There’s something inherently special about eating in Athens that I can’t quite put my finger on or find the words to describe. But I think of tucking into a piping hot bite of moussaka in a clay pot with the Acropolis lit up like a movie star ahead of me. This scene, this blend of ancient human history with classic Greek cuisine is objectively extraordinary.
I’ve long been intrigued by Athens, even more so since moving to Germany nearly four years ago. I imagined it would be like any other European capital with exquisite architecture, walkable boulevards and plazas, and omnipresent relics of its history.
Some of that is true but it doesn’t make up for how wrong I was.
Contemporary Athens is a baby of a city when compared to its European brethren. It’s only in relatively recent history that the population of the Greek capital exploded to what it is today, expanding far beyond the Acropolis. As recent as 1833, the population was just around 4,000. To put that in perspective, Rome around the same period was just under 200,000.
So no, you don’t get the kind of aesthetic you might imagine from Italy, France or Spain. In fact, much of Athens reminds me of San José, Costa Rica or bombed out corners of Berlin where buildings were hastily built up to meet demand. They didn’t have the luxury of time or budgets to pay attention to whether or not the face or railing were inspiring or whatever.
But none of that particularly mattered to me. At least, not as much as it usually would. Because when you’re in the center of such monumental history, you don’t need a plaque to remind you. You feel it. And in Athens, it’s strongly encouraged that you go ahead and taste it as well.
No objections here.
I find Greek food to be considerably unappreciated. It’s in a weird spot. Sure, there are countless Greek restaurants, but ask anyone with Greek heritage (like my wife), and they’ll tell you that the only Greek food worth eating is at home with your yiayia (grandmother). But people who don’t know that go to the occasional Greek restaurant and think they know what Greek food is. So without a yiayia on hand, the next best way to learn about Greek food is to go to the source.
My wife and I joined an Alternative Athens food tour with a small group (just another couple) for the promise of diving into Greek cuisine without getting caught up in the touristy corners of town. Our guide, a young woman in her 30s, was my kind of guide––she was an immigrant.
Many of us take the cultures we were born into for granted and think we know everything we need to know through osmosis. Obviously there are exceptions to that rule but I often find that immigrants give some of the best tours of their new homes because they tend to absorb every nook and cranny of their new home, studying the history and modern reality of a place from every possible angle. In that respect, our guide at Alternative Athens was no exception. An interesting fact or observation about the city was always right in front of us. All we had to do was ask the question.
A question we never had to ask was, “Can we get something to eat?” If you do an Alternative Athens food tour, it should go without saying that you need to show up hungry. Show up after a fast or whatever the latest diet craze says to do. You’re going to need the room in every vital organ because there is no shortage of Greek goodness in your immediate future.
Eat Like A God
Now, I don’t want to spoil the tour in case you want to sign up yourself. But I’m no saint. I’m more than happy to humble brag about what we got to eat and derive a bit of food envy.
There was baklava, an assortment of cheeses and cured meats with ouzo (Greek paint remover), souvlaki with minced chicken, veggies, potatoes, and a dollop of tzatziki wrapped into fast food heaven. This, for a mere mortal, would’ve been enough. But Athens and Greece itself are shrouded in legends of mighty Gods, so you must eat on.
Later, there was a Greek coffee (human motor oil) to fire up our engines again so we didn’t slip into a food coma. Then before we knew it, it was time for another snack. This time, it was koulouria––chewy bread rings with sesame seeds and a hint of sweetness. From there, the eats just got heavier.
We teed ourselves up for a sugar high with some bougatsa (a custard pie with phyllo) from the kind of traditional place where you can see the guy making them at breakneck speed before diving into more Greek staples, like stuffed peppers and sarma (cabbage rolls with minced meat). It was an afternoon of gluttony, so we topped it off with some loukoumades––Greek donuts with an outer shell soaked in honey before lurching home for a nap like a bludgeoned boxer who only won out of a technicality.
Somehow it was all over within a brisk two or three hours. In retrospect, it might seem absurd to consider how much food you’ve consumed in the span of a Martin Scorcese movie. But in the end, I felt like I knew Athens a little better, which of course was just enough to know that it wasn’t at all what I expected and I still had a lot to learn.
Nonetheless, what I lack in knowledge, I think I make up for in my bubbling advocacy for Greek food.