Greek food, like the country itself, has been influenced by many cultures and is a reflection of its position as a gateway to the Middle East. Many Greek restaurants throughout Europe are actually run by Cypriots who’s cuisine really is of the Levant, so many first time visitors to Greece are surprised by the difference in the dishes available and by the flavours. Twenty years ago it was common place for taverna owners to ask me what was this hummus that English people were requesting as they had never heard of it! Now in some tourist places they have succumbed and provide Cypriot dishes like hummus but in Skopelos they are still very traditional and true to their roots.
There are a number of different kinds of taverna to be found and normally in the big towns and cities you will find specialist establishments which just do their “thing” but on the islands the edges are blurred most places do oven baked food and salads and grilled meat and fish. You will find special souvlaki places and dedicated fish tavernas but all are careful to spread the width of their offerings.
Lunch is often the main meal of the day for the Greeks, usually taken between 2.30-3.30 before a siesta, but most people on holiday prefer a lighter(and earlier) meal so there is a great following on in the tavernas as tourists finish their lunch as the locals begin to arrive.The cafes serve light snacks all day and the traditional tavernas also will happily sell you a light meal of salads or small dishes if required at any time of day, they really are all day restaurants so everything is available for evening meals too.
One of the main things to remember when eating out in Greece is “its not the same as at home!!” dishes arrive when they are ready not in a specific order -unless you request one-. So cold dishes will probably appear first.. then some that are warm and then anything cooked to order like meat or fish.. But its a sharing experience so its great to order starters and salads to share so everybody can eat while waiting for their food..
Greek food is designed to have simple fresh flavours and not to be complicated. It is also ideal to share and often a table of people will have a mixture of dishes to dip into and a main dish each or even share mains between them.
Dips are many and varied and you should make sure you try something apart from the ever present Tzatziki (yoghurt with cucumber and garlic.) Melitzganasalata is a delicious amalgam of roasted aubergine flesh with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice -sometimes called aubergine caviar. Taramasalata is well known everywhere and is ubiquitous in Greece, I always try it if it isn’t Barbie-doll pink,which is just colouring, its natural colour being beige/cream. Fava is a more autumnal dish, lovely and creamy, it’s a relative of India’s dhal..without the spices. Skordalia is garlic sauce usually whisked up with olive oil and potato but sometimes with breadcrumbs, often used as a sauce for fried fish. There are other rarely seen dips such as broad-bean which can appear when in season.Normally pitta bread is only used for the take away kebabs from a souvlaki shop and new visitors will be surprised to see “normal” cut loaves served with their meal.Again Pitta is more of a Cypriot thing.
Salads are both what most people would regard as a “salad” and also simple vegetable dishes. Usually freshly prepared and delicious, relying on the great flavours of beautiful olive oil and freshly picked lemons. “Salad type” salads are of course led by the Horiatiki or Greek salad which is a well known amalgam of cucumber, tomato, olives, oregano etc which, with its Feta cheese topping, is enough in itself for a light meal. It’s normally served without lemon or vinegar as the tomato provides enough acidity -and you can ask for it without cheese or with cheese on the side if sharing with non-feta lovers. Lettuce salad is refreshing with only spring onions and fresh dill added, be sure to ask for lemon not vinegar if that is your preference as many places add vinegar without asking and it can be a little harsh. Shredded cabbage and carrot is also a common salad, crunchy and sweet it’s perfect for hot weather.
Cooked vegetable salads include cauliflower, courgette, potato etc simply boiled with olive oil and lemon, beetroot which is often served with a dash of Tzatziki which is the perfect complement to its sweat earthiness and the slices of courgette or aubergine fried which also go well with a dab of Taztziki. Other little dishes to be tried include dolmades -stuffed vine leaves and Gigantes (known as butter beans in the UK and lima in USA) which are simply cooked in a tomato sauce. Other vegetable dishes can be found in the Keftedes range which are rissoles(fritters) but can be made of courgette, chick peas, tomatoes, herbs or whatever the chef has and are crunchy and delicious, a little like an Indian pakora or a Bhagee without the spices. I must also mention one of my favourite dishes which is Louloudakia, courgette flowers stuffed with rice and either fried in a light batter or baked in the oven, really worth trying its delicate flavours if you find it on offer.An also in the early summer a dish of violet artichoke hearts braised with potato carrot and dill is so refreshing and absolutely delicious.
