Some of the most vivid childhood memories I have about food are from the summers I spent in Greece. Every day was the same: We spent all morning on the beach, went home, ate, took a nap and then went to the beach again. Eating was an important part of the day; after all that swimming, we couldn’t wait to eat. The sea really makes you hungry! One day there was okra, but not as you may imagine. It was tiny, sun-dried okra roasted in tomato sauce and olive oil, which we ate happily with a big chunk of feta and fresh sourdough bread. It was so good, caramelized and sweet. Who would have thought a bunch of kids would willingly eat okra?
That’s the secret of Greek cooking: Vegetables are transformed into crave-worthy dishes. The okra dish is known as bamies, one of the dishes we call lathera, meaning cooked in olive oil. Lathera dishes are considered the hallmark of Greek summer cuisine and a reason Greek people have such high consumption of vegetables. Eaten as a main course with three to four servings of vegetables, typical lathera dishes include green beans, peas, okra, eggplant and zucchini cooked or roasted in olive oil and fresh tomato with various herbs.
Now that I am a mother, I use this secret weapon of lathera to teach my children to love vegetables, which they eat happily (for the most part).
Traditional Diet and Eating Habits
The eating habits of Greeks, specifically those from Crete, are the basis of what we now know as the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is the main ingredient present in almost every dish, including desserts. Greek people have had the highest consumption of olive oil per person in the world. Traditionally, the diet was mostly vegetarian, which may be due to the limited availability of animal products (meat was expensive) and because there are more than 180 days per year of religious fasting with Greek Orthodox Christian traditions. During these fasts, animal products are prohibited with the exception of certain seafood.
Legumes traditionally are consumed at least twice a week. Lentils or broad beans are prepared with tomato, onion and olive oil, and served with cheese and bread. Salads are always seasonal: tomato-cucumber salads in the summer and cabbage and carrot salads in the winter.
A unique factor adding nutritional value to the Greek diet is a high consumption of wild greens and roots, such as dandelion, mustard greens, beet greens, nettle and more. Boiled and served with olive oil and lemon, the greens are an excellent source of antioxidants.
Vegetable pies known as pites also are popular, particularly as a snack or breakfast. Traditionally, they provided a way to use leftover vegetables and other ingredients. Three of the most popular kinds are spinach, cheese and leek pies.
Bread and cheese are present at every meal. Traditionally, meat was not often consumed — usually only during celebrations. Common choices include lamb, goat, chicken, pork and veal, roasted in the oven with lemon, garlic and oregano or prepared as a stew with tomato sauce. On mainland Greece, fish is mainly eaten in a cured or salted form, unlike on the islands where more fresh fish is available. Dairy is mainly consumed in the form of yogurt or cheese.
Greeks usually have a small breakfast that may include spanakopita (spinach pie), yogurt, bread and cheese or more Westernized choices such as cereal or breakfast bars.
Lunch traditionally was and, for the most part, still is the largest meal of the day. Consumed around 2 or 3 p.m., lunch may include lathera, legumes, pasta and, nowadays, more meat-rich dishes such as roasted chicken and stewed veal. Fast food is a popular choice among younger Greeks, with choices such as souvlaki (small pieces of meat grilled on a skewer), hamburgers or sandwiches.
The evening meal is served around 9 p.m. (even later in the summer). Historically, it was a small meal that may have included an omelet and salad, leftovers from lunch, yogurt and fruit, and bread with cheese and olives. However, due to the Westernization of the diet, habits and schedules — particularly for those who do not have time to eat a proper lunch — dinner now is the main and largest meal for some people.
Challenges and Current Circumstances
People outside of Greece associate meat dishes such as souvlaki and gyros with Greek food, but this is a misconception. The traditional Greek diet is mostly plant-based with an abundance of vegetable entrees. Further education is needed to increase awareness of the traditional Greek diet.
In the past 30 years, urbanization and economic growth — as well as nutrition misinformation from various sources — have led Greeks to move away from their traditional diet and adopt a more Westernized style of eating. Obesity has become a major public health issue, particularly in children. While Greeks still eat many traditional dishes, they also are eating more processed foods and more meat.
The good news is that recent statistics are showing a small reversal of childhood obesity and the food and culinary community, once again, is embracing the traditional Greek diet, with restaurants offering traditional Greek cuisine and educational events promoting traditional Greek products.
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