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The Top Flavors Of Greece

Updated on December 31, 2009

"When a man's stomach is full it makes no difference whether he is rich or poor."

Since the Greek playwright Euripides wrote those words thousands of years ago, hospitality and an appreciation for good food have been part of Greek life. The ancient Greeks applied the same rigorous standards to their food as they did to their art, language and culture. They stocked their kitchens well and valued culinary creativity. Salt, vinegar, olive oil, honey, herbs and spices were used by the ancient Greeks to preserve their food. Those same ingredients flavor Greek cooking today. 

Greek cooking is simpler than that of some of its Mediterranean neighbors, and sauces are used sparingly. Since nowhere in Greece are you far from the sea, squid and octopus (served stewed or grilled) and whole fish (baked, grilled or fried) are as central to the Greek table as the sunny climate's fresh green vegetables and legumes and seasonal fruits. Lamb is preferred to other red meats. Goats and sheep provide milk for the country's cheese.

Kaseri, similar to cheddar in texture and flavor, and Kefalotiri, a hard cheese much like Parmesan, are popular. But, feta is by far Greece's most widely known cheese. Its slightly sour flavor and saltiness adds pungency to many Greek dishes, including traditional Greek salads.

Yogurt adds a tangy, slightly sour taste to many Greek entrees and often serves as an accompaniment to spicy dishes. It is the base for tsatsiki, a cucumber dip used on the meze, or appetizer table.

Olives are also popular on the appetizer table, and throughout Greek cuisine. Greece produces many kinds, including the voluptuous, briny kalamata. Olive oil is preferred to butter for cooked dishes and salads.

Wheat, grown in Thessaly and other areas, is the most popular grain. It is used to make couscous and bread, which appears on the table at every meal. Wheat is also essential to the phyllo dough used in so many Greek pastries including baklava, a layered, buttery mixture of nuts and spices topped with a honey syrup.   
 
Mint, which often adds a subtle kick to tsatsiki, is widely used as a seasoning in Greek cooking. Oregano, allspice, nutmeg, cloves and fennel also play a part in spicing up Greek cuisine, particularly in the south.

On the meze beside the olives and the tsatsiki often sits taramasalata, a velvety dip of pale orange carp roe, lemon juice, milk-soaked breadcrumbs, olive oil and seasonings. Greek salads range from a simple feta, fresh tomatoes and olive oil to the more elaborate horiatiki salata, which combines tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, feta and greens, and a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, fresh herbs and black pepper. Lemons bring pungency to Greek appetizers (stuffed grape leaves or dolmas), soups (avgolemono) and main dishes (kebabs). In fact, they are the key ingredient in the popular soupa avgolemono, a simple soup of lemon juice, eggs and rice.

Spanakopita, a spinach pie served as an appetizer or main course, offers a mixture of freshly cooked spinach and onions, feta cheese, fresh parsley and dill or mint between flaky sheets of phyllo. Greeks love layers: moussaka, another traditional dish, features strata of eggplant and ground lamb or beef. This dish is topped with a bechamel sauce or cheese; variations on the ingredients include tomatoes and artichokes. Pastitsio, a popular meat and macaroni casserole also with bechamel, resembles lasagna.

On name days and festivals, Greeks often prepare the traditional souvlakia, skewers of lamb grilled and served over a bed of fresh greens, parsley and olives. Baklava or other sweets also made with phyllo follow the main dish. Thick black Greek coffee, made out of the long-handled briki; aniseed-flavored ouzo (a brandy); or retsina (wine flavored with pine resin) concludes the meal.

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