When travelling to Greece, a non-Greek is usually advised to try certain staple Hellenic cuisine dishes like moussaka, dolmadakia, souvlaki, gemista, giouvetsi, stuffed calamari and so on, and compare the real deal with how food tastes in the diaspora. And while those classics are delicious, they are definitely not the only popular traditional foods Greeks go crazy for.
Greece’s cuisine is considered to be among the most balanced in the world and is pretty safe to eat, without any surprises, however, this does not mean it lacks quirk. Even though frogs legs, scorpions, spiders, snakes and wallabies are not included on any menus, there are some delicacies that could make a tourist (or even a Greek) squint and gag.
1. Hohlioi Bourbouristoi
Fried snails with the shell is one of Greece’s most popular, but not high in demand, delicacies. It is mainly served in Crete, where snails are thrown in the pan while still alive and the cracking of the shell makes a pop, a boubourisma as the Cretans say, which is how the dish got its name. The hohlioi can be served crunchy and dry, or similarly to the French escargot in a special jus with freshly baked bread.
2. Fried Octopus Ink Sack
This dish is particularly found on the island of Kalymnos, famous for its unique seafood culture which stems from fishermen’s food. In this instance, the octopus’s ink sacks are removed with a knife with precision to avoid puncture, and are then boiled full and finally deep fried. The dish has a very distinct flavour and the ink mixed with the olive oil creates a thick coating on the deep fried skin. The sack is not served with the rest of the octopus and it doesn’t taste like it either.
In Greek it stands for ‘spleen-intestine’ and the description is not far from the truth. A very popular snack in the wider Thessaly region, splinantero is a sausage made from spleen and mutton that’s been broiled over a charcoal fire after having been soaked in sheep and goat’s blood. It’s famous in rotisseries and taverns in the area and some families even prepare it at home for special occasions. If you are a meat eater chances are you will fall in love with this sausage – just pretend we never told you how it’s made
A classic rotisserie dish and an Easter Sunday favourite, it is one more food that both Greeks and Turks vie over at any chance they get. Kokoretsi is available year round throughout Greece, however, in some cities it has been banned by health inspectors as preparing it comes with certain risk. It is offal based, and its list of ingredients includes heart, kidneys, liver and spleen. It is actually meat and fat from a lamb or pork wrapped in its own intestines. It is mostly served with lemon, olive oil, oregano, salt, and pepper.
5. Kefalaki (lamb’s head)
The tradition has died down for many, but quite a few parts of Greece still insist on serving kefalaki soup on Holy Saturday night instead of magiritsa (see #9) or serve the lamb’s head as a yiouvetsi on Easter Sunday, slow cooked in the oven with pasta. The main parts that lovers of this dish crave are the tongue and brain, saved for the end and savoured whether the head is boiled in its broth or oven baked.
Patsas can be cooked in many different ways, but one thing is for sure, it is Greece’s best remedy for hangovers. Patsas is a lamb or pork tripe soup that can sometimes include the animal’s feet. It became popular in Greece in 1920, around the time of the Armenian genocide and Asia Minor catastrophe. The most common recipe is with salt, pepper, white wine vinegar and seven cloves of garlic. In some regions people add dried chillies. Though fans of the dish claim it tastes good, the smell while it’s being cooked is rather pungent.
Commonly known as sea urchin salad, the dish consists of the inside part of sea urchins; the roe, extracted raw in a bowl, sprinkled with olive oil and lemon becomes a delightful mix ready to be paired with crusty bread, for dunking. Ahinosalata is a rare summer delicacy but can be found in seafood taverns on several islands, especially in the Cyclades, as long as the menu contains fresh fish and seafood. Some professional and amateur fishermen prefer to dive and detach them from the rocks, sucking them on the spot.
8. Ameletita (lamb’s testicles)
Ameletita, or as it translates in English ‘unmentionables’, is a modest way Cypriots and Greeks came up with to refer to this delicacy. The testicles are either deep fried after a good dive in flour, or grilled and served with lemon, oregano and olive oil.
Come Easter, the majority of Greek homes will start preparing for magiritsa, the staple Holy Saturday night soup made from lamb offal (heart, liver, lungs, kidneys) and lettuce, garnished with fresh herbs and avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce). Magiritsa is believed to be the meal that helps believers transition from the 40-day Lent period back to meat consumption. Most modern Greeks choose not to make this dish anymore due to health risks and how time consuming it can be.
Another Kalymnos island speciality, spinialo is a mix of sea squirts (fouskes) preserved in seawater. The fouskes look like rocks on the outside but they are classified as primitive marine vertebrates and are spongy in texture. The Kalymnos sponge divers and fishermen would find them attached to rocks, shells, and even ships’ hulls and cutting them in half they would reveal a soft, light orange flesh that looks like eggs. Unlike the buttery and mild taste of sea urchin, fouskes have a very intense iodine flavour that also comes with bitterness. In times of hardship and isolation from other islands, the divers and fishermen found ways to preserve good sources of protein by keeping them in empty wine bottles filled with seawater and a bit of olive oil; this method would preserve the spinialo for two months. Sometimes the flesh of sea urchins and fan mussels would be added, including the juice of a lemon. Spinialo can be found in specific restaurants on the island and in local open markets.
You didn’t think we’d leave dessert out, did you?
1. Karidaki glyko
A category on its own, this spoon sweet is made from a whole walnut – shell included! It is prepared for many days in whitewash, which is a mixture of lime or chalk and water that is used for painting walls white and some kinds of jams and spoon sweets in Greece. The karidaki is served and eaten as a whole. While many times it is delicious, depending on preparation skills and of course the quality of the original nut, it can hide a very sweet but also quite unpleasant surprise.