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The traditional Greek food you need to try when you visit Greece

Dishes you must try while in Greece

Yamas in Walla Walla.
Mark Stock / The Manual

Traditional Greek food is one of the great Mediterranean cuisines. Working with ingredients ranging from pita bread and lamb to incredible olive oil and unique cheeses, the Grecian table is a delectable one. Like Chinese food culture or Italian cuisine, Greek food is an entire world that is very much worth exploring, fork in hand.

Most eaters have dined at a Greek Restaurant (Yamas in Walla Walla wine country is one of our favorites) or made a Greek dish like dolmas from the supermarket. That’s great, but don’t stop there. In fact, doing so would be a discredit to one of the torch-bearers of fine food.

Greek cuisine meanders every which way, built around colorful dishes that are great anytime but have even more appeal as we enter the al fresco dining season. From giouvetsi to souvlaki, these are the traditional Greek food items you need to try, whether you’re lucky enough to get to the Mediterranean nation or just your nearest restaurant.

Dolmas

A plate of homemade dolmas at a Galileat dinner in Maghar, Israel.
Andrew Davey/The Manual / The Manual

Iconic, to say the least, dolmas, or dolmades, come from the Mediterranean and have since become popular beyond Greece in places like Turkey and Armenia. Traditionally, they’re grape leaf-wrapped snacks filled with rice and a host of herbs. Those herbs often include some semblance of coriander, dill, and mint. Dolmas are enjoyed with olive oil and are all the better with a bracing white wine from Greece like Assyrtiko.

Giouvetsi

Giouvetsi.
Wiki Commons / Wiki Commons

While you may not have heard of this dish, it’s quite popular in Greece. Giouvetsi is a Grecian pasta of sorts, built around a protein like beef, chicken, or lamb, orzo or some other form of starch. Spices generally include allspice, cinnamon, and cloves, and the end result is a deeply comforting dish with a lively spice profile. We love it with a good medium-bodied red wine. Don’t be fooled by the somewhat pedestrian look of the dish, as the flavor will take you straight to Greece.

Gyros

Gyros.
Flickr/jeffreyw / Flickr

Another classic Greek dish, gyros, involves pillowy pita bread, sliced meat, and accoutrements like tomato, olives, onions, and tzatziki. The meat is legendary, cut vertically as it cooks on an upright spit and typically pork but sometimes chicken. A sibling of Turkish doner kebab and shawarma from the Arab world, gyros serve as great meals and in many places on the map serve as the perfect nightcap dish.

Keftedakia

Meatballs on spinach
Saad Qamar / Shutterstock

Otherwise known as Greek meatballs, Keftedakia are pan-fried and often treated to coriander, garlic, mint, and parsley. The meat varies, often some combination of beef, lamb, or pork and the bite-sized meatballs are often served as an appetizer with feta cheese and tzatziki. They’re also great mixed into a fresh salad or accompanied by pasta.

Moussaka

Moussaka.
Flickr/a_marga / Flickr

Considered the national dish of Greece, Moussaka is a lot like lasagna, made with eggplant or potato and ground meat like beef or lamb. The contemporary Greek version is deemed to have been developed a little over a century ago. It’s a layered dish, topped with bechamel and dashed with spices such as allspice and black pepper. But that’s just the template, as some version include additional veggies like mushrooms and zucchini. Some even stuff the eggplant itself with all the ingredients.

Paidakia

grilled lamb chops with thyme
Brent Hofacker / Adobe

Greek lamb chops and Paidakia make for great dinner theater as the presentation tends to be exquisite. The bone-in meat is usually grilled and hit with lemon juice, oil, thyme, oregano, and more. This can be a special occasion dish, as lamb often is in Greece, and goes great with an earthy red wine. Try it with gigandes (Greek beans), fries, or a fresh salad with feta and tomatoes.

Saganaki

Saganaki.
Flickr/Arnold Gatilao / Flickr

Arguably the most comforting dish in all Greek cuisine, saganaki is essentially an appetizer of caramelized and gooey fried cheese. The cheese makeup depends on the region of Greece (you can use something like sheep’s milk feta) and it’s fried in a small pan. Once bubbling, saganaki is drizzled with lemon juice and pepper and munched on with bread. Again, go with a nice local white wine if you’re dining in Greece and enjoying the above.

Souvlaki

Souvlaki.
Wiki Commons / Wiki Commons

Souvlaki is like Greek shish-kabobs, a skewered collection of meats and vegetables. Greeks enjoy the contents straight off the stick while hot. The style stems from ancient cooking methods involving skewers and spits and now finds itself in fast food chains and takeout menus in Greece. Some renditions find their way in to restaurants as well. The skewered contents can be eaten as is or wrapped up in a pita with tomatoes and veggies.

Now, get packing for Greece and look forward to some world-class dining.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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