Food and culture – Eating Greek style
A country’s culture is embodied in its food and how the people eat. Nowhere was that more evident than on my recent trip to Greece.
When my friend Mary and I planned our trip, we factored in plenty of time between the major attractions to stop at any random spot if we saw something unexpected. What we didn’t know was that relaxing over a cup of coffee or a meal – sometimes for hours – is quintessentially Greek, and those activities would fill much of our open time.
We were encouraged in this by our driver, a Greek who owned a construction company prior to the economic crisis and who has driven a taxi since. We felt incredibly lucky to have teamed up with this amiable and knowledgeable traveling companion who signed on to drive and translate but also served as our guide into Greek history, the economy, customs, and food.
As Americans, we tend to bolt food even in a good restaurant as the wait staff work to turn the table and we rush on to the next thing. In the Greek style, we ate fresh food slowly, savoring conversation and companionship as much as the food.
Two food favorites rose to the top during this trip: souvlaki and a classic country salad called a “Mani Plate.”
On our first full day in Athens, after we toured the Parthenon, our guide led us to a small restaurant in the Plaka and introduced us to souvlaki. Souvlaki is similar to a gyro – meat, tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki sauce wrapped up in pita bread. Often it comes with fries.
Already inexpensive at about two Euros, souvlaki is even less expensive if you take it ‘to go.’ We found the price to be about the same whether in Athens or the countryside. Souvlaki is what Greeks eat, and I can see why. A complete delicious, inexpensive meal. Can’t go wrong with that.
Our need to use ‘the facilities’ led us to our next food discovery. No, you can’t simply stop at a gas station for a toilet. In Greece, the gas stations sell gas and that’s it. Isn’t that a concept?
Since it was time for an afternoon coffee break anyway, we found a restaurant to serve our needs. While there, our driver suggested we try tsipouro, an alcoholic beverage better imbibed with food in your stomach. He recommended the Mani Plate (named for the Mani Peninsula on which the town was located). We were already disposed to take his recommendations, and this was another good one.
The Mani Plate consisted of fresh tomatoes and cucumber slices, cheese, meat, and olives. With a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, pepper, and oregano, it was magnificent.
In the same family as ouzo, tsipouro is a drink associated with hospitality and good company. A drink to linger over. So we did. For a couple of hours. Talking, nibbling at the salad, glowing as the tsipouro kicked in, absorbing Greek culture.
For us, this mid-afternoon repast was enough for the day. Greeks would eat again late in the evening, but late nights were a part of Greek culture that passed us by.
I haven’t made souvlaki since returning to the States, though I have the recipe on a refrigerator magnet. The Mani Plate, on the other hand, is a regular lunch treat, especially now that tomatoes and cucumbers are fresh from our garden. Sadly, the tsipouro I brought back from Greece is long gone.
The Greek culture was at its finest with souvlaki or the Mani Plate, a glass of tsipouro, and the long, relaxed conversations that accompanied every Greek meal and every cup of coffee.
What’s your favorite way to immerse in a country’s culture when you travel? Drop a note and share your favorite discoveries.