When people think of Greek cuisine, they may first think about cheese or grilled lamb, but the heart of cuisine in many parts of Greece is seafood. After all, much of the country is surrounded by water, so it makes sense that so many meals are based on what the sea provides. While traveling to the islands, you’ll have the chance to try all kinds of different types of seafood in a variety of preparations. However, even on the mainland, you can find incredible fish, mussels, squid, and so much else. Some of the must-try dishes include:
Virtually every psarotaverna, or fish tavern, will serve fried calamari, especially during the summer months. This dish makes the perfect snack and is often served as an appetizer to share before a meal. Typically, the squid is dredged in flour spiced with various seasonings and then fried until it is crispy and golden. The seasonings are often enough, but a sometimes a spritz of lemon juice brings that extra freshness to the calamari, as do fresh tomatoes and cucumbers.
Cheese may come to mind when you hear the word “saganaki,” but the word actually refers to a frying pan with a thick bottom and two handles. The shrimp version, like the cheese, is prepared in this dish. Shrimp saganaki involves sautéeing fresh shrimp in Greek olive oil and then deglazing the pan with ouzo, an anise-flavored liquor that’s widely popular in Greece. The cooked shrimp are added to a spicy tomato sauce that’s topped with fresh herbs and a sprinkling of feta. Traditionally, the dish is served as an appetizer, although many people find it filling enough to constitute a whole meal.
One of the most popular fish to eat in Greece, sardines (or sardeles) can be found in a variety of dishes. You’ll often encounter them on menus as a small dish that comes either grilled or fried, depending on the restaurant. Either way, sardines are delicious. Another tasty, but less common preparation involves baking the sardines with fresh lemon, oregano, and tomato sauce. As a general rule, smaller sardines are more flavorful than larger ones.
In Northern Greece, mussels can be found in just about any fish restaurant because of their popularity. Typically, the mussels are prepared in a tomato sauce with feta cheese after they have been meticulously scrubbed. This variety is known as mussels saganaki because it is finished in the oven in that same pan. Greek chefs also commonly steam mussels with fennel, fresh tomato, and ouzo before finishing them off with cream. Many people enjoy sipping the salty broth from the bottom of the pan or soaking it up with some bread.
In Greek, the word “lavraki” refers to sea bass. In Greece, it’s popular to coat a whole fish with salt, pepper, and herbs, and then grill it over charcoal. Sometimes, restaurants will serve the fish with ladolemono, a sort of lemon vinaigrette dressing. Another version of lavraki involves wrapping the fish in parchment paper and baking it. Travelers on the island of Cephalonia will find the fish virtually everywhere, but it is also offered at other restaurants across the islands and mainland.
Similar to squid is the cuttlefish, which has shorter tentacles. Because of the ease of cooking cuttlefish, especially compared to squid, it has become very popular throughout Greece. Unlike squid, cuttlefish is virtually never fried, but instead stewed in a tomato sauce or sautéed with spinach. The sautéed version usually contains bay leaves, dill, tomato, and lemon juice for a nice tart kick.
A traditional dish served throughout Greece, crab salad makes good use of fresh crab meat by combining it with lemon juice, mayonnaise, onion, tomato, and white wine. Some aromatic herbs usually top off the mixture—in addition to a variety of other ingredients that depend on the chef’s particular taste. You’ll likely find that different islands, and even different restaurants on the same island, have their own secret ingredients that they think makes their crab salad the best in the country. While most chefs will not reveal their secrets, it can be fun to try to guess what the mystery flavors are.
Considered a delicacy in Greece, octopus can prove difficult to catch, so it does not often appear on restaurant menus. However, Greek chefs can do wonderful things to this protein so that it simply melts in the mouth. On the islands, you’ll sometimes encounter an octopus hanging out to dry outside of a taverna. Once caught, restaurants usually dry the octopus for a period of time and then grill it on the barbecue, although some chefs also stew it with tomatoes and serve it over pasta.
If you spend some time out on the water, you may spot lobsters crawling along the floor of the sea in the shallower depths. This familiar creature serves as the start of astakomakaronada, a classic Greek dish considered by many the best the Mediterranean has to offer. The lobster is served on top of pasta with a sauce that is usually made from garlic, tomato, onion, and wine, as well as a small pinch of star anise to give it a unique flavor. While the dish is not hard to find among psarotavernas, it’s typically one of the most expensive options, although it’s certainly worth trying at least once.