The Greeks are passionate about their food and wine, and that’s the one thing I have in common with them. During the five maddening, noisy and hectic days I spent with them, the only moments of silence were the first few minutes at meal time, after they expertly ordered a bunch of dishes without a single glance at the menu. The differences in our culture were never more evident than at these moments of sharing food and toasting over Ouzo- and between my determined attempts at learning to enjoy authentic Greek food (attempts that remained largely unsuccessful, aside from the fresh Greek Yogurt I took the odd affinity to). Yet I was surprised to learn that months later, those dreadful moments of letting fate control my food, ended up becoming my fondest memories. And though I almost always end up falling in love with local cuisine everywhere, here in Greece I would sit at the table repeating to myself that a traveller is open to all cultural experiences and local food is a big part of that culture. That only helped until the fried Octopus tentacles arrived at dinner.
1. Don’t catch up over coffee
On my first day in Athens, I went to visit the Acropolis museum with my hosts in Greece. A few hours after walking around Plaka I could barely keep myself from fainting in the semi-famished, semi-irritable hot-mess (of the literal sense) state I was in. So when I discovered the Acropolis Museum had a cafe, I made a run for it. While we sat down for coffee, my adventurous inner self decided to experiment just a little, and I ended up with a cup of traditional Greek coffee. It came in a tiny white cup with an equally tiny cookie with it- one single bite-sized cookie that could do nothing to sweeten the taste of the bitter, strong coffee I was now stuck with. For someone who doesn’t like coffee, this looked like a challenge.
My company tossed her coffee back in a second and agitatedly stared at me as I sipped mine, all the while tapping her feet impatiently (while I tapped mine, wondering how to get rid of it without being offensive). She told me the Greeks can tell all about a person’s life from their coffee mug. Obviously intrigued, I asked her to prophecise away and within seconds she overturned my coffee mug, putting a coin on it while it rested there for two entire minutes. This was followed by a thorough survey of my mug. A couple minutes later she put it down.. and went on to paint the most pessimistic picture possible about my life. On my worst days I could have conjured up a far rosier picture than the one she presented to me on my very first day in Athens, at the first coffee I had with these strangers I was meeting for the first time. All this, only because I left way too much coffee in my cup and it all trickled down leaving a messy imprint on the insides of the coffee mug, which seemed to indicate a messy life.
2. Don’t bother with starters
Every time in the 24 years of my existence that I have been given a bread basket and a bottle of olive oil, I have merely drizzled a few drops of oil onto the bread. One fine day in Athens, I was let it on the world’s biggest secret- the Greeks don’t treat their olive oil like seasoning. Everything is cooked in olive oil, and whatever hasn’t had the fortune, comes with a bottle of olive oil to be submerged in. Huge chunks of toasted bread arrived and were doused in massive amounts of free-flowing olive oil, until there was more olive oil on that plate than there was bread. Once I was done gaping open-mouthed, I decided to follow the lead. For the rest of my 5 days in Greece, I only ate bread for starters at every single meal.
3. Don’t order food with your soup
We arrived in Santorini on a particularly cold and windy day; nothing one wouldn’t expect in November. Since the island is closed for business during winter (as is most of Greece) there were few options to dine. Luckily, I was traveling with locals who had favourite restaurants already pinned down. We walked into a local taverna playing classical Greek music, decorated with different items collected from underwater dives. Passionate as the Greeks are about their food, I wasn’t given a menu to pick from. I wasn’t even asked about my preferences. They knew what they wanted me to try: a fish soup that is a delicacy on the island and famous at the taverna. Two medium-sized dead fish were brought to me on a platter, pending my approval. Nobody waited for flabbergasted yes (5 seconds too late) and the dish went into the kitchen. The server at this family-run restaurant was a young girl helping her parents out in the evenings after school; who then arrived with a massive bowl of soup. This bright yellow, exceedingly expensive soup arrived in a massive bowl that was big enough for 4 people to drink out of- thrice. 2 entire fresh fish were mashed into this soup, and another 2 came on a platter with a bunch of vegetables on the side- and, for the Greeks wouldn’t have it any other way, drizzled in olive oil. Four people had a difficult time finishing the soup that was entirely unappetising to me. Perhaps I was put off by the eyes popping out of the dead fish’s face on the platter in front of me, but I remember spending the entire evening in a state of semi-starvation, not having had the guts to admit that I wasn’t into the soup at all.
4. Don’t ask for the seafood menu:
The same taverna that was the cause of my hunger the night of the soup incident added to my misery in other ways too. When the soup arrived with it’s cut-up pieces of fish, it was accompanied by another dish that further accentuating my horror. This dish was a large serving of octopus tentacles fried in olive oil. To make matters worse, my Greek friends showed me a few pictures of a string of bright orange octopuses left out on a string to dry. While the picture was actually a pretty one (with the colours popping out) I couldn’t say the same for my state of mind that was now in hyperventilation mode, wondering how to get through the meal. I pride myself on being flexible around food, always eager to try out the most unique dish on every menu. That was the day I decided never to ask for the seafood menu in Greece.
5. Don’t drink Ouzo:
Some say Ouzo is the traditional Greek drink, others say it’s only for tourists and make for great souvenirs. Though the Greeks I spent my vacation with were big fans of Ouzo, they were also big fans of wine. I can handle wine fairly well (being my usual choice of alcohol anyway), but I believe I was a little ambitious with Ouzo. This anise-flavoured drink that tastes a lot like the Turkish Raki, brought back fond memories of drinking it with a friend who brought some back for me from his visits to the country a few times. I was only too kicked about trying Ouzo, for it’s unlike anything we get here in India, and tastes fresh and delicious. I didn’t account for it’s high alcohol content though. Hours later, I was skipping around in the Athens Plaka area collecting olive seeds while admiring the Acropolis; singing and dancing without a jacket on- which led to a great story but also to a chilling flu I got down with the next day.
P.S.: My time in Greece has been one of the most memorable experiences, made even better from the company of the most experienced travel company owners and tour guides. They ended up becoming close friends by the end of the trip, and even ended up in India 2 months later to visit me. My experiments with Greek food have been adventurous but have also been deliciously satisfying. I’m a fan of the fresh Greek yogurt and every time I step out now to a fine dining restaurant, I’m caught covering my bread with loads of olive oil. The Greek culture is so deeply engrained in the food they eat, that trying out different dishes is vital to truly understanding their culture, traditions and lifestyle. I also learnt the similarities between the Turkish and Greek cultures through their food- from alcohol (Ouzo and Raki) to Baklava, a dessert both Greeks and Turks argue originated in their country- just as they argue over the origin of most dishes!