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Before my trip to Greece, I thought of writing about the street food culture there. I did some research about street food in Athens and thought I could write a comparison between street food in Greece and Asia.
However, when I arrived, I struggled to find street food stalls in the area I was. Instead, I found plenty of fancy restaurants with patios, each with a great view of the Parthenon.
View of Parthenon from Mars Hill (Areopagus Hill)
Although I enjoyed the food and even went on a hunt to find a specific restaurant on two occasions, I struggled to find an interesting angle to approach the topic. Then, I recently came across this Vox video done in partnership with the University of California.
Global adoption of a Mediterranean diet could help reduce global warming by up to 15 percent by 2050.
The video got me thinking about all the food I ate while in Greece:
I also felt inspired to do my part in the fight against climate change and have recently tried to switch to a Mediterranean diet: basically just cutting down on red meat intake (beef and pork), increase seafood in my cooking (more fish or molluscs like mussels and clams) and cooking more vegetarian meals per week than I did before. In the process of switching up my diet, I learned a few things too.
The first thing I noticed is that pita bread, regular bread or potatoes are the preferred options for carbs. Pasta wasn’t a very common, not in Greek dishes anyway, and I only found rice in dolmadakia (grape leaves stuffed with rice).
Dolmadakia (or dolmadaki for singular) is a typical appetizer dish: short-grain rice wrapped in grape leaves, cooked until tender and dipped in tzatziki.
For quick bites like a gyro or a heavy lunch like souvlaki, fries and pita bread are always the accompanying side dish. Often times, you get both.
It was also common for us to have a basket of bread served with our meal, especially if the meal served had some sauce we could dip in. There are also salads that are quite heavy in carbs, like this Cretan rusk salad we ordered after seeing the table next to us having fun breaking up the rusk.
On to fibre! At restaurants, often times when we ordered the main course, it did not come with a lot of vegetables on the side, maybe just a bit of sauteed bell peppers or some slices of tomatoes. Whenever we wanted to balance our meal, we would have to order something on the side, whether it’s a salad or some sauteed veggies.
Although this squid had some vegetables in its stuffing, the only green on the side was a few lettuce leaves for presentation
The best thing about Greece is the local fresh fruits and the fact you can easily buy it on the streets! In Athens, there were stalls outside most subway stations or in market areas like Monastiraki or Varvakios. And the fruits were so much juicier and sweeter than in Canada. We took full advantage of this and bought fresh fruits every day: 3 euros for 1kg of grapes and 1-2 peaches, 1 euro for 3 peaches and 2 apples, etc.
Eating figs at the end of a hike in Meteora
The Greeks are big on olive oil and spices like oregano, thyme, rosemary, etc. So why not combine them and have the best of both worlds? This might explain why their salad dressings are so flavourful without being overly sour or sweet.
Infused oil can be found in every olive store in Greece
When it comes to food, my rule of thumb is “the simpler, the better” and just by looking at their salad dressings, I can tell the Greeks agree with me on that. For example, all the dressing of the Greek salad comes from the juice of the tomatoes, the olive oil and the spices. I also love that they kept the cucumber and tomatoes chunky for that crunchy texture to the salad; you can taste each ingredient in the salad!
For other salads, I often find that it’s a simple combination of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, balsamic reduction or similar vinegar, with some dried spices, barely any sugar or any sweetening ingredient in the dressing. The dressing isn’t the main focus of the salad, it’s only meant to accentuate the flavour of the other ingredients.
Portobello mushroom salad (left) and Greek salad (right)
What took me by surprise the most was the fact that they often served cheese in blocks: feta cheese isn’t crumbled and sprinkled on top of the Greek salad just to add some flavour, it’s a whole block of cheese sitting on top of the veggies, drenched in olive oil and spices. I thought it was just an added ingredient for presentation but it’s actually the main focus of the dish, the protein that fills you up.
Others that also come as a block and often served as a dish by themselves are hard cheese like halloumi or kefalotyri, simply grilled and served on a slice of toasted pita bread, maybe with some tzatziki on the side.
Parmesan, halloumi and feta (from left to right), all in big chunks
The most important thing I learned and brought back with me from Greece is how to incorporate more Greek yogurt in my diet. I don’t drink a lot of milk or eat yogurt that often so it’s just good to eat more varied types of dairy other than cheese. For savoury dishes, I would try to come up with more ways to eat tzatziki, like using it as a dip for grilled and fried veggies or as a substitute for mayo in sandwiches and wraps.
Greek-style fried zucchini with tzatziki (left); yogurt, apple chunks and sunflower seeds (right)
A few times, I had yogurt with honey, fruits and nuts for a snack at cafes in Greece and I found it such a healthy and filling that I started making my own at home. I tend to have the bad habit of skipping breakfast because I don’t have time in the morning so this is a good way to put together a snack for later at the office. It can even be prepared the night before.
