I work in a Greek restaurant, one of the busiest ones in New York, and what can I say, I love my job – I am a chef. I love to cook, but growing up, I was more inclined towards Asian food until I went to Greece, fell in love with the foods and the people, and shifted my passion and skills to Greek cooking.
If you love food, you cannot miss out on trying Greek food. If you have never been to one, here’s what to expect: a wonderful assault to your senses. The smell would be heavenly, the conversations loud and the laughter full and boisterous. Expect dishes that are rich, yet also healthy. Most likely, you would have moussaka (casserole with vegetables and meat) and baklava, and always, seafood and vegetables.
Selecting the Ingredients
Greece is rich in agriculture. It is surrounded by waters, and fresh fish and other sea creatures are caught fresh every day. Along the coastal area, you can find octopus meat being hanged from terraces. The terrain is also home to many vegetables, and the country is known for its olives. The freshness of the food really affects the taste and appearance. However, for the likes of us who can’t be in Greece, we choose the next best thing to fresh, which is frozen at its freshest.
Greek cooking will always have olive oil. It is used in salads, on breads and in cooking. Greek cheese and wine are also famous around the world. The wines would be usually served in pitchers, and you can ask your server to recommend the best one that goes with your food. We love spices and the favorites are garlic, lemon, dill and oregano.
Greek food features more of the sheep than other cattle, that’s because the terrain is more adaptable to sheep. Lamb chops are more likely to be served than pork.
We also make great breads, and in a Greek restaurant, you are automatically given this when you sit down. Don’t say no because even if you do, that has already been charged to your table.
We like to have the freshest ingredients in our menu. Sometimes, we even offer specials which are not in the menu but something we whipped up just it was the freshest produce from our fishmonger or vegetable guy.
Cheese and wine, however, which are Greek food staples, are preserved items, and we love them. Many Greek cheeses have found its way to international market, but there are many more artisanal and handmade cheeses beautifully made by the locals. Some of these cheeses include feta, which perhaps is the most popular. It is a soft to medium cheese that we use on anything from omelette to desserts. Kefalotyri is a salty cheese which you can fry, grate and serve as appetizer. Kasseri is another staple, which is a yellow table cheese. For dessert, enjoy the sweet manouri.
Cheese is derived from milk, processed through coagulation of the milk protein, casein. The milk is acidified then enzyme rennet is added to result to coagulation. The solids are then removed and pressed into form.
Meanwhile, wine-making in Greece is an industry that dates back 6,500 years. In the 1960’s, the most common Greek wine sold abroad was the retsina, a dry white wine with resin. In the current age, Greek winemakers cultivate and import different grape varieties to make the best wines.
Wine is made from grapes or other fruits that are fermented. If grapes are used, it ferments without the need for sugar, enzymes, acids and water. Yeast breaks down the sugar in the grapes and converts it to ethanol and carbon dioxide.
Fruits, which are also abundant in Greece and used in many Greek dishes, can also be preserved in honey or petimezi. This sweet concoction is a good dessert. However, for preserving fruits and vegetables in bulk as in our restaurant, the need to apply modern techniques. We vacuum seal them by using the best vacuum sealers as foodsaver v2244 or foodsaver 4840 vacuum sealing system. Meanwhile our fruits and vegetables are not damaged by the invading bacteria. And the quality of our food is always the best.
I have noticed that Greek chefs take more time in cooking compared to others. I have watched many and when they cook, it is a display of fluid motions and exuberant praises for the ingredients used. They praise the crab for having beautiful legs. They praise the lettuce for being so green. And they take time to cook. It is an art of its own. I have noticed they cook up to 4-5 hours given the chance. But well, in most restaurants now, it is all rush, and we cheat by using pressure cookers.
We are very flexible with our menu. We like to change the recipes depending on our whim or depending on the freshest items the fish vendor brought in. We give a new meaning to flexibility.
Most commonly, as in any Greek gathering, there would be a casserole with anything and everything in it, again, depending on what is fresh and available. Salads are a staple, too, liberally dribbled with olive oil and cheese, of course.
Here are a few items which are quite commonly used in kitchens worldwide, but when you are in a Greek’s kitchen, there is different meaning to it.
Sugar is as common as it comes, but in Greece, sugar is derived from sugar beets. The sweetness is extra special.
Butter is usually made from sheep or goat’s milk as these are more common that cow’s milk.
Salt, when in Greece, means sea salt. It is way better than table or iodized salt.
If this article has made you want to try Greek food for the first time, here is a list of what you should start with:
- It can be eaten cured or straight from the tree. You can also use dips to go with it.
- Cheeses, especially feta. Or a variation, the cheese pie, called tyropita.
- Filo pastry, like baklava, which is honey, filo and ground nuts.
- Taramasalata or other dips. Taramasalata is fish roe dip, composed of fish roe, potato or bread, with virgin olive oil or a squeeze of lemon. Then there is the tzatziki, which is yoghurt with cucumber and garlic.
- Octopus which can be an appetizer or a stew. Or be surprised and find it in your pasta.
If Greek cooking is an art, then eating Greek food is an art, too. When in Greece, time seems slower than most, and that means you take time to enjoy the food and the company of your friends or family over meal. You can ask for coffee or more wine, talk and laugh some more, and no one will ask you to leave. That pretty much summarizes how we feel about a good meal – it’s not just the food, it’s the experience that go with it.