Traditional Greek Ingredients: Greek Cooking Fundamentals List

May 27, 2020

Have you recently eaten a fantastic spanakopita or moussaka and thought to yourself: I could make this? Well, you certainly can and you should! Greek cuisine doesn’t command the star-power of French or Italian, but it’s just as diverse and intricate, if not more. 

When you’re approaching any new field, it’s essential to start with the basics. And, that’s what you’ll find here. Below is an introduction to traditional Greek food, including some of the most common ingredients and flavors. 

Origins of Greek Cuisine

It’s useful to learn some of its history to help you understand how Greek cuisine got to where it is today. One of the formative features of Greek cooking is how old it is. Greek cuisine is among the oldest in the world, with a cooking tradition that dates back over four millennia. 

Many different peoples and cultures inhabited the area in and around Greece. And, each of them contributed to the melting pot that is Greek food today. Greek food is a delicate consomme distilled from flavors all around the Mediterranean and as far afield as Turkey. 

Greek Ingredients

As you might expect, many Greek ingredients are sourced locally. That is to say; they are abundantly present in Greece and available seasonally. 

  • Olive oil: No discussion about Greek dishes would be complete without a substantial reference to olive oil. Many would call olive oil the defining ingredient of Greek cooking, and few savory Greek dishes omit it. 
  • Phyllo dough: This distinctly thin sheet of unleavened dough is made by stretching the raw dough into super-thin sheets. Recipes that use phyllo dough are usually made by layering the sheets brushed with oil or butter to prevent them from adhering to each other. The result is a flaky, crispy, and airy base for both savory and sweet foods. 
  • Feta cheese: If you’ve never tried feta, you’re truly missing out. This crumbly and sharply flavored cheese is another staple of Greek cuisine and makes its way into many recipes. It’s excellent in salads, wrapped in phyllo, or as a side dish. 
  • Lemons: One of Greece’s main agricultural products, lemons are also a common ingredient in their cuisine. Traditionally, Greek chefs are liberal about using lemon just about everywhere, including meat dishes, pasta, and soups. 
  • Greek yogurt: This tangy and creamy cultured milk product has become a massive hit worldwide thanks to its pleasing flavor and texture. And, it has just as strong of a cult following in Greece. Milk is less popular in Greece than in some other parts of the world, which leaves a lot of dairy to be processed into cheese and yogurt. 
  • Pork: Easily the most popular meat in Greece is pork, closely followed by lamb and, to some extent, beef and veal. Meat wasn’t eaten very often in Greece, given its price in the past. But nowadays, Greek dishes with meat are served regularly in households across the country. 


Greek Flavors and Spices

Like the ingredients, a lot of Greek spices are found in the immediate area. However, some common spices adopted into Greek cuisine come from all over the world. 

  • Cinnamon: A great example of an imported spice that made its way into the hearts and stomachs of Greek people. Cinnamon is often used in both savory and sweet dishes, and it’s a characteristic flavor in Greek cooking. 
  • Basil: All throughout the summer, basil is abundant in Greece, and it’s a staple of many Greek dishes. Tomatoes are another often-used ingredient in Greek foods, and basil often complements it in salads and sauces. 
  • Capers: You’ll see a lot of acidic flavors in Greek cuisine, and capers fit naturally into that environment. Often picked in the spring, these small green buds are sometimes used in lieu of another overwhelmingly popular ingredient, olives. 
  • Oregano: Oregano is another spice that pairs well with tomato-based dishes and, more importantly, meats. But, it’s a much more comprehensive flavor for Greek cooks. They use oregano in everything from salads to braised vegetables. 

What Are Traditional Greek Foods?

You could fill an encyclopedia if you were to make a list of the traditional foods of any area of the world. And that’s no different when it comes to Greek foods. All that is to say that what follows isn’t a complete list of foods you’ll find in Greece. But, it’s a good sample of some of the most common both in Greece and in other parts of the world. 

  • Moussaka: Also known as eggplant casserole, moussaka is a dish with a lot of flavors, and it’s common to other countries in the area as well. Traditionally, moussaka is composed of layers of eggplant and a ground meat sauce, topped with a bechamel sauce. However, many variations exist with some replacing eggplant with potatoes and bechamel with different types of cheese.
  • Meatballs: Greek meatballs, or keftethes, are often made of a mixture of beef and lamb along with a wide variety of spices that change based on the area of Greece where they’re made. Slowly roasted and then simmered in a rich tomato sauce, these meatballs are a common entree in Greece, and they pair well with salads, pasta recipes, and work well as a standalone meal. 
  • Souvlaki: These grilled skewers often use pieces of chicken, beef, or lamb. However, a wide variety of meat can be seen, including seafood such as calamari and sometimes fish. A souvlaki platter usually consists of meat skewers, pita bread, fried potatoes, and any of a wide range of sauces. 
  • Baklava: A sweet treat known the world over, baklava is originally from the middle east, but you’ll find a distinctly Hellenic version as well. The Greek baklava is made of layered phyllo doubt filled with chopped nuts and drowned in a sugary syrup. It’s a hearty dessert, but one you won’t soon forget when you try it. 
  • Dolmades: Dolmades are grape leaves stuffed with lamb and rice and a lot of spices. Grape leaves have a strong tangy flavor that’s enhanced in this dish with several herbs, such as mint, parsley, basil, and others. Once stuffed, the grape leaves are steamed or boiled with slices of lemon that further complements the flavor. They’re usually served as a side dish with a tzatziki sauce or other similar fresh dip and a drizzle of olive oil. 
  • Tiropita: Another phyllo dish, tiropita, is one of many pitas that are popular in Greece. Sheets of phyllo dough are wrapped around ricotta and feta cheese and then baked until golden brown. They make an excellent appetizer as well as a side dish or even a main course paired with a hearty salad. The phyllo is usually cut into strips, which are then folded into triangles around the cheese. 


Greek Cuisine Has Never Been So Easy

Nowadays, you’ll find Greek ingredients and foods all around the world. Even so, Greek cooking doesn’t always get all the appreciation it deserves. Hopefully, this list of foods and ingredients has piqued both your appetite and your curiosity. You’re encouraged to try these and many other Greek foods, and you’ll quickly see they’re both easy to make and easy to fall in love with. 

If you want to try great, traditional Greek flavors, but you’re not exactly a maestro in the kitchen, have no fear! Lemon and Vine brings genuine and delicious Greek foods right to your doorstep. Order any of our mouthwatering Greek entrees or appetizers, and you’ll be hooked instantly.

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