Ingredients, and specific combinations of ingredients, are what make a cuisine what it is. Considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, Greek cuisine is vegetable-based with the freshest of ingredients, from in-season fruits and veggies to flavorful legumes and herbs. And Greek dishes wouldn’t be the same without feta cheese, olives, or a perfect squeeze of lemon juice here and there—or maybe everywhere (Greeks love their fresh lemon juice)! To get a true feel for the Greek kitchen, let’s explore some of the essential ingredients used in Greek cooking.
Olive oil is the fat of choice in the Greek kitchen. It’s also used as a sauce and garnish, drizzled raw over countless dishes, from fish to beans, and even is used in baking. Greeks prepare many seasonal pickles, and these almost always call for the addition of olive oil. Some vegetables, such as roasted red peppers, are preserved almost exclusively in olive oil. Olives, once cured, are also often kept in olive oil.
Lemon juice is regularly squeezed over pretty much everything, and slices of lemon accompany nearly every traditional Greek meal – especially those that involve meats and vegetables. Lemon juice is a key ingredient in various versions of the marinade recipe for souvlaki (pieces of meat on a skewer that are grilled), and it’s part of a frequently used dressing, latholemono (oil-lemon). Recipes of lamb roasted on a spit often include lemon juice, and it’s sometimes even added to baklava syrup. Oh, and roasted potatoes? Sprinkle some lemon juice on those as well!
A variety of herbs and spices are used in Greek cooking, but oregano is certainly the most beloved. It’s used in meat dishes, baked vegetables, sauces, dressings, salads, and to add a little flavor to cheeses. In fact, just as with olive oil in this cuisine, it’s rare to find a Greek dish that doesn’t contain oregano. There are several species of oregano that are commonly used in cooking worldwide, including Mexican oregano (origanum genus) and Italian oregano (origanum x majoracum). Make sure to use Greek oregano (oreganum vulgare), also known as Rigani!
Feta, the national cheese of Greece, is used in a large variety of traditional Greek recipes from the famous Greek Salad down to more obscure, regional recipes. This cheese is very versatile and can be used raw, crumbled over your dish, in a pasta dish, and can be baked or fried. It may range in flavor and texture from mild and creamy to sharp and hard, depending on production methods, regional distinctions, and seasons.
When one thinks of Greek recipes containing meat, lamb often comes to mind. But upon closer look, it’s really fish and seafood in general that takes the lead in terms of regular day-to-day dishes of Greek cuisine. Meat cuts from lamb and goat are consumed more so on special occasions and during festivities. Of course, the type of meat consumed also depends whether one is in a city, near the coast, or in the mountains, but overall seafood is an integral part of Greek cuisine. From botargo (the salted, pressed roe of the grey mullet), to mussels and octopus dishes and, of course, different types of fish, there are countless seafood recipes to be found in Greek cuisine.
In Greece, some capers grow to be the size of figs! They’re used as a flavoring element in many dishes, including Greek salads. Examples of recipes featuring these flavorful morsels are baked sea bass with wine, capers, and herbs, and kaparokoumba (caper topping).
Credit: @Pastrikou Papadaki
Mastiha, or Mastic, is the resin of a tree. It was the world’s first chewing gum, and back in the day people chewed it to clean their teeth and freshen their breath. It’s used for baking bread and to give flavor to certain pastries (especially Easter cheese pastries), and in cookies, biscuits and baked custards. But mastiha isn’t just for sweets, it’s used in savory dishes as well. Many describe the flavor as being a cross between pine and licorice with hints of vanilla. It’s definitely Greece’s most unique and exotic ingredient. Don’t grind mastiha in a spice grinder or food processor, though, because it’s gummy, sticky nature will ruin the blades! Instead, make sure you have this essential Greek cooking tool: the mortar and pestle.
It doesn’t matter if you spell it “phyllo”, “filo”, or “fillo”, this thin, flaky dough is the star of many Greek dishes, from savory spanakopita (spinach pie) to sweet baklava. You can find phyllo is the freezer section of most supermarkets, but for a truly authentic Greek dish, try making your own at home with this recipe from Olive Tomato.
Greek honey is considered to be some of the finest in the world. Honey bees thrive in Greece thanks to the unlimited summer sun, dry air, biodiversity of the countryside, and rich variety of flora. This exceptional honey is used in dishes both savory and sweet. What is baklava without honey? Sure, you can make it using sugar only, but it won’t be quite the same. In savory dishes, you can often find it paired with meat dishes such as lamb with apricots and honey, and sweet and sour beef stew with olives, raisins and honey.
Whether it’s Greek dressing ingredients, or the secret to that specific flavor in some Greek foods you just can’t put your finger on (hint: it’s mastiha), be sure to save this list as the go-to rundown of the essential ingredients used in Greek cooking. And be sure to stock your kitchen with these cooking tools to create a truly authentic Greek meal!