Food and culture – Eating Greek style

By Carol / August 22, 2017 /

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.

Greek meals are occasions for wide-ranging discussions. And good 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?

The Mani Plate is a classic ‘country salad’ also called xoriatiki.

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.

One hotel offered honey-flavored tsipouro as a welcome gift. Reason enough to relax with a bit of cheese and lots of conversation.

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.

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  1. Merril Smith on August 22, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    I think lingering over meals is common in many countries–though unfortunately not here in the U.S. I think that’s one reason why I like to go sit and have wine or coffee with my husband in places where we can just sit and linger (especially outside in good weather).
    It sounds like you were very fortunate in having such a wonderful driver/guide!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 23, 2017 at 8:57 am

      I agree, Merril. We’ve enjoyed lingering over meals in many countries outside the U.S. We had some German friends visit us in Iowa and they were perplexed by how often restaurant wait staff pushed us to finish our meal and move on, even after we’d told them we’d be taking our time.

      Our driver/guide was an unbelievable bonus. I don’t know how we’d duplicate him on future trips, but we’d like to try.

  2. Nan Johnson on August 23, 2017 at 7:20 am

    Your trip sounds delightful, Carol. Lingering over good food and good conversation is a perfect way to take a break from sightseeing. Our most recent international trip was to Norway to visit our son. As you can imagine, seeing where he lives, shops, and attends class, etc., was as important to me as any tourist spot – although I’ll admit his local expertise was a nice bonus; he was a great tour guide.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 23, 2017 at 9:02 am

      We had a similar experience when we went to visit our son when he studied abroad in Austria. It was so rewarding to us to see him enjoy his international experience. That was in the days before Internet and Skype, so we’d only been able to imagine the places he told us about in letters. Seeing him in his environment and enjoying a beer at a local pub was excellent. Even better that his language skills and comfort in the situation caused the Austrian waiter to mistake him for local. Priceless.

  3. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on August 23, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    Years ago, shortly after we were married, my husband and I spent six months in Brussels to perfect our French before going to the Belgian Congo to work on Bible translation. At a restaurant I saw an item called Filet Americain. Not being very adventurous at the time, I thought this might be the closest to a steak or hamburger that I would get. It turned out to be a plate of raw ground beef on a piece of rye bread, with an egg yolk on top! I was horrified at the thought of eating raw meat and could not eat it. Later, in Congo, I learned to eat caterpillars and even had monkey meat once, but all of it was well cooked, even charred. Boiled peanuts and palm oil nuts became favorites, but I never quite got used to eating the hot pepper, and they flavored their food with it all the time.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 23, 2017 at 5:37 pm

      That’s a funny story, Elfrieda. I wonder why they tagged it Filet Americain? In the U.S., you’d see that dish labeled Steak Tartare and served only in fancy (and expensive) restaurants. I’m glad I haven’t had to face caterpillars, but your story shows it’s all relative and we can get used to almost anything.

      My first time in Italy, my husband and I stopped in a little restaurant making pizza in wood-fired, open-hearth ovens. It was our goal to eat pizza in every country we visited, so this was a great find. However we could not speak Italian. So when we saw peperoni pizza, we thought we’d hit the jackpot. Just like home. We thought. We learned when our pizza arrived that peperoni means pepper. Fortunately, it was delicious.

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