Greek food for me is the taste of holiday. Fresh fish, bread and dips and lots of wine to wash it all down. The cuisine is the poster-child for the Mediterranean diet- focusing on fresh fish, olive oil and vegetables- but is also inspired in a big way by the neighbouring countries like Turkey, Italy and the Middle East.
The thing is that over here in the UK, Greek restaurants verge on the side of tacky, which can sometimes be off-putting. However, I urge you to look beneath the blue and white striped awning, and the plastic nudes of Apollo with his little tiny penis and look to the fantastic food which is just waiting for you to discover.
Everyone loves a hidden gem, right? Well, Greek food is one of the best of them, so here is where to get your fix. Just keep it on the DL, we don’t want to spoil the secret now do we?
The flavour of Greek food can be best described by two ingredients. The first is Feta Cheese– a brined white cheese made from a mixture of sheep and goats milk which is native to the Greek islands. Feta is a big part of many dishes in Greek cuisine. If you have been living in some kind of proverbial cave for the past ten years and you haven’t tried feta cheese, I suggest you order the grilled feta with onions from Tzatziki in Fallowfield just to get a taste for it. After all, who on earth doesn’t like melted cheese?
The most famous dish which uses feta would be Spanakopita which is a spinach and feta filo pie which is one of the Greek national dishes. The salty feta goes perfectly with the mild spinach, and when all wrapped up in some buttery filo pastry, it is hard to say no. Find it on the evening menu at Bouzouki on Princess Street.
The second ingredient is Olives and their oil. The Greeks have been cultivating olives since ancient times – the first olive tree being given by the Goddess Athena according to legend. Olives are a standard side to any meal and the ones grown on the Greek islands are arguably the best in the world. They are typically cured in a salty brine or made into olive oil which is another intrinsic ingredient to Greek cuisine which is used liberally on salads, in dips and drizzled over most dishes before they hit the table.
I could eat olives until I explode, especially the slightly bitter Kalamata black olives from Greece. If you want to sample some of the best olives this side of the Ionian Sea, then head straight for Volta in West Didsbury- their home-cured olives are utterly divine.
Eating mezze is hands-down one of my favourite things to do. I like just how tactile it is enjoying lots of dishes at once, and I, unlike Joey Tribiani, love to share food with a few friends or family. The Greeks are known for their dips like Tzatziki, Taramasalata and Hummus. These usually come with a few freshly baked pita breads for dipping and are a fantastic way to kick off your Greek feast.
Dolmades are a must when it comes to Mezze. These are vine leaves that are stuffed with rice and steamed. The rice inside is flavoured with herbs, tomato puree, lemon and garlic. There is sometimes minced lamb in there too, but I think the veggie ones are the best. You can buy these in a can, which are legitimately really delicious, from shops like Venus or Worldwide, but if you want to try them in a restaurant try Pasha down in Withington.
One of my favourite things on a Greek menu is Kolokythokeftedes. No, I didn’t sneeze on my keyboard that is an actual world, although I have no idea how to pronounce it- it is one of those point and smile features on the menu if you know what I mean. These are little courgette fritters that are served with Tzatziki for dipping, and yes, they are as good as they sound. You can get them at Fallowfield’s very own Greek Taverna, Kozmos.
Finally, no Mezze feast is complete with Gigantes. This is a bean dish made with giant white beans (hence the name meaning ‘giant’ in Greek). These are soaked overnight and boiled until tender. The beans are then cooked in a tomato based sauce and baked in the oven to fuse all the flavours. This dish is often finished off with a little bit of crumbled feta which is how they serve it at Alexandros. I love this dish from this little Taverna down in Northernden, which is honestly one of South Manchester’s best-kept secrets.
After your mezze, it is time to get involved with something a little more substantial – which will almost always involve meat. The Greeks are big into lamb, and one of the most famous lamb dishes to come from this part of the world would be Moussaka.
This dish is sort of Greece’s answer to lasagne that swaps the pasta for another carb and with different flavours and spices. The bottom layer is fried minced lamb which is flavoured with onions, garlic, cinnamon, oregano, tomatoes and sometimes a little lemon juice. This is then topped with a layer of grilled aubergine (which is just heavenly) and a layer of sliced potato which is all topped off with a smooth, creamy white sauce. They bake it for an hour or so the top is bubbling and charred.
Mousakka is a Greek staple, so many people judge how good a restaurant is on this dish. I have to say that it is pretty darn good at Sokrates Taverna in Sale, which is widely regarded as the best Mousakka in Manchester- so go there and see for yourself!
Another meat dish that is famous in Greece would be Gyros. This is a street food that is comparable to a kebab which is formed from sliced meat, cooked on a spit, served in a pita with salad, tzatziki, chilli sauce and chips. Gyros are most commonly chicken or pork which is marinated for a few hours before cooking. If you fancy a chicken Gyro, look no further than Zorbas at The Arndale Food Market (important to note that they do a fantastic mezze salad box including all the big hitters too.)
Where there are Islands, there is a cuisine that has a penchant towards fresh fish. The Greeks love seafood, and things like Sardines, Red Mullet, Swordfish, John Dory and even the occasional flying fish are native to the Islands. The most common way fish is enjoyed in Greece is grilled merely over hot coals with oregano, lemon and lashings of extra virgin olive oil. There really isn’t anything quite like it.
Kalamarankia (or squid to you and I) is popular in Greece. I am sure we have all enjoyed the deep-fried rings of squid with fresh lemon and mayonnaise which is a ubiquitous dish at Greek restaurants. However, the Greeks also like to use squid in simple salads with vinaigrette, chopped vegetables and capers which is so deliciously fresh. You try squid both ways at Dimitri’s just off Deansgate.
Octopus is a standard feature on many menus in Greece. Along the harbours, you will see Octopus hung up on lines like washing to dry out which is a super iconic image of Greek coastal life. They treat it much in the same way as Squid, using it in fresh salads but they also stew it and serve it with pasta.
Unlike squid, Octopus can be cooked for a long time which produces tender, delicious flesh. If you head down to La Bandera, you can sample their twice cooked Octopus with paprika potatoes which, albeit, isn’t Greek, but has a very Greek feel to it with the way they prepare and treat the Octopus so it is the best you will find here in Manchester.
No Greek feast is complete without something sweet to finish it off with. Baklava is another one of these dishes which falls under the umbrella of middle-eastern/Mediterranean cuisine. Baklava originates from the Ottoman Empire in modern-day Turkey which neighbours many of the Greek Islands.
The deliciously sticky, sweet dessert is made up from layer upon layer of filo pastry with a mixture of nuts in between the layers. This is baked, cooled and then ‘fed’ with spiced sugar syrup or honey which is absorbed by the pastry. It is the cut into bitesize pieces (usually diamond shapes) and served with coffee after a meal or as an afternoon pick-me-up.
Baklava is the best way to end any Greek meal, and all the restaurants in Manchester will serve it. However, if you want to try the best Baklava in Manchester, look no further than Pastry House in Rusholme because it is really out of this world. They have trays and trays of freshly baked Baklava in all shapes and sizes for you to try. I would suggest buying yourself a mixed tray and taste your way through them all. It also makes a cracking cheats dessert for your next dinner party too.