Greek cuisine: perfect simplicity
The cradle of civilization is also where you can find good eats at their basic best.
By Alexandra Gregori
Over the centuries, Greek cuisine has been heavily influenced by the cross-pollination of cultures and crops, recipes and ingredients from Africa, Arabia, and the Mediterranean. The Ancient Greeks had three main staples: wheat, olives and grapes. As trade developed, spices were introduced from North Africa and the Middle East, while a wide variety of fruit and vegetables were shared around Mediterranean shores, until every Mediterranean cuisine became a mélange of cooking styles and ingredients, while still maintaining its own distinct flavors.
The center of everything
Blessed with a warm, dry Mediterranean climate, Greece never has a shortage of fresh, quality vegetables, pulses, fruits and nuts that form a fundamental part of Greek cuisine. As an archipelago, Greece also has an abundance of seafood, served fresh, or preserved in salt or olive oil. Meat is generally used only for feast days. An arid, rocky terrain means meager grazing for farm animals, which are often working animals too, so meat can be lean and tough. To ensure it is tender enough to eat can involve hours of cooking.
Quintessential Greek cuisine, therefore, is fresh, simple food, cooked with love and respect, high in nutritional value, and low in animal fat. “Why interfere with what nature has perfected?” seems to be the national culinary philosophy. With such a cornucopia of quality ingredients, combined with a simple cooking style—and a lot of olive oil—Greek cuisine is considered to be one of the healthiest in the world.
Greek cuisine is healthy because of the predominance of olive oil in the diet. High in mono-unsaturated fats, olive oil is the perfect tonic for reducing high cholesterol levels and keeping heart disease at bay. It’s also full of vitamin E and antioxidants. Greek cuisine also features the high consumption of fiber in the form of eggplant and artichokes, chickpeas and garbanzos, nuts, dried fruits, whole wheat breads, rice and pasta appear regularly on the dining table.
Dairy and meat are only sparingly used, and the Greeks include one magic element, often undervalued in our busy lives: the belief that dining should be a relaxed family time and meals should be thoroughly savored. All these benefits have resulted in Greece being included in the blue zone: areas identified by experts as promising a longer, healthier life.
Chef Robby Goco, who owns Cyma, a chain of Greek restaurants in the Philippines, says what appealed to him about Greece first and foremost was its parallels with the Philippines. Both countries are archipelagos, where no one lives more than 100 km from the sea, so there is a common emphasis on seafood. Also, he says, the Greeks prefer their meat overdone, and the Filipinos are the same. Neither likes their food rare. “No blood is the rule of thumb!” he declares. “For us, meat needs to be cooked inside out,” he explains, “not seared on the outside and raw in the middle.” His advice is to cook it and then cook it again. “Cook it to oblivion,” he laughs.
Goco adheres to a strong belief in honest cooking. “Integrity on a plate,” he calls it. The secret of Greek cuisine is to use the best quality, freshest ingredients possible, “and then you will never mess up!” He wants his customers to taste the true flavors of the ingredients, without masking them in heavy sauces. “Filipinos love complicating stuff,” he explains. “They get distracted.” For him, the essence of Greek cuisine is its perfect simplicity. “The less you process the food, the better it is,” he states firmly.
While sourcing quality ingredients can be difficult in the Philippines, Goco insists that fresh is best. There are only five basic ingredients required to begin, and they are easily found in the Philippines: lemon, extra virgin olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper. From these foundations, he advises, just add the freshest ingredients you can find, and don’t worry if they are not typically Greek.
In his own restaurants he keeps the faith by producing as many traditional dishes as possible, but he is always happy to create dishes that reflect the essence of Greek cuisine, but have been ever-so-slightly indigenized. He shares a favorite Filipinized salad made from home grown rucola, candied walnuts, sundried tomatoes and shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Below are three recipes for a simple summer family meal: tzatziki, a traditional Greek dip, fresh and zesty and perfect for dipping into with warm pita bread; a light lamb dish with orzo or risoni, which looks like rice, but is actually pasta; and a cleansing, creamy Greek yogurt dessert to finish, all seasoned with a glass of ouzo or strong Greek coffee. And feel free to improvise!