Like any modern European capital, Athens offers all sorts of food and revels in all the latest trends, like Japan-Peru fusion or post-molecular cuisine (read about some Michelin starred restaurants here).
However, in this post, we will try to describe the everyday culinary traditions of the Athenians. Their eating habits reflect their origins from each corner of the land, and even further away. We will not deal with the foods of communities that have only recently settled in Greece and whose gastronomy has not significantly mingled yet with the Greek one and has not been widely adopted by Athenians.
Ancient habits die hard
At the beginning, that is in classical times, the food of the Athenians was largely locally produced, unprocessed and seasonally consumed (check out our previous blog entry, Attica – A Blessed Land). Its main ingredients were olive oil, cereals and bread, legumes, fish and wine. Fruits and vegetables were very important but there was less variety than today and not everyone had the possibility to consume fresh vegetables. The use of meat was confined to public feasts and ceremonies, while cheese was a praised luxury. They did not have sugar and used honey instead.
Later the Ottomans brought over their own foods, which were to some extent influenced by the culinary habits of the Greeks and of the other populations that had settled in Anatolia and the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, half or even more of what is considered as Greek cuisine today, is in many regards similar to the gastronomy of today’s Turkey, and to a lesser extent, Lebanon, Egypt, Bulgaria or Serbia. Nonetheless, some cooking techniques may differ, as in the use of spices. Besides, similar dishes can taste very different, because of the peculiarities of the ingredients of certain areas.
Ottoman and Middle Eastern influences on Greek cuisine vary according to each region’s geographical position and the duration of Ottoman rule. The Ionian Islands, Crete, the Cyclades and the Southern Peloponnese have been much less influenced by Ottoman cuisine than Northern Greece.
Athens, a city of refugees
From the end of the 19th century Athens started to expand. In the early twenties, hundreds of thousands of Greek refugees arrived from Anatolia. After World War II, a booming economy and rapid industrialisation attracted people from all over Greece. Such developments brought along a culinary (r)evolution in the city. Yet, some ingredients and dishes of local regional cuisines have been considered unworhty and ignored until lately, as much attention was given to foreign dishes. The French and Italian haute cuisines were often favored in high society, feasts or meals in special occasions.
Regional is cool
This has dramatically changed in the last years, with many local producers making a noble effort to promote their local specialties and many restaurants incorporating dishes from regional cuisines in their menus. Some restaurants are even entirely dedicated to a specific regional cuisine, as is the case of Μani Mani (Southern Pelopponese) or Koundouros (Crete).
The urban food geography has also been shaped accordingly. In specific areas of the city you can find concentrated regional specialties of the communities that have settled there. Palaio Faliro, for instance, is dominated by the cuisine of Istanbul Greeks who have settled there. Hunkiar begendi (veal in tomato sauce with smoked eggplant puree), dolmas (stuffed cabbage or vine leaves), imam (eggplant with vegetables), seker pare (a syruped sweet with almonds), kunefe (a special syruped dough filled with creamy cheese. Slurp!) are some of its signature delicacies.
A bit further, Kallithea/Tzitzifies is home to some Russians/Ukranians and Pontus Greeks that have arrived from the Black Sea. So, in that part of the city you are likely to bump into some great piroski (a fried dumpling, often with sausage), or dine with Strogonoff veal, beet soup and Russian salad.
In Drosia, a suburb up north, Greeks with family roots in Pontos still serve some peynirli remarkably faithful to its origins. It is a boat-shaped bread with all sorts of fillings (cheese and meat, typically) and topped with sheep or goat butter and cooked in the wooden oven. Just delicious!
Piraeus is the port town of Athens that has always been home to many islanders and inhabitants of the Mani region. These people worked in the port or settled in Piraeus because it was the first place they encountered when travelling to the mainland. Also, by living next to the sea, people from the islands felt closer to their places of origin. It is no wonder then that Piraeus is the place where to taste some of the best seafood in town, and other dishes such as froutalia (omelette with sausage), revythada (beans soup), zucchini or tomato fried balls, all dishes coming from the Aegean islands.
