by Phil Kafkaloudes
Greece is a feaster’s dream for a lot of reasons.
The tastes are strong and luscious and the variety is enormous. It’s
true that Greeks love their meat and fish, but unlike many cultures
they devote as much time and loving enthusiasm to preparing vegetable
dishes as they do to carnivorous food. And that’s just dandy for we
If you are Greek or if you have Greek friends, you would have seen lunch
feast tables full of stewed beans, spinach, potatoes, eggplant, okra
and cheese and spinach pies. These were probably the tastiest dishes
on the table.
That’s the scene in Australia. Back in the homeland the tastes have
been tragically hidden under a bushel for some time. And the fault,
dear friends, lies with the tourist... you and me. Much of Greece has
become devoted to the tourist trade, particularly the islands, and for
some years, the food on offer has suffered. When I first went to Greece
as a vegetarian in 1988, my food options were severely limited. “Yes,
we have vegetarian. I can give you a Greek salad, or spaghetti with
tomato sauce. Or fish. Yes?”
Over the years the situation has changed, partially because of the worldwide
increase in vegetarians, but also because Greeks are becoming less wary
of offering their traditional vegetable dishes.
Of course, if you restrict your Greek travels to the waterfronts of
Mykonos, Rhodes, Poros and Santorini, you’ll see mostly tourist food
- omelets, schnitzel, hamburgers and the old stand-by, spaghetti. For
the real Greek food, and the vegetarian’s paradise, you’ll need to go
to where the Greeks go.
In Athens, this means the Plaka. It’s the oldest part of the city, underneath
the Acropolis. It is also the place to find the most interesting people.
Here you’ll be enticed by spruikers telling you that their food is the
best, the most authentic. You don’t have to take their word for it.
Ask to go into their kitchen. Often they’ll have their prepared meals
in trays. It’s a good way to see if the food is too oily, and a chance
to ask if they use chicken or beef stock. When we’ve done this we’ve
had a great time, meeting the chef, often getting a tasting there on
Here in Plaka you’ll find the Eden Vegetarian restaurant. As the name
suggests, there’s no meat here, folks. They make a textured protein
souvlaki that’s very tasty, and spot-on if you need a protein hit. It’s
not the cheapest food in the world, but less expensive than a counterpart
restaurant in other countries. It’s not a strictly vegan restaurant,
but there are plenty of vegan choices.
Go further up the steps past the Eden and there are restaurants galore,
all with vegetarian choices. But you’ll get the standard fare - dolmades
(rice in vine leaves), Greek salad, melatsanasalata (minced eggplant
salad), tiropita (feta cheese pies), spanikopita (spinach pies) and
tzatziki (yoghurt dip).
More places, claiming to be vegetarian, are opening in Athens. This
number will increase as the 2004 Olympics draws near. I spent some time
with the Greek Culture Minister, who said she wanted to close central
Athens to cars before the Olympics, turning the city into an eating
paradise. Given all this, the choices for vegetarians are sure to improve,
so ask around.
To the islands. All have the standard non-meat fare, but there is one
island that stands out for vegetarians - Castellorizo. This island is
the furthest from mainland Greece, and the closest to the Turkish coast
(4 kilometers). This isolation has produced special indigenous food,
and much of it vegetarian. Chick pea fritters, zucchini fritters, garlic
and potato dip. All this without a hint of cheese - perfect for vegans.
On Castellorizo ("Cassie") there are only 7 or 8 tavernas, and most
are pretty good. There is one stand-out, Orea Megisti, that offers fabulous
vegetarian food. It is just off the harbour. It is run by two Greek-Australians,
Evangelia and Savva, who returned to Cassie twenty-odd years ago. Their
garlic and potato dip is sensational, and they make the best chick pea
and zucchini fritters on the island. They will also make a killer spinach
on toast, vegetarian minestrone, and eggplant slice (but this has cheese,
and you’ll need to check that they haven’t put meat in the day’s version).
As with all tavernas in Greece, if you go back there often enough, they’ll
go out of their way to make you vegetarian food in advance. Because
Cassie is so isolated, meat is expensive. Eating vegetarian is very
cheap - a huge amount of meat-free food at a taverna like Orea will
cost you no more than $A24 for two (including a bottle of retsina).
Everywhere in Greece salads are many. There is the standard goat’s cheese,
tomato, olives and lettuce salad (horiatiki). They usually make these
up on the spot, so they can make it, if requested, without the cheese.
Other salads shouldn’t be ignored, though. Cabbage (when in season)
is wonderful with the traditional oil and lemon. There are also the
specialised salads like lettuce, cucumber, tomato or bean.
Rice is a staple on many of the islands, so Greeks cook rice just right
(or there would be a riot!). You can get it as a dish on its own (pillafi)
which can be cooked in oil and oregano, or with tomato, small strands
of pasta or with other vegetables.
Stuffed vine leaves (dolmades) are for any taste, but a warning here.
Sometimes, depending on the part of Greece you are in, they will put
meat in with the rice. So ask if their dolmades are vegetarian (dolmades
yalanzi). If they aren’t, don’t expect them to rustle up vegetarian
versions on the spot. They take hours, or sometimes days, to prepare
Stuffed tomato, capsicums or marrows work beautifully with the rice taking
on the flavour of the shells, giving a different sensation with each.
Like with the dolmades, check that there isn’t meat in with the rice.
The stewed foods can be great, if a little oily for some tastes. Stewed
beans, either giant (gigantes) or string, usually come with other vegetables
like zucchini and carrot. One of the great Greek eating joys is the
mopping of the oil with bread.
Many people just settle for mezzes, which is a selection of Greek entrees,
and bread. These include the tzatziki (yoghurt), eggplant, potato and capsicum dips. Add the wine, and you could be filled for the equivalent
of a few dollars. And you should always have a salad for a beautifully
Greece can be a vegetarian’s paradise. But you’ll need to look for it.
Once you’ve found a taverna that has what you want, you’ll have food
that you’ll want to eat slowly and savour. It’s the food of the ancient
Greeks: fresh, energising and great tasting. Then you’ll look at the
meat eater at the next table, and know that they’re missing out on some
of the real treasures of Greece.
Saying it in Greek - a Quick Guide:
Vegetarian - Hortafargis (‘horta-far-giss’)
Big Beans - Gigantes (‘ye-gan-tess’)
Stuffed Vine Leaves Vegetarian - Dolmades Yalanzi (‘dol-mar-thess ya-lun-zee’)
Greek Salad - Horiatiki (‘hor-ria-tee-kee’)
Eggplant Salad - Melatsanasalata (‘mel-lat-zarna-sal-arta’)
Yoghurt Dip - Tzatziki (‘zat-zee-kee’)
Cheese Pie - Tiropita (‘tear-rop-pita’)
Spinach Pie - Spanikopita (spun-ni-kop-pita’)
Spinach - Spinaki (“spun-nay-kee”)
Layered Eggplant Slice - Moussaka (‘moo-sar-ka’)
Chick Pea Fritters - (‘re-vee-tho kef-teth-ess’)
Zucchini Fritters - (‘gollo-ke-they-kee kef-teth-ess’)
Rice Dish - Pillafi (‘pil-luff-ee’)
Phil Kafcaloudes is a journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation,
having been a long-time court reporter and TV State Political Reporter
in New South Wales. He and his wife, actor Jackie Rees, have been vegetarians
for 13 years. They travel to Greece whenever they can scrape together
Copyright © by The Australian Vegetarian Society All Right Reserved.