(CNN) — Renowned for its nourishing simplicity, Greek cuisine is considered among the finest and healthiest in the world. With an emphasis on baked rather than fried food, most traditional dishes avoid elaborate sauces, preferring the perfume of herb seasonings.
Indeed, one Greek island, Ikaria, has been under the microscope in recent years, as one in three of its 8,500-odd residents are over 90 years old. While there may be other lifestyle components involved, a typical Greek diet appears to be a major factor here.
Taramasalata is made from cured fish roe.
The worst tongue twister on a list of starters, this pungent dip consists of a starchy base of soaked breadcrumbs or potatoes with added lemon juice and olive oil.
One of its crucial ingredients is a peculiarly Greek delicacy — cured fish roe. As the authentic color is a rather off-putting gray-yellow, some cooks, and supermarkets, add pink coloring to make it appear more appetizing.
Gigantes (Φασόλια γίγαντες)
Gigantes is now a mezze standard.
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While dried haricot bean soup (fasolada) fed hungry Greeks during the German occupation in World War II, the dish is now somewhat looked down on.
Surprisingly though, its sister dish, a hearty plate of giant baked beans seasoned with cilantro, has made it to the typical mezze spread. You might also hear the “gigantes” further described as “plaki,” which denotes a dish that’s oven-baked in tomato sauce.
From the humblest taverna to the most sophisticated restaurant, every menu in Greece will offer a choice of “choriatiki” salad, or paesienne.
There may be regional or chef-specific variations on this classic, but the foundations are the same — sliced tomatoes, onions and cucumber, olives, feta cheese plus a dressing of olive oil and oregano. Order a bush-sized one at dinner time for a complete healthy meal.
Kotosoupa preperation begins with boiling a whole chicken.
This nutritious soup is renowned for its curative properties and looks deceptively easy to make.
The cooking process actually involves slowly boiling a whole chicken in a pot with vegetables and bonnet rice and then picking the meat off, discarding the skin and bones. But the fun really begins with the egg and lemon sauce, “avgolemono.”
At this point, you break a couple of yolks into a bowl and slowly pour some of the broth while whisking. Squeeze in some lemon juice and stir the bowl’s liquid carefully back into the pot — it won’t curdle if just simmering.
The result is a rich, silky smooth soup that marries fat, carbs and protein with vitamin C.
Pastry treats for eating on the hoof, these are sold in every Greek bakery.
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Pies (or pitta) are a big deal in Greece. In fact, every bakery in Athens sells an assortment, both sweet and savory, for those pangs of hunger while on the trot. There’s tyropita (cheese pie), spanakopita (spinach pie), zambonopita (ham pie), kotopita (chicken pie), chortopita (pie with mountain greens) and combinations thereof.
Each is encased in puff pastry with two exceptions, tyropita kourou (made with flaky short crust) and, from the Sporades islands, strifti, a fried, spiral-shaped filo cheese pie.
Fava is a Santorini favorite.
Hailed as a superfood by dieticians because of its high protein and negligible fat content, the unpretentious fava, a puree of yellow dried split beans, lies not a million tastebuds away from the English pease pudding. In Greece, it’s more closely associated with the island of Santorini, where it’s prepared with onions, olive oil and lemon juice.
Kids’ favorite: Keftedes meatballs.
These bite-sized meatballs are a children’s perennial party favorite. Keftedes are prepared by mixing pork, veal or lamb mince and finely grated onion with dampened stale bread, scented with fresh mint and bound with egg yolk.
The mixture is left in the fridge to cool and firm up, before being rolled into balls, dusted with flour and fried in olive oil.
Soutzoukakia are meatballs in a cumin-scented sauce.
When Greeks from Turkey’s Aegean coast returned to the country after the Greco-Turkish War, they brought many of their own recipes with them. The ever-popular soutzoukakia, is one of the most noted. Indeed, you may often see the extra description “Smyrneika,” which is from Smyrna, in taverna menus.
Like keftedes, they’re meatballs. However, soutzoukakia are baked in a cumin-scented sauce rather than floured and fried. They’re almost always served with pilau rice, a reminder of their oriental provenance.
Moussaka — just as good the next day.
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By far the best known Greek dish internationally, typifying the country’s cuisine, moussaka is also one of the most elaborate.
Here minced meat, slices of potatoes and eggplant are separately fried before being layered in a baking pan and topped with a béchamel sauce. Next comes a long, slow cooking in the oven. One of moussaka’s plus points, which makes up for its long preparation, is that it tastes as good lukewarm or reheated — perhaps a reason for its popularity.
Moschari kokkinisto (Μοσχάρι κοκκινιστό)
Moschari kokkinisto, or veal casserole in tomato sauce, is the most common stew across Greece. Veal, rather than beef, has traditionally been the country’s meat of choice. This is because of the lack of space for raising large animals in the confines of a walled town or castle.
Pep up the stew with pickling onions, rosemary sprigs plus red wine and you end up with stifado (Στιφάδο). Brought to Greece by the Venetians, it’s an unusually calorific course in a country of light meals.
A lighter version of moussaka.
The only types of pasta that have been fully integrated in Greek cuisine are spaghetti, long macaroni (bucatini) and orzo (risoni).
Orzo is cooked together with meat in oven dishes, while spaghetti is almost exclusively eaten as a bolognese, flavor-enhanced by cinnamon and all spice. Pastitsio is a Greek invention, however. Here a base of boiled long macaroni with cooked minced meat is topped by a cheese sauce and given a quick final bake in the oven.