You can of course have one of these vegetable dishes as your main course.It wasn’t too long ago that they were the staple diet on the islands but as various forms of meat have become cheaper and available all year around that has changed.
For me the best of all salads in Greece is horta-wild greens briefly boiled and dressed with oil and lemon. It doesn’t sound great but it epitomises the simple fresh tastes of traditional cooking. There are many wild greens here and it’s a daily pilgrimage for the locals to scour the hillsides for them. Milk thistle, sorrel, wild spinach etc depending on what has been found that day and brought to the taverna owner. Vlita which is amaranth is one of the most popular and is seen in most Greek gardens.
Main courses are divided into three main categories, oven dishes, grilled and fried. The tradition in greek villages, where most people didn’t have their own ovens, was to take their pans to the baker and utilise his oven as it was cooling after the morning bake. The food was then kept warm or reheated for the lunch at 2.30ish. The microwave therefore has actually been a benefit for this style of cooking and has probably saved many an upset stomach! It is quite normal to go inside the kitchen to examine the food on offer, most of which nowadays is behind glass, and the waiter or the chef will happily describe all the dishes and show you the fish and meat they have.
The most famous of all the oven dishes is of course Moussaka but few know of its near cousins Pastitsia -which is pasta (often penne) in a bolognese style sauce with a bechamel topping and Papoutsakis (little slippers0 which are aubergine halves stuffed with meat and tomato sauce with a bechamel topping). This has in turn its own variant, Imam Bayaldi (which translates as the priest fainted in Turkish) which is a half aubergine stuffed with a vegetable/tomato sauce.
Stifatho needs a separate mention as its a dish for all ingredients.. Basically its a tomato and pearl onion based stew of whatever main ingredient is available. Beef,octopus,Rofos(grouper), rabbit, lamb etc all get the delicious slow cooked treatment
Yemista is tomato’s and peppers stuffed with rice and herbs, a lovely fragrant dish, and a varient on dolmades is cabbage leaves stuffed and often served with an egg and lemon sauce which is one of the most used sauces here for chicken, fish and vegetables. Briam is a kind of chunky braised ratatouille, Bamies is okra baked in tomatoes and Spetsofai is a local dish from the Pelion peninsular which marries pieces of sausage into a vegetable stew of peppers, onions etc.
Meat specialities from the oven which you may find are lamb, baked with potatoes and lemon which with the herb fed mountain lambs can be a magnificent feast and Kleftiko which is a dish originating from the mountain tribe of Klephts who were often regarded as bandits by the lowland Greeks. It’s made in a number of forms but aways features lamb and vegetables /potatoes and herbs, slow baked in a pot or a wrap of paper and is often topped with feta.And a true taste of the east Soutzoukakia is actually a Kofte or a spicy meatball in tomato sauce.
There are also dishes of baked fish, cuttlefish with spinach ,stuffed squid, etc depending on the catch of the day..but fish are more often the subject for grilling. It is expected that you look at and discuss the fish with the waiter-or the cook-and he/she will weigh it for you and give you the price before you give the go ahead.Fish almost always is on the bone apart from the Greek version of fish an chips Baclaros me Skordalia- deep fried cod with garlic/potato sauce. Small fish-Gavros- like whitebait are floured and fried but small little sweet sardines are grilled despite their size.Fish prices vary wildly depending on the desirability of the particular type to the Greek market so always pay attention.
Grilled meat is normally adorned with a sprinkle of oregano and lemon juice to add flavour and otherwise is a simple dish served usually with a handful of chips. tiny lamb chops(Paidakia) are sweet and juicy as are the pork which is usually as a chop or as belly pork. There are also tavernas which specialise in barbecued rotisserie(souvla) meat with lamb ,chicken, goat, pork and sometimes Kokaretsi which is the closest you will find to a haggis this far south! All souvla dishes are available by the portion or by weight so you can order a large dish to share.
This is just a brief taste of what to expect on your visit to Skopelos Island the joy of greek food is its simplicity and its difference. its there like the island to be explored and to enjoy..