Did you know? This is what fresh pistachio looks like. The hard shell we’re so used to seeing is inside of the soft green/pink peel.
Nuts & spices, cheese and olive shops in Varvakios Central Market
I would highly recommend visiting a fish taverna while you’re in Greece. My friend and I wandered for 30 minutes in Piraeus to find a fish taverna called Zachos Kaminia. We arrived at the taverna around 6PM which is much too early for dinner in Greece so the place was quiet and empty. I don’t think they are used to tourists finding the way to their restaurant because as soon as we walked in, we were greeted like close friends they haven’t seen in a long time. The owners even invited us to the kitchen, opened up their freezer and let us pick and choose which fish we wanted.
Sitting under wine barrels at Zachos Kaminia
We ordered a big grilled fish, calamari and a Greek salad and that was more than enough to feed 2 people. The owners even took pictures with us when they brought out the big fish on a platter but we were so hungry we forgot to also take a photo with our devices 😦 As we left, I wrote down my email and attempted to explain to them that they could send me the photo but unfortunately, I don’t think they understood.
How things work at a fish taverna: choose a fish and they will grill it. My dinner at Mama Thira Tavern in Fira. There is also Taverna Giorgaros near Akrotiri Lighthouse which has a great view! Unfortunately, we arrived too early for lunch and they weren’t open yet.
Calamari and mussels
Whether the Greeks follow the food pyramid above, I’m not sure but I think if they do, it might be more for financial reasons than for health reasons. In all honesty, I find that red meat is quite common in Greek cuisine: souvlaki, gyros, moussaka, giouvarlakia, etc. And because I wanted to try as many Greek dishes as I could while I was visiting, I probably ate more meat than I should have.
Something else I noticed about their cuisine and culture which I find very similar to Morocco, Vietnam or the Philippines is the fact that people like to buy fresh ingredients in markets as opposed to buying frozen food in the supermarket. I think this preference comes from the fact that they benefit from great climate and fresh ingredients all around.
Fish and meat vendors in Varvakios Central Market in Athens
I would say switching to a Mediterranean diet is relatively easy compared to going completely vegan in one go. You’re not actually eliminating any particular food from your diet, you’re just changing the portions of what you eat and that in itself can already make a difference.
“If everyone were to move toward it, it’s the equivalent of taking about a billion or more cars of pollution out of the planet every year”
However, I did have some challenges when I first made the switch. For one, cooking molluscs is quite time-consuming and not as easy to whip up after coming home from work as cooking meat, especially if you’re buying fresh molluscs that will need to be cleaned properly. The second thing I found is that I would go hungry quicker when I only have a vegetarian meal. So here are a few things that I did to make the change easier:
- Buy frozen molluscs. I would recommend buying frozen shrimps too. The difference between frozen vs. fresh molluscs or crustaceans might not be as noticeable as frozen vs. fresh fish. Of course, it’s not as good as fresh but since I only do grocery shopping once a week, that’s how I make it work.
- Buy and cook fresh shellfish on weekends when I have more time to prepare them. Cleaning and scraping mussels, for example, does take time so don’t force yourself to do it on weeknights and aim to have dinner ready by 8PM.
- I do most of my grocery on a weekday so I would always have fresh fish for dinner on that day. I don’t like buying frozen fish because I find that they are too flaky for pan-frying and the taste isn’t as nice. At the same time, I don’t like freezing fresh fish so if I have some fresh ones on hand, I will cook it right away. A salmon or trout fillet is also much easier to clean than mussels, all you have to do is scrape off the scales or just get rid of the skin. I’m also quite lucky that my local grocery store sometimes sells fish fillets already marinated, all I have to do is pan-fry or bake it.
- Add more protein to my vegetarian dishes like halloumi cheese, chickpeas, beans and lentils. This way, I don’t get hungry as fast.
- Prepare snacks. If I know the portion I prepared for my lunch is too small or if I was in a hurry and didn’t have time to eat breakfast, I would prepare some Greek yogurt, honey, chopped fruits and nuts in a mason jar to bring to work. Or if there’s no time, some fresh fruits would be more than enough to keep my stomach from growling.
At first, this change in diet (although not drastic) was time-consuming and I was quite tempted to revert back to my old habits because it’s convenient: buying meat and just throwing it in the freezer is so much easier than planning meals and snacks multiple days ahead. But by making changes in small increments, I’ve slowly adapted to a new schedule and routine. I also love that this has become a way for me to step out of my cooking comfort-zone: try recipes using ingredients I normally don’t cook with.