Aegina waterfront

Αθήνα, Ελλάδα [Athens, Greece] – Part I

Hello from Greece ! (Well, not really, I’m a little behind on posting this.)

We’ve moved on to indulging ourselves in Switzerland to now indulging ourselves in Greece. But instead of celebrating Thanksgiving, we’re celebrating the next decade of my life… because I turned 30 on Monday ! Yes, many happy returns to me.

In deciding the how and where to celebrate, I had just a few requirements: there had to be warm(er) weather, culture, and good food. Athens seemed like a good choice — and it did not disappoint.

Of course, it’s hard to not enjoy yourself when you’re in a country where quality, fresh food is an important part of everyday life. Part of the reason for that could be because eating is as much of a social activity as it is a necessity. People linger over their meals, catching up and sharing dishes. Eating is so communal here; there are no “small plates” restaurants… every plate is a small plate.

I loved that, and it made it easier to try so many flavors of Greece despite our relatively short amount of time in the country. And since we ate so much thanks to the sharing, I’ll focus now on the “classic” main dishes here and save the desserts and others for another post.

One of my favorite dishes I ate was a classic Greek salad, also known as horiatiki salata/χωριάτικη σαλάτα. Except, it was an actual classic Greek salad, meaning there is no lettuce. Just the freshest ingredients (olives, tomatoes, green pepper, cucumbers, red onions, and a healthy brick of creamy feta) doused in delicate olive oil and oregano. So simple, but so delicious. If there is one dish that could convince anybody of the value of a Mediterranean diet, this would be it.

Greek salad - the actual way
Greek salad – the actual way

Besides Greek salad, where the name is eponymous with its origin, gyros are maybe the most widely-known Greek food. And for good reason: gyros are awesome. If you remember, I had doner kebap in Berlin a few months ago and so I tried to find the differences between a doner kebap and gyro. They seemed similar. Based on my completely un-scientific observations, here’s what I have uncovered:

  • In Berlin, the roots are from Turkey—not Greece, the bread is more of a flat bread than a pita, they are heavier on the sauce, and there are more vegetables (notably red lettuce).
  • In Greece, fries come in the gyro, and the meat is mainly pork. Though, since I had a doner gyro, mine was actually still made with lamb.

I can’t tell you which one I liked better, since they were both delicious and something I looked forward to eating in both places. Thank you to both Greece and Turkey for creating a delicious meal based on meat roasting on a spit. You can never go wrong with meat roasted on a spit.

Gyro
Gyro

I also had σπανακόπιτα (spanakopita), a savory spinach pastry. If you love spinach, philo-dough, feta, and scallions, this might be the Greek food for you. I’ve had spanakopita before, but I didn’t realize that in Greece it’s more commonly served as a take-away snack. Nearly every single pastry/bread shop we walked into, there was a pan of spanakopita ready for you to take it away in a paper bag and munch on it as you carry on your day. Fittingly, I had mine while we were waiting for our ferry to head out to Aegina, one of the nearby islands.

Spanakopita while waiting for our ferry
Spanakopita while waiting for our ferry

Every time I thought about Greece, this picture came to my head: there’s the sea and the rocky beach, sun is shining for days, there are white-washed houses everywhere, there are bunch of people socializing (loudly), and there’s me eating octopus. And not just when I thought about eating in Greece, just what I thought Greece would be like. And so, when I had the chance to eat some grilled octopus on my birthday, the dream became a reality. Greek octopus is classically left out to dry on clotheslines all day, and then grilled on an open charcoal pit for 30-45 minutes. I can’t attest to how mine was cooked since I didn’t see it cooked, but it was still just what I wanted. Mine was charred on the outside and tender on the inside, fresh and tasting like the sea… there’s nothing like fresh seafood at the source. Next time we’re in Greece, particularly in the islands, I can’t wait to look out for the drying octopuses and having some more.

Grilled octopus
Grilled octopus

We also had more seafood on the pistachio tree covered island of Aegina, just off the coast of Athens in the Saronic Gulf. It took us about an hour by a hydrofoil ferry to get there, so it was accessible to us despite our short stay in Greece. Little did I know at the time, but Aegina is one of the best islands to eat octopus in. Out in the far reaches of the harbor, after the sun went down, we ordered a mixed plate of squid, octopus, sardines, and prawns. (Along with tzatziki and boiled vegetables.) It was all too much, so much food. We ended up taking the seafood away with us and distributing it to the many, many cats we found around the island as we walked around until it was time for our ferry to take us back to Athens.

Enormous seafood platter: sardines, octopus, squid and prawns
Enormous seafood platter: sardines, octopus, squid and prawns

Beyond the lamb and seafood, I also made sure to try some chicken souvlaki. Souvlaki is basically a meat skewer, eaten either off the skewer or inside a pita with the usual garnishes. (σουβλάκι or souvlaki essentially means skewer in Greek.) I had it in a pita, and I was expecting it to come with tzatziki sauce but instead there was another sauce on the chicken instead. We had it at a great and popular place right outside of Μοναστηράκι Square. They went through so many pitas, both between the souvlaki and gyros, it was amazing to see them all piled so high.

Chicken Souvlaki
Chicken Souvlaki

This isn’t it for Athens, I’ll write up another post with the rest of the dishes we ate soon. Greece has been far too good to us… if you can’t see why yet, just wait for the desserts!

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