It may look like moussaka, but the air trapped along the macaroni renders it a fluffier, lighter meal.
All vegetable dishes, of which there are plenty in Greek cuisine, come under the ladera heading, usually as stews: green beans, ladies fingers, eggplants, zucchini, artichokes, the lot.
Exemplary vegan pleasers, ladera used to be the staple food during Lent or on the day before major religious festivals, when the Orthodox faithful are supposed to abstain from meat.
Koulouria originate from Greece’s Jewish community.
You can pick up these rings of baked bread dough covered in sesame seeds from street vendor stands in every Greek city. Originating from Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, it’s essentially a southern version of the Central European pretzel.
While koulouria has served as the comfort food of Greek school children throughout the ages, they face competition from a multitude of manufactured munchies today.
This sweet treat hails from the city of Thessaloniki.
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Thessaloniki’s other great culinary contribution to Greek cuisine, bougatsa consists of filo pastry wrapped around a sweet semolina-based custard. Usually baked as a large pie and then freshly cut in smaller pieces, it’s served with icing sugar and cinnamon powder, zen perfect alongside a cup of coffee.
Greek sausages aren’t mass produced. In fact, each butcher’s shop manufactures its own, following the regional style.
Spetzofai, a local recipe from the Pelion peninsula in Thessaly, calls for a wintry stew of mountain sausage and sliced green peppers. But unlike most sausages in Greece, these are chorizo-style spicy, with the peppers adding an extra kick.
Galeos skordalia (Γαλέος σκορδαλιά)
Galeos, the school shark, is a common fish in Greek waters. With a similar taste to cod, it’s traditionally served on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. Although the date always falls during the fast of Lent, the Annunciation is a joyous occasion, so the Orthodox church allows the consumption of fish.
This custom continues today, and you’ll notice an odor in the air if you happen to be in the country on that day. The fish fillets are boldly accompanied by “skordalia”, a strong smelling aioli made with olive oil and lots of crushed garlic on a base of potato, bran or breadcrumbs.
Souvlaki are sold as skewers straight from the grill.
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Often confused with gyros, a type of kebab, Souvlaki is made up of skewered, grilled pieces of meat, typically chicken, lamb or pork and can be found throughout the Balkans and the Middle East.
The fast food of previous generations and the sustenance of travelers, they’re sold as skewers straight from the grill or wrapped in pitta bread with salad and a sauce, usually tzatziki.
Another Greek appetizer classic, tzatziki is a refreshing mixture of cool yoghurt, crunchy cucumber, garlic, olive oil and fresh, aromatic mint.
For traditionalists this is the only proper accompaniment to souvlaki — and they have a compelling case. The grilled meat cuts can be heavy on the stomach, and the ingredients in tzatziki aid digestion.
Kleftiko is cooked in parchment paper, allowing meat to be steamed in its own juices.
This dish of slowly cooked roast lamb with herbs wrapped in baking parchment paper stems from an era when the village bakery was also in charge of the communal oven.
Households would bring in their own parceled joint on Sunday mornings for baking and pick it up at lunch time.
Although the advent of fitted kitchens has made this scenario obsolete, the recipe is still popular. The parchment paper allows the meat to be steamed in its own juices, perfumed by the added herbs.
Nothing says Christmas in Greece quite like juicy, sweet melomakarona.
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For Greeks, the sight of melomakarona — egg-shaped, honey-soaked cookies specked by chopped walnuts — screams “Christmas” as loudly as a decorated tree. Indeed, it’s considered bad luck if a household doesn’t bake a few dozen during the weeks leading to the Nativity.
Visit any friends in Greece during this period and you’ll be offered the house melomakarona. Try one, praise the cook for their crumbliness and you’ll for sure be invited next year, as well.
Gemista are delicious served hot or cold.
The thick skin of beef tomatoes, zucchini and bell peppers makes them easy to hollow out, so Greeks stuff them and bake them in the oven. This stuffing is normally a mixture of cooked rice, onions, aromatic herbs and the excised vegetable flesh itself.
They’re delicious served hot or cold, a bonus in a warm weather country, where leftover food must go straight to the fridge.
Dolmadakia are typically fille with minced meat and served with a hot sauce.
Stuffed vine leaves are a common sight from Syria to Sarajevo — indeed the word “dolma” is Turkish, meaning “stuffed” — but it’s mostly Greek restaurants that have introduced them to the rest of the world.
Unlike gemista though, the usual filling here is minced meat and they’re served hot with avgolemono sauce.
Dolmadakia can, occasionally, be served cold as “yalantzi” — a Turkish word for a liar and a conman — when filled with rice instead. This is the only option during meat-abstaining Lent.
Loukomades are best eaten hot from the pan.
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You can smell the caramel-style aroma of these so-called “Greek donuts” — fried dough balls richly bathed in honey and seasoned with cinnamon powder — whenever you pass any large bakery.
Connoisseurs eat them hot from the pan, so settle for nothing less and buy from places where they are cooked on the spot.
Spoon sweets (Γλυκά κουταλιού)
Spoon sweets are best enjoyed in small doses.
The vast quantity of fruit produced in Greece proved overwhelming in olden times, when trade was slow or nonexistent. As a result, spoon sweets, such as Western European jams, became the Greek way of preserving fruit.
This is one of the occasions when pure sugar rather than honey is used in traditional Greek recipes. It’s added in such large quantities, that most people can only bear a gloopy spoonful. Try them with yoghurt to temper the sugar rush.