My first night in Athens, I set off on a quixotic quest for a quintessentially Greek food: souvlaki. I do this more often than I should, fixating on something that I think should be representative of local cuisine and usually finding out after hours of searching that, in fact, it’s out of season or, worse yet, totally out of fashion. My hotel was on the edge of Exarcheia, the district best known as the home of the Athens Polytechnion, a famous hotbed of student anarchism and, indeed, riot police and communist graffiti are still to this day a major feature — so you’d think cheap, greasy fare like souvlaki should sell well. But as I walked around and around, I found little ouzeris, English pubs, not a few pizza places, a large number of cafes, countless pastry shops and even a lost-looking organic juice stall — but absolutely zero souvlatzidikos. Eventually, I conceded defeat and had my dinner at Goody’s, an ubiquitous (and pretty tasty) Greek fast food chain that at least offered a decent horiatiki salata and a “Pita Pita” sandwich, which, as it turns out, was souvlaki in all but name.
So what is souvlaki, anyway? It’s a word of confused meaning, as even in Greece, it can mean either lamb meat grilled on a skewer, or grilled pork wrapped in pita bread (aka gyros, and almost but not quite the same as doner kebab). “Pita”, incidentally, is another of those words that means something entirely different in Greek than in the rest of the world. Quite frankly, I’m still not sure what it means, except that it seems to cover everything except those flat pocket things. The “pita” used to wrap a souvlaki is indeed flat, but a bit puffy and entirely unpocketed; the “pita” of a spanakopita (spinach and cheese pastry) is deep-fried and flaky; and the “pita” of a milopita at McDonalds is exactly identical to McD’s apple pies, a mysterious combination of starch, grease and scalding innards.
A few days later, having gathered some souvlaki scuttlebutt, I ventured down to Monastiraki and its famous trio of souvlaki joints: Thanasis, Savvas and Bairaktaris. A mecca of pork they may be, but these days Mitropoleos street is smack dab in the heart of tourist central, and the evil threesome have figured out how to maximize their profits: if you sit down and take a look at the menu, souvlaki portions start at an outrageous 9 euros, and they all involve platters with salad and french fries. Not listed on the menu, but needless to say far more popular among the Greeks, is the real souvlaki which has to be ordered as a “souvlaki sandwich”: they’re made on the fly, served in a greasy wrap of paper for take away only, and cost a far more reasonable 1,70 euros a shot. Tzatzikilicious!
One thing that really surprised me was the pastry shop phenomenon. Every day on my way from work, I walked south one block and east two blocks from the Metro station to my hotel. Within these six city blocks of possible routes there were, without exaggeration, at least 20 places to load up on pastries: at least a dozen cafes with big pastry shelves, half a dozen dedicated pastry shops with just a little heated-up counter, and few old guys sitting on the street with tables piled high with sesame rings. I sampled one almost every day, never choosing the same place or same thing twice, and while they all pretty much looked the same from the outside the variation in tastes and textures was astounding. I even found out that it’s possible to screw up spanakopita: one chain cafe offered terrible triangles with sour, vinegary mash inside, while the independent little shop that made its own used precisely the same ingredients and managed to make the feta, spinach and crumbly crust dance in perfect harmony.
Probably the best meal of my trip, though, was at a little restaurant on Hydra. The island is inundated by tourists and all the restaurants there cater squarely to them — for example, nearly all the much-advertised seafood is in fact imported frozen from far away — so, not being in the mood to chew on defrosted kalamari, I picked a small joint that had Greek diners and reasonably priced non-fish meals, and opted for a moussaka and Greek salad. And, well, damn. Half an egglant reduced to a pulpy mess on the inside, a layer of mince and tomato, a drizzle of cheese… I’m drooling as I write this! And the salad, too, was simplicity itself: a bed of cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, onion and kalamata olives, a single big chunk of feta, a sprinkle of oregano and (very) generous slathering of olive oil on top. No wonder every Greek seems to walk around with a spare tire…