Greece is a meeting place between East and West, its cuisine mixing classical Mediterranean cooking with "oriental" influences from the Middle East. Greek food remains true to its roots, like ancient philosopher Epicurus' dictum to "live well and enjoy the simple things in life."
Greece is a land of vibrant cuisine. It is food that is neither spicy nor bland, but rich in the flavors of the Mediterranean. It is comfort food in the truest sense of the word. There is no arrogance or pretension associated with Greek gastronomy. Simply history and tradition.
Greek specialties have arisen from the bounty of foods that grow on the sun-kissed land, especially olives, lemons, nuts, tomatoes, and grapes.
Greek olives, of which there are many varieties, adorn salads, meat and fish dishes, and even hearty breads. Olive oil, of course, is the primary fat used in Greek cooking. Ripe lemons are used to add tang to both sweet and savory delights. Pine nuts are used particularly with pilafs, appetizers, and meats. Almonds and walnuts are used generously in desserts. Fresh tomatoes are an important part of meat and fish preparations, often used along with spinach and eggplant. Tomatoes also make perfect salads, served simply with olive oil and traditional aged red-wine vinegar. Grapes are not only used in cooking and for wine, but grape leaves are used to wrap a variety of fillings for unique appetizers.
Lamb is the principal meat in Greek cooking. It can be used ground in casserole-type dishes such as the classic Moussaka, a lamb and eggplant dish. Or cut into pieces, marinated in olive oil and lemon juice, and grilled to perfection. Fresh oregano is commonly used with skewered lamb. Rosemary is traditional with leg of lamb, which is served with avgolemono sauce made with eggs and lemon.
Other common Greek herbs are basil, parsley, mint, and dill. Garlic and onions are, of course, an integral part of Greek seasoning.
A generous harvest of fresh fish is available to most all Greek natives; no spot on Greek land is any further than 85 miles from the Mediterranean Sea! Fish are traditionally cooked whole, with the heat and tail still attached. They are often seasoned with herbs, and marinated in olive oil and lemon juice. Fish are grilled over hot fires, or baked. Shrimp, octopus, and squid are also popular.
As in other European countries, legumes are commonly used in Greek menus. Chick peas, or garbanzo beans, are probably the most common. These are often cooked, then pureed to a paste-like consistency—seasoned with garlic and sometimes lemon juice and herbs—to create first course salads. The purees are also served as spreads along with hearty breads.
Cheese is an important part of Greek cuisine. Feta cheese, made from goat's milk, is white, crumbly, and very pungent. It is used on salads, meat dishes, spread on bread, or even wrapped in grape leaves and grilled. Kefalotiri is another popular variety that is harder; it is grated and used like Parmesan.
Yogurt is important to Greek cooking. This tangy white substance adds life to desserts, sauces and soups. For some recipes like dips and spreads, the yogurt is first separated from the whey to create a thicker yogurt "cheese".
Some pasta is used in Greek cooking, particularly orzo, which has a distinct rice-grain shape. It is commonly seasoned with dill, or prepared like a pilaf with onions and nuts. Thin pastry sheets, called filo or phyllo sheets, are used for appetizers and desserts such as the distinctive nut and pastry-layered baklava.
Desserts are an important part of the Greek meal. Cakes made with yogurt, and pastries made with layers of filo dough are popular. Typically these are sweetened by a honey syrup that is poured over the prepared desserts. Custards are common, sometimes sweetened with lemon or orange. Ouzo, a strong, clear liqueur, is often used for its anise flavor. Besides nuts, apricots and pears are prevalent in desserts. Melomacarona, Finikia, and Diples are nut-rich cookies dipped in honey syrup. The Greeks love their sweets.