Surrounded by the glorious Aegean Sea is the Hellenic Republic, and with so many people and their livelihoods dependant on the catches from the ocean, it’s no wonder that seafood features so highly in the Greek diet. Octopus drying on a makeshift beachside brick ledge, overlooking the Aegean, is a scene synonymous with Greece; while eating the octopus grilled or even marinated with the glistening azure blue ocean as a backdrop – well, then you truly know you are in God’s playground. The boats entering the harbour with dinner for many nearby tavernas and homes, the beauty being, you don’t know what fish you are going to eat that night – it’s whatever the fishermen caught. From sardines to snapper, Greeks have made their mark with seafood in their cuisine, utilising a number of methods to prepare, cook and eat fish.
The health benefits of eating fish are numerous. Fish are nutritious, provide energy (kilojoules), protein, selenium, zinc, iodine and vitamins A and D (some species only). Fish is also an excellent source of readily available long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are well known for their health benefits and are essential for life. Researchers worldwide have discovered that eating fish regularly – two or more serves weekly – may reduce the risk of diseases ranging from asthma, cardiovascular diseases, prostate cancer, diabetes and dementia.
A hero of Greek cooking are sardines (sardeles). Eaten as a meze or meal, these little gems are featured in every region of Greece’s cookery, especially ones close to the oceans and islands. The most common method of cooking is grilled with just a little lemon and oil as a dressing or fried, in flour and served with lemon and oil again. The smaller the sardines the better, especially for meze. These little delights go hand-in-hand with a shot of ouzo or tsipouro in the sun and are perfect finger food in summer. Sardines can also be served braised in a tomato based sauce.
Barbounia (red-mullet) is the best tasting fish you will ever eat, whether fried or grilled, and is one of the commonly available fishes in the Aegean. The paler cousin of the red mullet can be slightly cheaper. Similarly, trout, or river trout, becomes dependant on Greek regions that are mountainous and distant from the oceanside. Trout farms are common in Greece for mass production of this fish. Snapper as a whole becomes a feast for a family. Baked whole in the oven with fresh herbs, on a bed of tomatoes, garlic and potatoes and with sliced lemons scattered over the fish and vegetables makes for the perfect meal. Whiting (gavros) is also a very popular fish in Greece. Again, served grilled or fried as a meze, but it can be baked as well with tomatoes or peppers making a well-rounded meal for the family.
Bakaliaro (cod) is probably the most widely eaten fish, especially in the winter. If you go to the markets or specialty delis, you will find salted dried cod. But it’s becoming more commonly available at local supermarkets too. Bakaliaro is traditionally served with skordalia, a potato garlic dip. You need to pay special attention to the way you prepare the salted cod. After purchasing, you need to rest the bakaliaro in water, and change it about seven times every couple of hours to get rid of the excess salt. Then, when the water is less salty, batter the pieces of cod and deep fry them.
With all this fish, and leftovers – not just the bones but the flesh also – Greeks have devised a way to not let anything go to waste, in the form of psarosoupo. Fish soup is one of the healthiest of Greek dishes. Made with fish stock by boiling water with bones, along with a braise of onion, garlic and carrot and celery, the soup itself forms a delicious and delectable broth in which you can add whatever vegetables you like, but traditionally it’s potatoes, carrots and onions. The soup is then finished with an avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce). When you order this dish in Greece, you are asked whether or not you want the fish with the soup. And the fish is presented alongside the soup, on a separate plate.
There is a whole ritual for fish eating in Greece. In Greece – as it is around Greek tables in Australia – it is common to be served the whole fish. A whole fish is eaten as a special treat and Friday evenings, that are meat free for religious purposes, are normally the nights to consume grilled fish. Because the hero of this dish is the fresh produce, fish is served with humble accompaniments. The most common of all are horta (wild greens). Plain, steamed with a hint of olive oil and lemon dressing, the two become a match made in culinary heaven.