I’ll admit, I don’t know much about Greek food or Greek cuisine, so going to Athens was a culinary learning journey in itself, that was going to be exciting! So to prepare ourselves we started watching way too many food vlogs from our favourite food vloggers before arriving.
We only had two days in Athens though, so many of those dishes would have to wait for another time. But what is greek cuisine exactly? And what is specifically Athenian? I did some research online.
Greek cuisine comes from the same family as Italian and Spanish cuisine, it is a Mediterranean style. Because of that, Greek cuisine makes use of a healthy serving of vegetables, olive oils, grains, fish, wines, meats, cheeses, yoghurts, lemons, herbs, nuts, honey and breads. Its cuisine also takes heavily after Ottoman and Anatolian cuisine as the Ottomans ruled over Greece for four centuries.
Compared to many parts of Europe, it is a region blessed with an abundance of tasty produce, and that shows in its cuisine. but perhaps the most iconic flavour of Greek cuisine is olive oil. Most dishes in Greece are bathed in olive oil, a luxury few other culinary traditions and countries will afford you since olive oil is not cheap.
All cuisine is shaped by the climate they are found, and in Greece, in Greece the land is more suitable for the rearing of lambs and sheep explaining why most meats are lamb or mutton based rather than beef. A lot of its cheese is also made from lambs milk rather than cows milk, the most well known cheese being feta. Specific to the coastal cities like Athens is a rich focus on seafood.
Greek food is considered to be hearty and shies away from being overly refined and pretentious, which is perfectly how we like our food. What was left to us but eating? Let’s head out!
Because time was of the essence, we decided to try Athenian food at restaurants serving food at three different price points (rather than go to small stands). None of the dishes here were street food type – no gyros, souvlaki’s but they were certainly fresh and Athenian.
We begin our first restaurant at the Central Municipal Athens Market. This was the wet market I remember from my childhood in Singapore – open stores and shop fronts, meats hanging ready to be butchered, a expert butcher with a cigarette in their mouth, cats eyeing the meats hungrily. It was a wet market through and through, grungy with a certain devil-may-care attitude to cleanliness,
It was getting late by the time we arrived, and most stores had closed, but we managed to find ourself a small taverna that was selling dinner. We sat down, our backs facing a cool butchery with a lambs carcass hanging opposite the glass, the store had nothing by way of decoration, just wooden boards and an open kitchen – very atmospheric of a home cooked meal if you ask me.
We began our meal with a starter of Greek salad and an eggplant dip (Melitzanosalata). A Greek salad is actually really simple, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, olives, throw them on a plate and top the greens with cheese and a healthy dose of olive oil.
The eggplant dip, Melitzanosalata, is made from roasted or charred eggplants mashed with onions, garlic, lemon juice into a chunky consistency which is then eaten with bread or as it is. It was certainly a very refreshing dish.
Then came our mains of grilled local lamb, fried anchovies and grilled octopus. All these dishes were extremely simply made, take the meat put it in the grill or the fryer and then serve it on the plate. Nothing fancy, no special spices of the like. This spoke volumes of the confidence in the freshness of the fish and meat on the part of the restaurant.
It was good fresh seafood and meat, cooked in a very basic, homely style. Nothing fancy, but certainly tasty.
A resturant in a market, while certainly casual is still not a proper tavern or Greek home experience. So we invited ourselves into Taverna Arsenis for our next meal.
A taverna is a homestyle restaurant, serving home cooking at fair prices to locals and tourists alike. Arsenis was highly rated on Trip Advisor, and the owner Arsenis Iseris was certainly capable of making his guests feel at home, he’s probably seen more than enough tourists to know how. Actually when you see how our order was served, you’d know that he sure understands how to put on a show.
We opened our meal this time with both salads and a soup, specifically a fish soup called kakavia. A Kakavia is a fish stew served by the fisherman of the Greek islands, flavoured with olive oil, onions and coloured with saffron.
The starters were followed by the mains of a baked Halloumi cheese, grilled prawns, grilled fish, moussaka and cabbage wrapped meats.
Moussaka is an eggplant or potato-based dish that includes ground meat. This is a dish that originates in the Levant and the Middle East. The Greek version is prepared includes a layer of bechamel on top of the eggplant and meat and is baked before serving.
The taverna food was served with significantly more finesse, but you could still tell that this was home cooked food. This was a place we would go back to. But we decided to try a final level of refinement – restaurant food.
For that we walked into the restaurant of the Acropolis Musuem, to have a fancier lunch facing the Acropolis, as tourist would do. The food here seemed to be modern Greek, prepared with the same ingredients that we had in both the market and the tavern but elevated.
The first was a baked feta wrapped in filo pastry on top of a sweet jam and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
The second was an octopus with chickpea puree, and a sprinkle of olive sauce,
All washed down with a mix of Athenian beer.
It certainly was fancy food.
ON THE MAP (Central Municipal Athens Market, $)
ON THE MAP (Taverna Arsenis, $$)
ON THE MAP (Acropolis Museum, $$$)