgers, or as we would say it in Greek, “bergers”).
That being said, Greek cuisine boasts countless non-meat-based dishes that sadly many people have never heard about. And we don’t use labels such as “vegan” about these dishes, because for most people they simply… are.
Most Greek peoples’ grandparents didn’t consume a lot of meat. Most people of two generations ago experienced a world war, then a civil war that tore the country apart, and then decades of ongoing but thankfully decreasing social and political instability until we reached the 70s or so. My grandparents’ family simply couldn’t afford to have a lot of meat. But thanks to the use of locally-sourced natural ingredients, wonderful plant-based dishes were honoured and evolved, such as fakes (fa-kes, lentil soup), revithia (re-vee-thi-a, chickpea soup), spanakorizo (spinach risotto), mpriam (mpree-am, roasted veggies in the oven) and many, many, many more.
So when people claim that we eat meat a lot I say that when I was growing up we always consumed plant-based meals at least 3 times a week. This pattern also has religious roots to it as Wednesdays and Fridays are meant to be “lent days” under Greek Orthodox Faith.
Speaking of faith, most Greeks believe that nothing is better than fresh seafood.
If I were to write all the seafood dishes, types of fish and types of other seafood that we consume I’d be here until tomorrow. I would start by writing down universally beloved dishes and then break it down island-by-island, listing all the local delicacies.
Countless are the times when I remember my family organising a gathering at a seaside tavern where we would go for psaraki (this means little fish, but really it’s just a loving way to say that you’re going to eat seafood).
Greeks have this thing where they love going to tavernes (ta-ve-rnes) by the sea and spending hours there eating seafood mezethes (me-ze-thes, tapas). Doing this sort of thing is one of the most quintessentially Greek things that I can think of. And without it we are nothing. I’m being dramatic. However, being close to the sea and enjoying its “fruits” doesn’t only provide food for a Greek’s stomach but also for their soul.
One thing that I find funny is that when you explain to a Greek the concept of vegetarian or vegan, it won’t click that seafood isn’t involved in these diets. It’s almost as if we can’t imagine life without it.
What are our favourite vegetables?
We use tomatoes a lot.
Onions of course, as they are the basis of many meals.
Eggplants. Eggplant-based dishes deserve a post on their own and they shall have it.
Many types of beans and legumes
Pumpkin, less so
… And many more. But these are the ones that come to mind.
We adore lemons.
Few things beat a steak on the barbecue smothered in freshly-squeezed lemon juice. Or char-grilled fish served with an olive oil, oregano and lemon sauce.
Try putting lemon on your meat next time you fry it, put it in the oven or grill it. My boyfriend is very grateful I initiated him to this ritual and so will you be.
This is my opportunity to rant about how expensive lemons are in Australia.. it’s heartbreaking, scandalous and absurd. Something like $1.90 per lemon. Per lemon!
Olive oil, olive oil, olive oil.
What are the three secrets of French cuisine? Well, of course, butter, butter and butter. We have a version of that for Greek diet but our three secrets are “olive oil, olive oil, olive oil”. Let me tell you how you can tell a Greek house from any other ethnic house anywhere around the world: chances are somewhere in the garden there’s a lemon tree and an olive tree.
We use it everywhere, for everything. My father, being the cook of the family, almost never uses other types of oil for his cooking. I mean ancient Greek wrestlers liked it so much that they covered themselves in olive oil and a thin layer of sand and fought away in an ancient-Olympic sport.
It’s been proven that this god-sent rich liquid has numerous health benefits. It should be pointed out that it predominately consists of monounsaturated fatty acids (the good kind) that are overall better for consumption as opposed to oils based on saturated and other fats.
Olive oil is the basis of Mediterranean diets. And countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and Greece are its champions. Even regions of Western U.S.A. (California), of Argentina and of Australia (I’m thinking South Australia) that exhibit a Mediterranean climate, produce very good quality olive oil. And they’re lucky.
Eating dinner as a family isn’t as big of a tradition as it is in other western countries.
When my family and I spent a year living in the U.S. I found out that it’s a big deal for families to gather around the kitchen table and eat dinner as a family, while chatting about what they learned at school or work. It’s a core habit to keeping families united.
But in Greece this is more or less obsolete. Most people have their dinner around 8 or 9pm. Traditionally, the big family meal of the day has been lunch, not dinner, and realistically, given most parents work long hours, eating as a family isn’t an obligation during weeknights.
Weekend family lunches are a big deal though. And it’s not just the close family that gathers. It’s usually some of the extended family that comes along and you alternate between relatives’ house as to who will host everyone.
“Housewives” take it personally to create magnificent meals and it’s a dishonour to accept outside help from your guests.
This is so not a thing in Australia. Here, if you invite people over for a big feast or trapezi as we say in Greek, it’s perfectly normal for everyone to bring a dish and then you all share everyone’s goods.
In Greek culture -and I admit that this is lame- it’s often a dishonour for hosts to accept outside help. Traditionally speaking, most housewives (I hate this word but it’s still a thing in Greece) and members of a family try to outdo each other by creating the best meals and by slaving away in the kitchen for a long, long time. This is for the sake of appearances. But it also has to do with showing your guests how much you honour them. It’s got to do with the Greek value of philoxenia (phi-lo-xe-nee-a).
A lot of the above stems from my own personal experiences. What are some of the confessions you have to make about your culture’s eating habits? For any Greeks out there, I’d love to hear what you think on the above!
Πάντως το σίγουρο είναι ότι σαν Έλληνες ευτυχώς ξέρουμε να τρώμε καλά. The only thing that’s for sure is that as Greeks, we definitely know how to eat well.