The Flavours of Athens, a City Tasting Tour
Thalia Tsichlakis, who signed this article, is a Greek food writer and contributor for FNL Guide, as well as many other important magazines and websites.
Old cities are like onions, revealing themselves slowly. Discovering their history is like peeling an onion, until you realize that the layers which wrap its core are, in fact, the onion itself.
When in Athens do as the Athenians do
In Athens, the oldest democracy in the world, whose many temples also included one dedicated to the Unknown God, Greek cuisine is not a one-way street. Strolling around downtown Athens you can easily find any ethnic food your heart desires, from falafel to noodles.
To discover real Greek food, you need to wander the streets while munching on a large sesame koulouri bread (the best one is that of Psirri, sold at the street stands scattered around the city) or a souvlaki wrapped in pita bread. The Greek souvlaki defies strict definition. Purists swear by a dry pita, a bit thicker than the Arabic one, containing a pork skewer, tomato, red pepper, onion and parsley. Tzatziki, French fries and various other additions, although customary, are considered a barbarism.
The city’s most cult souvlaki is to be found at Kostas: it is pretty basic and to get it you must have the patience of a saint, but its beef patty or pork skewer will reward you. Beware, however, it only stays open until 3.30 pm, Monday through Saturday. Equally authentic is the souvlaki at Lefteris o Politis.
Pita with beef patty or, in the winter, handmade soutzouki jazzed up with spicy red pepper, cumin and allspice. Almost unanimously, Greeks consider their pies to be their most representative food, since they sum up the philosophy of the country’s rural cuisine. It is definitely their most versatile food, as they can be eaten hot or cold and their “phyllo” (fine sheets of ready-made pastry) and fillings can be adapted to whatever ingredients each household happens to have.
The Greek pies’ phyllo is at times thin, resembling the North African “feuilles de brick”, at times like the Italian-type “sfogliata”, and at others a handmade, thick “kuru” phyllo made from yoghurt dough (kuru). Their fillings are equally flexible. They can be just plain wild greens or grated cheese or even leftovers from the day before.
A stop at Ariston is a must if you want to understand what a pie with kuru phyllo really is (tyropita or spanakopita, respectively cheese and spinach pie). But the place where you can find the greatest variety of delicious pies – and much more – is the flagship store of the biggest Greek online deli, Yoleni's.
Its first floor hosts a butcher’s shop-in-a-shop by Bralos Farm, together with a conceptual restaurant, for which Michalis Nourloglou, one of the most dynamic young Greek chefs, has designed a menu based on the farm’s top-quality Greek meats.
Traditional Greek sweets, as they were made in the old days, such as soft rice pudding (ryzogalo) and crisp honey fritters (loukoumades), as well as an ascetically basic greens pie with its crispy phyllo, all in their original version, are only rarely found today.
That alone is reason enough to pay a visit to the dairy shop I Stani, literally “ship pen”. Try the authentic Greek yoghurt made with sheep's milk, with its slightly acidic taste, velvety texture and wrinkled layer of skin – the iconic Greek food, whose industrialized version is what today has come to be known as “Greek yogurt”.
Mageireia and gastro-tavernas at Varvakios market
Here, in the Athens Central Market, you can feel the pulse of the city, observe the Athenians shopping food or also shop like them, and even sample their everyday dishes. The modest Oinomageireio Ipiros (4 Filopimenos St, Varvakios Market, tel. 210 3240773) serves casseroles and baked dishes, various soups and “patsa” – the soup for night owls, a tripe soup seasoned with vinegar and garlic (“skordostoubi”) and thickened with an egg and lemon sauce (“avgolemono”), believed to be a remedy for hangover – from morning until 8 pm.
Further down, in the market's more “oriental” section, squeezed between sausage shops and spice shops, behind the market’s parking lot, the meze restaurant Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani, combines the sale of local cold cuts and cheeses from various Greek regions with the opportunity to sample them, prepared according to simple traditional recipes, served in the same way as tapas, which in Greece are called “meze”.
If you are a fan of fish meze, you must discover Aiolou 68, a post-modern fish gastro-tavern situated less than 300 meters away, at the inner square formed by three galleries, which you can enter from number 68 on Aiolou Street and from Evripidou Street. It serves imaginative fish meze dishes and has a list of representative spirits and Greek wines, in a setting that will make you feel as if you were on a Greek island.
A stop at the Pantopolio tis Mesogiakis Diatrofis or “Mediterranean diet grocery store”, will quickly turn into the ideal opportunity for a gourmet safari, as here you can find a collection of more than 2,000 Greek products, both traditional and organic, from 225 different family business industries, women's associations and cooperatives.