Greek dinner for beginners

According to recent research 75% of Greeks are overweight. This places Greece at the top of the list of European countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy with overweighted people. I assume it cannot be because of the Mediterranean diet.

This week a French doctors organisation came to the the conclusion that the monks living on Mount Athos might be the healthiest group of people living in Europe. The monks in their centuries old monasteries live to be very old because they have almost no heart or lung disease. What is their secret? The Mediterranean diet. Most of them eat according to a tradition that is almost as old as their monasteries. They regularly fast, they don’t eat too much meat and all vegetables, fruit, wine and olive oil mostly come from their own gardens.

Elsewhere in Greece modern life has struck and modern life also means fastfood.

I think that whenever you investigate in which parts of Greece they still eat healthy food, Lesvos will be somewhere at the top of the list. There is still only a small number of fastfood places on the island, just as there are still just a few big supermarkets. In almost all restaurants you can have traditional food and many restaurants use vegetables from their own garden. In Lesvorian homes it is mostly grandmother’s dishes that appear on the table.

When you come for a holiday here and you want to get to know Greek life, you should also learn how to eat Greek. By that I mean the Mediterranean diet, which is rich with vegetables, pulses and olive oil. To have dinner in Greece means a social occasion: the more people join the dinner table the better.

Although there is always a list of starters on Greek menus, it doesn’t mean they’ll appear on the table first. Many tourists feel cheated when everything they ordered comes to the table in a random order. I always say: what’s ready first in the kitchen, will appear first on the table. Nobody orders a dish for themselves, all dishes are to be shared. Having a good Greek dinner means you will have a table full of food.

A salad is a must in a Greek dinner. In the summer that will be the famous choriatiki (Greek salad), which is a salad based on tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onions and feta. It’s often sprinkled with local herbs like parsley, chopped rocket leaves, dried oregano, wild purslane and, not so often on Lesvos, but frequently on Chios, capers. The treat of a tomato salad however is on the bottom of the dish where olive oil and tomato juice mingle and where you dip in with a piece of bread (another compulsory element in a Greek dinner). Greeks are big dippers and many Greek dishes have wonderful juices (my favourite dip dish: chtapodi krassato!).

The Greek kitchen is known for its many vegetable dishes, so don’t be afraid to order a lot: the portions are small and you have to share all of them: fried slices of aubergine (melitzanes tiganitès) or courgette (kolokithakia tiganitès), stuffed aubergine (imam), French beans (fasoles) or vegetable pies (pitas), that can have as main ingredients onions (kremidia), courgettes (kolokithia) or wild vegetables (chorta). Vegetables are also made into little balls (kolokithokeftèdes, melizanokeftèdes), also cheese balls (tirokeftèdes) and potato balls (patatokeftèdes). A Lesvorian speciality is stuffed courgette flower, cooked with a filling of rice (kolokitholoeloeda mè rizi), or fried with a stuffing of cheese (kolokitholoeloeda mè tiri). Then there are wonderful dips like yoghurt with cucumber (tzatziki), cod roe salad (taramosalata) and pureed aubergines (melitzanosalata).

No dinner is complete without cheese: a slice of fried cheese (ladotiri saganaki) or a spicy feta (tirokafteri).

There are several fish dishes that you can order as a starter: Shrimps in a tomato sauce with feta (garides saganaki), the famous fresh salted sardines (sardelles pastès), other salted fish like mackerel or tuna (lakerda pasto) and octopus cooked in wine (chtapodi krassato) or roasted on the fire (chtapodi psyto). I am wondering if the famous squid (kalamari) is a starter. Like the other cuttle-fish (soepia), that you will find regularly as a starter.

After ordering salad, other vegetables, cheeses and fish you have to think what main course you are going to have (but you can also just leave it at ‘starters’). For the fish you rely on what they have that day. Even I don’t always know all the names of the fishes they will tell you. In this case the best you can do is go into the kitchen and choose your fish. There is only one warning: the red mullet is a very expensive fish. The big fishes are grilled on a fire and served with a sauce of olive oil and lemon.

For the meat you can mostly choose between lamb chops (paidakia), lamb from the oven (arni sto fourno), an oven dish with veal and onions (stifado), sausages (loekanika) meat on a spit (souvlaki), meatballs (keftèdes), chicken (kotopoelo) or a beefburger (biftèki). A common misunderstanding is that you may think that a biftèki is a nice steak. I’m sorry to tell you that you rarely find steak on a traditional Greek menu. A biftèki is a kind of dry baked hamburger that has nothing to do with a real juicy steak.

There is mostly no mention on the menu of any dessert. You depend on the goodwill of the restaurant. After you’ve asked for the bill, or had the table cleared, the owner may put a dish with fruit, yoghurt with honey or other sweets on the table. In the high summer season this is mostly watermelon (karpouzi).

You have a Greek dinner with a glass of ouzo (well, one glass may not be enough), or wine (krasi) and lots of water (nerò). Rosé (rosè) is not so well known and beer (birra) is just good to get rid of your thirst.

This is just a selection from the regular summer dishes (in the winter you have different vegetables and fish). So don’t hesitate ordering whatever you fancy (as long as you don’t order red mullet or lobster the bill will be moderate). And don’t feel shy about going into the kitchen when there is no display to show the food they have. Greeks also go into the kitchen to see if the food is fresh.

Having a Greek dinner is not only healthy because of all the different food, it should also be a happy gathering. So don’t copy the modern Greeks that order pizza or hamburger but just order what takes your fancy. This is the best way to learn about Lesvorian food. When you don’t know what to order, just look at the table of your neighbours and point out what you’re interested in. You will see that the Greeks are happy to show you around the Lesvorian dishes.