If you are meat lovers, the places to mark on the map are suburbs Vrilissia, Stamata, Vari and Kalyvia, just outside Athens. There you can taste succulent T-bone steaks, great bifteki (huge meat ball), kokoretsi and lambchops, along with all sorts of meat cuts of different animals. Once home to many families of cattle breeders, in some cases Vlahoi (that is a mostly nomadic population originally proceeding from a region in today’s Romania), those places are still associated with some consistent meat eating in the minds of the Athenians. Vegetarians, stave off!
Local specialties worth trying
One could argue that regions that shine most in the gastronomical map of Athens are: (1) Crete (2) The Aegean (3) The Peloponnese (4) Epirus (5) Macedonia and Thrace.
The Cretan diet, the quintessential model of Mediterranean diet, is arguably the most appreciated in the last years. Specialised grocery stores selling cheeses like Graviera, Myzithra and Xygalo, apaki cured meat, raki and trademark rusks or biscuits (a strong dry liquor made out of grapes) abound. Also, many restaurants serve arni me stamnagkathi (lamb with a special wild herb), sfakiani pita (a dough filled with cheese and topped with honey), makarunes (pasta) and all sorts of raw Cretan vegetables cooked in many different ways.
Just as the Cretan, also the cuisine from the rest of the Aegean islands is simple and unpretentious, mostly based upon genuine (check out in that respect Beyond Athens’ Greek Food and Nutrition program), local and incredibly tasty ingredients. Fruits, vegetables and honey of the islands gain a special taste thanks to the combination of a dry climate, the soil and the proximity to the sea. Honey from Cythera or Kea, legumes from Sifnos, tomatoes, eggplants and fava beans from Santorini, capers and artichokes from Tinos are some of the die-for specialties. Fish obviously is of uttermost importance, but also meat or dairy products taste absolutely fantastic in flavor, as animals are raised in small family farms in the countryside. Pastry is based on dry fruits and honey.
The gastronomy of the Peloponnese shares some features with the Cretan and Aegean cuisines, because of its similar climate. Οlives and honey are at their best in Messenia, as the cheese and honey of Arcadia. Local specialties include roasted pork, rooster cooked in wine, and hylopites (sort of tagliatelle).
Epirus is renowned in its own right for its trademark pittas, with fyllo dough and all kind of fillings, its creamy and tasty dairy products and meat and tsipouro. Pastry is also great and comes close to the Turkish/Middle Eastern, with the use of honey-syrup and nuts.
The northern regions of Macedonia and Thrace bear quite evident the influences of the long lasting Ottoman rule and their proximity to the Balkans. Dishes are somewhat heavier and richer in spices. Vegetables and fish are often marinated and served with top-notch wine or tsipouro. Also pastry is very well executed.
As you may see, Athens grastronomy provides a compendium not only for the different regional cuisines of the country but trascends today’s national boundaries and establish the Greek capital as one of the greatest cities for foodies worldwide. Just try! (you can start with our Gourmet Athens city-break).
Xalkiadakis (Cretan food store). Botsari, 1, Glyfada & Papandreou 68, Xalandri
Peri Lesvou (Lesvos island food store). Athinas 27, Monastiraki
Mastiha Shop(Masticha and Chios island deli and health store).Panepistimiou 6, Athens
EY ZHN (Tinos island food health store). Varnava sq & Melisou 6, Pagkrati
Mandragoras (Greek deli store). Gounari 14, Piraeus
Thymari tou Strefi (Greek deli store). Kallidromiou 51, Athens
Koufopoulos (cheese and other food from Naxos island). Ethnikis Antistasews 18, Xalandri
Restaurants, eateries, pastry shops
Mani Mani (Peloponnese-inspired). Falirou 10, Athens
Koundouros (Cretan). Kyprou 79, Peristeri
Valentina (Pontos, Ukrainiana and Russian – inspired). Lykourgou 235, Kallithea
E.G Taxidevontas (seafood in Piraeus). Platonos 72, Keratsini
Themis (great wood oven baked peynirli). 25th March, 25, Drosia
Konstantinidis (pastry shop). Syggrou 98 (and many more shops)
Mahlebi (Cafe-pastry shop). Gounari 172, Glyfada