A recent trip to Greece gave me a chance to dust up some tired food habits, try new things, and infuse the familiar with a newness that travel always brings. Food is an effortless way to hook into a new place and culture – after all, we eat several times a day and every time is a fresh opportunity to look at the world around anew. And in a country like Greece with a myriad food traditions and highly local ingredients, one could be in food nirvana for a long time.
Some standouts to try at home – tahini-honey (tahini blended with honey) to drizzle over yogurt, pancakes, porridge or what-have-you – this one certainty for the fall because both those ingredients are very heating; tomato pesto – fresh, ripe tomatoes, minced really fine mixed with a generous glug of olive oil, crushed pine nuts, fresh garlic, basil, salt + pepper, and served over crusty bread; white bean salad with tangy capers, lemon juice, garlic, salt+pepper, served on spicy arugula; cold cucumber/avocado/yogurt soup with red peppercorns and basil-infused olive oil; rice with edamame and dill, topped with avocado/yogurt-cream.
Besides the food, what stood out whether it was a restaurant in bustling and buzzing Athens or a small quiet island tavern, is the Greek custom of bringing a sweet treat to the table at the end of the meal, on the house. It ranged from a platter of fresh cut watermelon to shot glasses of delicious house-made liqueurs, and the unique sweet called Mastiha – sticky, white, fondant-like served on a popsicle stick, immersed in a shot glass of cold water, it is unlike anything I have ever eaten before but instantly evocative of childhood treats like lollipops and sticky toffee.
This custom of serving a sweet end to the meal, free of charge maybe a lure to get one to come back. Nevertheless, it is infused with a certain hospitality and an invitation to linger at the table without worry of seating times and table turnovers. It allows one to skip dessert and yet have a delicious nibble before hitting the road again. This custom even translated to meals on the go, with a maybe a couple of free doughnuts in the bag along with the coffee or a free pastry with the sandwich.
In these global times when a particular cuisine/dining experience is only a click and a short car-ride away, travel still has the potential to inform and awaken the senses in unexpected ways. My idea of Greek food certainly blossomed into deep appreciation of a vast and rich cuisine that is at once a product of place, people, and nature interacting for centuries to satisfy a most primal need – food!