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FIRST TIME EATING...   GREEK FOOD

 

THE FOOD VIRGIN'S FIRST TIME

My first time eating Greek food was when I was a kid.  This is because I was lucky enough to grow up in an area with a sizable Greek population.  I say ‘lucky’ because Greek food is doubly good- both good tasting, and good for you.  Simple, fresh ingredients that have been used since the time of Zeus: Honey, fresh pressed olive oil, tomatoes, feta cheese, fish… many of these are still used the same way they have been for more than 2000 years, because honestly, why try to improve on perfection?

 

 

Tell us about your first time eating Greek

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

If you’re going to a Greek restaurant, when you enter, expect a warm welcome, even if you’ve never been there before.  Greek culture is very open and relaxed and you’ll likely immediately feel this after talking to the host (who often might be the owner, or family member of the owner).  At Mykonos, in London, Ontario, my favorite place to go, Heidi Vamvalis, one of the co-owners knows me since I was a kid, so I always get one of her famous hugs, but elsewhere I’ve also found a friendly and inviting welcome as well.  Many Greek restaurants also lend themselves to a party atmosphere, with the lively traditional music that they play; in some places, they might even have Greek dancers some nights, or encourage the patrons to get up and dance.  “The big thing about getting into Greek food and company is that hospitality is a big thing in Greek culture,” Heidi explains.  “Greeks are very social people.  They love to share their food and company together.”

Décor-wise, don’t be surprised if there is a blue and white theme, often involving images of the Greek Islands, or ancient monuments, like the Parthenon.  Greece is largely known for its islands, such as Mykonos, as well as ancient culture, so it’s only natural that these are popular choices for décor.  Because fish is such a major ingredient in Greek food, you may also see fishing items up on the walls.  Other than this, Greek restaurants won’t typically have anything too alien in America; regular seating, and normal menu layouts.

Now, speaking of the menu, if you’ve never eaten Greek before, the names of everything are going to throw your brain for a loop- spanikopita, melitzanes tighanites, loukoumathes.  They’re pretty much pronounced as you see them, but if you’re still afraid of being tongue-tied, in a lot of Greek restaurants, there are two ways to avoid dealing with them: One, is that some restaurants will invite you to their kitchen or seafood display to see what’s cooking (or what’s hoping not to be cooked) and pick out what you’d like.  The other way is to rely on the menu descriptions which are typically in English.  For the most part, you’ll recognize the ingredients and be able to decide if you might like the dish.

 

WHAT TO ORDER & HOW TO EAT IT

            Eating at a Greek restaurant, as you can probably already tell, is about more than just the food.  The whole dining experience can go on for most of the evening if you want it to, with eating and drinking continuing late into the night.  Heidi explains that this is called, “Taverna-style”.  Start by ordering an assortment of appetizers.  They’re all delicious, but if they’re available, my must-have is tiropita- little feta cheese pastry triangles, or spanakopita, the version with spinach and feta.  My husband loves tarama salata, which is a dip made from puréed fish roe that you eat with regular bread or pita. 

 

This is a little bit too fishy for me, but for caviar lovers, or even caviar beginners, it’s a great choice, good for beginners because the dip is milder than regular caviar by itself.  Greek salad is fantastic- you’ll find simple salad ingredients, like tomatoes, cucumber and onions, plus olives, peppers and feta cheese, all mixed in a light olive oil dressing.  “The Greek salad is sometimes a meal in itself, especially when the ingredients are fresh,” Heidi says.

Being a collection of islands, Greek food has always included a lot of seafood.  As such, some other great starters are deep-fried calamari, and grilled sardines.  If you’re feeling more adventuresome, try saganaki, which is cheese that’s been grilled and may well get lit on fire at your table. 

This is eaten by itself, just by cutting pieces from it, not put on any bread. Any of these are great introductions to eating Greek, so go with what suits your taste.  Also, don’t be afraid to make a meal of just starter- often is Greece, this is what happens: They’ll keep ordering appetizers (called mezedes) all night, along with ouzo, the licorice flavored liqueur, which should be sipped- not knocked back in one!  “Ouzo is really for the mezze or you can have one drink before the meal,” Heidi explains.  “In Greece it’s usually not after the meal.”  Although she does acknowledge that North Americans sometimes have it after the meal. 
 
            If you do want an entrée, the most fun option to try for the first time is souvlaki.  Some assembly may be required, as you can build it into a pita pocket sandwich.  If you’re presented with the meat on a skewer, firstly, hold it with one hand, and use your fork to slide the meat off with the other hand.  Then, pick up a pita pocket, and put some meat, and some lettuce, tomato, onion and tzaziki sauce inside.  Tzaziki is one of the tastiest condiments on the planet; made from yogurt, garlic and sliced cucumber, it is the perfect match for the grilled souvlaki meat.  Sorry, I have no tips for keeping your fingers clean.   If this is sounding like too much work (or mess), try moussaka (pronounced moo-sa-KA).  It is similar to eggplant parmesan, but not so heavy on the tomato sauce or cheese.  It will likely come to you in a hot casserole dish, though it might be served like a serving of lasagna would, on a plate.  If it’s in the dish, feel free to eat it straight from the dish. 
 

Share more tips of your own

 

WHAT TO DRINK

            As mentioned, ouzo is the most famous traditional Greek alcoholic drink.  It tastes like black licorice.  Heidi explains, “A lot of people think that it’s something to have at the end of the meal, but actually, it’s an aperitif.”  And although it’s served in a shot glass, it should be sipped, so don’t knock it back in one!   

To go with most Greek entrees, Heidi Vamvalis recommends drinking wine- red or white, Greek or otherwise.  For the adventuresome, you might also find retsina on some menus; this is wine mixed with pine resin.

