Our Big Fat Greek Food Story

The Mediterranean is half a world away and Greek mythology emerged centuries ago, but the savory cuisine of ancient Olympia is right around the corner.

Homer’s Odyssey is not all that embodies the Greek spirit around the world; so does the country’s traditional fare. According to G&D Steak House owner Angelo Aslanidis, Greek food has been influenced by both the East and the West during its long history, part of a great cultural exchange among the Mediterranean countries. The first cookbook to appear in Greece was written by a man named Nicolas Tselementes in the 1920s. He was a Greek chef who, after working at prominent restaurants in Europe and the United States, put together a cookbook with recipes from different countries. Among the contents were recipes from Greece that Tselementes considered valuable.

Greek cuisine, as Tselementes’ book testifies, features an emphasis on oranges, fish and olives. Olives and herbs are used to intensify the taste of every traditional Greek dish, Aslanidis says. The best-known olive is Kalamata, a large, black olive from the Peloponnesus region with a smooth and meatlike taste, usually preserved in wine, vinegar or olive oil. Apart from their use in the kitchen, olives also have a significant place in Greek mythology, which holds that it was the goddess Athena’s spear that was transformed into the first olive tree.

Like most traditional Mediterranean fare, Greek food is ingredient-based. It often focuses on seafood, although lamb and pork are served on special occasions, and surprisingly, “Greeks eat pasta as much as Italians do,” Aslanidis says. Among the flavorings used most in Greek cooking are onion, garlic, dill, mint, celery, cloves and cinnamon.

Today, the most well-known Greek dishes outside of Greece include Greek salad, gyros, moussaka and baklava. Such dishes in the United States taste different from the traditional versions served in Greece, says International Café owner Mohamed Gumati. This is mostly because ingredients need to be adjusted “to the taste of the people.” For example, a Greek salad called horiatiki contains lettuce when served in American restaurants; in Greece it would consist of cucumbers and feta cheese.

Strictly authentic or not, Greek food is popular and accessible in the United States. “Different is good,” says G&D Pizzaria owner Pano Terzopoulos. The menu at his restaurant features a section called “A Taste of Greece” where diners can find gyros, horiatiki, souvlaki, a pork tenderloin pita sandwich, and Elias Style Spaghetti with red sauce and feta cheese.

“People enjoy Greek food,” Terzopoulos says. “If you are looking for an alternative to hamburgers, you can have gyros. You will try it and be happy with it.”

Consisting of beef and lamb served on pita bread with tomatoes and onions, gyros are without a doubt among the most popular Greek foods in the United States.

International Café serves its gyros with hummus or tzanziki sauce, a traditional Greek dip used in a variety of dishes. Owner Gumati is well-known for his excellent tzanziki sauce and says that well-traveled people often confirm that his sauce is “number one.”

Holly Smith-Berry, a regular customer at International Café, has fond memories from her first visit there. She was so hungry, she says, that she ordered several things from the menu. The friendly owner stopped her at once. “That’s too much,” he told her.

“He did me a favor,” Smith-Berry says with a chuckle at the thought of a mountain of food arriving at her table. “I do like the family, a husband and a wife team. They are very friendly and open.”

Among the popular Greek items offered at the café are the cheese dishes, tyropita, saganaki, and for those who like spinach, spanikopita.

In Greece, good food is almost always accompanied by good wine. The most prominent Greek wine is Mavrodafne, a sweet, dark purple grape wine with flavors of plum, chocolate, coffee, caramel and raisins. Greece also brought into the world its own kind of drink, a national emblem of sorts: ouzo, an alcoholic drink made from pressed grapes, herbs and berries.

Sometimes ouzo goes down smooth and sometimes it scratches the throat, Aslanidis says. “Some put water or ice cubes in it, but real men drink it plain,” he says. Ouzo is produced exclusively in Greece and symbolizes the Greeks’ optimistic approach to life.

“The most famous ouzo brands are #12 and Tsantalis,” Aslanidis says.

He also offers other suggestions. “If you go to a Greek restaurant and you want a ‘meze,’ they will bring you several different things on your plate,” Aslanidis says. Meze, he explains, is a request for an appetizer sampler of different dishes.

When it comes to desserts, homemade baklava is a must. After the great Greek salad and gyros, this honey-flavored dessert is the last and tastiest stop on the G&D Steak House menu. It’s so tasty, in fact, that it makes it difficult to follow the particular custom of always leaving something on the plate. (“It’s a Greek thing,” Aslanidis says.)

Well-traveled diners have probably heard of “Greek Maybe Time,” an affectionate name for the way Greeks manage their time. Aslanidis jokes that if a Greek is invited to a dinner that begins at 5 p.m., he will most likely arrive around 6 p.m.

“Greeks are never on time,” he says.

Keep this idiosyncrasy in mind when planning to dine with a Greek. Columbia’s Greek restaurants, however, are always right on time when serving fine Mediterranean dishes.

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