You’ve tried a Greek salad, you’ve picked sticky-sweet baklava from your teeth, and perhaps you’ve even taken a shot or two of ouzo. Well, you’ve just scratched the surface of all the complex and delicious flavors found in authentic Greek cuisine. We turned to author and Greek culinary guru Henriette Lazaridis Power to peel back the curtain on the dishes and drinks we laymen might not know. And now we’re practically salivating at the thought of these lesser-known plates.
Best Unknown Drink: Vyssinatha
If you’re sitting at a cafe—the old-fashioned kind with little tables outside a storefront lined with dark wooden cupboards—and you’re lucky, they will have vyssinatha. If you’re incredibly lucky, they will have a home-made version. Vyssinatha is a drink made by diluting cherry preserves with water. That’s it. You spoon some of the syrupy preserves into the bottom of a tall glass, fill it with water as cold as you can get it, and set it on the table where the syrup swirls and mixes on its own with the water, turning the glass into a tube of deep red that goes burgundy at the bottom. As for the taste, there’s something to Greek cherries that makes them muskier and darker than the cherries you can get in the States. Vyssinatha is a sweet drink, but there’s a hint of earthiness to it, too.
On the far southern island of Symi is one small cafe by the harbor with four or five small tables set out front. Elpitha, the proprietress and kindly spirit who presides over her eponymous cafe will bring you a glass with tiny cherries at the bottom. You’ll sit there watching the boats from Rhodes come and go, and you will never want to leave.
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Best Unkown Dessert: Bougátsa
From the outside, bougátsa looks like any other kind of pita. But inside the phyllo crust is a sweet custard that is a little bit cheesey and mostly creamy. The filling has a bit of cinnamon flavor, and the egginess of the custard blends together with the added semolina into perfection. The best part about bougátsa is the texture. The phyllo is light and flaky while the custard is dense, though not piled high inside. The best part is…you can find it everywhere.
Most hungry visitors to Ioannina go looking for baklava or its custardy cousin galaktoboureko. But Epirotes know that bougátsa is the real prize. You can find yours at the select pastry shop or simply get a bougátsa to go from one of the many shop-fronts that are little more than windows onto an oven. A slightly surly baker will hand you a slab in a piece of paper, and you can enjoy your treat while you stroll down the main boulevard down to Lake Pamvotis, following the outer walls of the 6th-century castle. Try Thessalonike (Serraïkon Bougatsa, 35 Vasileos Irakliou) or Ioannina (Select pastry shop, 2 Averof Street.
Weirdest Greek Food Item: Ypovrichio or Vanilia
Mastika is a strange substance: the resin collected from mastic trees that grow only on the island of Chios. The "tears" of the mastic trees are dried and hardened and then sold in tiny jars like little beads. You use mastika in this form in the baking of tsoureki, the braided Easter bread that resembles challah. But mastika also comes as a white, gummy syrup. It looks like Elmer’s Glue. You dip a spoon into the jar, set that spoonful into a tall glass, and fill the glass with water. Then you sit somewhere comfortable and suck on the spoon, dip it back into the glass, and repeat until it is all gone and you are just about sated with the cloying sweetness of the thing. Greeks call this concoction itself Ypovrichio, or when the goop is made without the mastic-tree resin but with straight sugar instead, Vanilia (the stuff does have a sweet vanilla flavor). It’s consumed mostly by children, but every now and then, an adult will remember that there is some old mastika in the cupboard and make up a glass. You’ll find it throughout Greece, at any cafe, and in most homes. And you can buy vanília in most supermarkets to take home. On Chios, head to Kafenio Myrovolos Chios (88 Eleftheriou Venizelou Street) or Iliastra.
Best Unknown Savory Food: Maritha, Fried Anchovies
The lowly anchovy is the unwanted guest on many an American pizza. Tell people you’ve snuck anchovy paste into your tomato sauce, and they’ll cringe. But in Greece, the anchovy reaches perfection. Why? Because it’s fried whole in olive oil, and eaten by the seaside with hefty pinches of salt and squeezes of lemon. The length of your little finger, crusted, and slightly glazed, the fried anchovy is a crunchy delicacy with a briny flavor.
You can find maritha at any number of fish taverns in the Patras suburb of Rio, where you’ll have a good view of the cable-stayed bridge that spans the Gulf of Patras. If you’re sticking close to downtown Patras, you’ll find excellent maritha at Agyra, a tavern at the bottom of Trion Navarchon Street. In Athens, it’s worth a trip beyond the city’s enormous sprawl to Faros Taverna (22 Perikleous, Paralia Marathona) by the coast at Marathon. They will serve you a plate of the delicacy right at the water’s edge.
Henriette Lazaridis Power is a first-generation Greek-American who has degrees in English literature from Middlebury College; Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar; and the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Harvard for ten years, serving as an academic dean for four of those. She is the founding editor of The Drum, a literary magazine publishing exclusively in audio form. A competitive rower, Power trains regularly on the Charles River in Boston. Her most recent book, The Clover House, was released last month.
Photo credits: Cherries for Vyssinatha via Shutterstock; Bougatsa via Wikimedia Commons/Philly boy92; Mastic tree sap via Shutterstock; Maritha via Shutterstock; Street in Epirus and fishermen’s boats in Patras courtesy of Henriette Lazadris