 

DESSERT & COFFEE

            There are lots of choices for dessert, but they all come down to one option: Sweet, sweet, or sweet.  This is a cuisine that adds sugar to honey to make its most popular dessert sauce.  The most famous Greek dessert is baklava (pronounced bah-klah-VAH)- crisp, layered pastry with crushed walnuts drizzled with honey-sugar syrup.  It is suspiciously similar to the crisp, layered pastry used to make tiropita and spanikopita, but basically, the sweet version.  The syrup makes it necessary to eat with your fork, as opposed to your fingers.  You could also try kadaifi, which is pastry with crushed walnuts and honey-sugar syrup, or loukoumades, which are essentially Greek donuts.  Instead of feeling like Homer Simpson, though, you can feel like an original Olympian, as this is what would be given to Olympians back in ancient Greek times. 

 

THE LAST WORD- OPA!

The most fun aspect of Greek dining is the tradition of plate smashing.  The trick to successful plate smashing is firstly to make sure that you’re in a restaurant where they don’t mind if their plates get smashed.  Very few places actually allow it these days, probably due to the lawsuits that could arise from bits of broken plate flying up at other diners, and the general costs of replacing plates all the time.  Where I first smashed a plate, you had to actually buy special plates for smashing.  Why smash plates, you ask?  Well in addition to it being a great release, it’s also a sign of exuberant celebration in Greek culture.  Heidi explains that some places will have a bouzouki night, bouzouki being traditional Greek music.  “Bouzouki creates an atmosphere of kefi, which translates as ‘the spirit takes you’.”  As this happens, people get swept up in the moment and everyone’s likely to become more exuberant.  Feel free to shout, “Opa!” as you smash the plate on the floor.  “Opa!” can also be used as a toast instead of, “Cheers!”  Don’t smash your glass.

 

CRITICAL DO’S AND DON’TS

Do

  • Order starters.  These are a classic part of a Greek meal.

  • Shout, “Opa!” enthusiasticaly if you’re having a good time at your table.  Shout it when you’d normally say, “Cheers!”, when saganaki cheese is lit on fire, or at the end of any live music performed (if you like it).

  • Be friendly to the people running the restaurant.

Don’t

  • Turn down any items that the restauranteurs might send to your table with their compliments.  It’s like refusing their hospitality.  Also, however full you might be- eat them!

  • Worry too much about etiquette- if you do what you usually do when dining out, you’ll be fine; there are no weird Greek traditions or rules you need to follow.

  • Smash any plates without explicit agreement from the management of the restaurant.  Most Greek restaurants don’t allow this anymore, so ask first.

 

 

Suggest more DOs and DON'Ts

BASIC GREEK FOOD TERMS

Saganaki:        (sa-ga-NA-kee)  Saganaki is actually the name of the pan used to fry cheese.  A few different types of cheese can be used, and in some places, they’ll flambé the cheese and put out the flames with lemon juice.

Calamari:        (kah-lah-MAH-ree)  Yes, Greek food is where fried calamari comes from, like onion rings except made with squid rings.  Calamari cooked other ways may also be available.

Tarama Salada:(TA-ra-mah sa-LAH-da)  A dip made with fish eggs (caviar) and sometimes potato or bread crumbs.  Dip normal bread of pita bread into it.

Tiropita:          (TI-ro-PEE-ta)  Phyllo pastry stuffed with feta cheese, these are flaky but tasty.

Spanikopita:    (span-i-KO-pee-ta)  Like tiropita but with spinach mixed with the cheese too.

Moussaka:      (moo-sa-KA)  An eggplant and tomato sauce dish, sort of like what the offspring would be from eggplant parmesan and lasagna.

Ouzo:               (OOO-zou)  Greece’s most famous alcohol, ouzo is a licorice-flavored liqueur to be sipped as an aperitif (at the beginning of the meal!).  It can also be mixed with water.

Retsina:          (ret-ZEE-na)  Wine flavored with pine resin.

Souvlaki:         (soo-VLA-ki)  Skewered meat, typically chicken, pork, or lamb, souvlaki has a light flavor of oregano, garlic and other herbs.

Baklava:         (bah-klah-VA)  A very popular dessert, baklava is made with the same flaky phyllo pastry as tiro- and spanikopita.  It’s drizzled with honey-sugar syrup and sprinkled with walnuts.

Loukoumades: (loo-koo-MAH-days)  Greek ‘donuts’.  These are powdered cookie-donut type things.

 

 

Add more Greek food term items to the list

FAMILY-FRIENDLINESS

            Greek food and culture is very family friendly.  You’ll find lots of items you can feed kids that’ll be much healthier than anything you’d find on a typical kids’ menu- and the kids will probably love it!  As I said, I was a kid when I started eating Greek food, and I was one of the pickiest eaters around.  Also, items like souvlaki can be ordered and shared easily because you don’t have to give all the pieces of meat on the skewer to one person- two kids can probably share.  For the most part, you’ll find that with the relaxed atmosphere in Greek restaurants, kids don’t have to feel stifled- in fact, it’s entirely possible that the restauranteurs might bring them some little dessert treats.

RATINGS  

Child-friendly Food (is it easy to find things that American kids will eat):  9/10

Adventure Level (how different is this from standard American food):  5/10

 

 

Rate Greek food yourself!

 

 

To eat where the Food Virgin eats, click here: Mykonos Restaurant

 

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Baklava photo © 2006 Wendy Kaveney- Fotolia

All Content © 2006 Content and Systems Pte. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © 2006 Adelyn Leong of adelynleong.com