What are the health benefits of a Greek diet?
A Greek diet includes lots of vegetables, fruits, beans and cereals, like wholegrain bread, pasta and brown rice. It also contains moderate amounts of fish, white meat and some dairy.
It’s the combination of all these elements that seems to equate to health benefits, but one of the key aspects is the inclusion of healthy fats. Olive oil, which is a monounsaturated fat, is most commonly associated with the Greek diet, but polyunsaturated fats are also present in nuts, seeds and oily fish.
Research into the traditional Greek diet has shown it can reduce the risk of developing conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are all risk factors for heart disease. They’ve also found that people who closely follow a Greek diet may live a longer life and be less likely to put on weight – lucky me!
What are the store cupboard staples for a home cook new to Greek cooking?
Everything mentioned above, plus dried fruits and herbs and a lot of vegetables, in particular onions, garlic and aubergines. Lentil soups, vegetable stews with herbs, and salads with vegetables and olive oil are just some of the dishes you could make with these ingredients. Ancient Greeks ate mostly vegan food, hence why it’s often considered one of the healthiest diets. They would only have eaten meat and fish, such as beef or white grouper, once or twice a week.
What can you do with each ingredient?
Olive oil: Olive oil is a very sacred ingredient for Greeks – extra virgin olive oil can really lift a dish to heaven. It gives an amazing flavour to soups just before you serve them. It’s really the perfect finishing touch to any dish.
Feta: Real feta cheese is a pretty strong ingredient with sour and salty flavours. It needs to be used cautiously, as it can overpower everything else on the table. I like using it grated on top of a nice cold piece of watermelon.
Olives: The foundation of Greek cuisine. Salty, brined olives are the perfect snack before your meal, accompanied by a martini. I always dice them up and incorporate into pasta dishes.
Honey: I remember my uncle making honey every year. I used to join in and eat the honeycomb. Honey makes for a great garnish. I like it with yogurt ice-cream.
Yoghurt: Greek yogurt is hung, and therefore is a bit stiffer and sourer than natural yogurts. It’s full of probiotics to improve both gut and bone health. I often make a yogurt parfait dessert which tastes like Greece to me.
Nuts: Nuts are abundant in every household in Greece. My family home is on the island of Kefalonia, where we have almond and walnut trees. I love to pickle the young walnuts and add to all sorts of savoury dishes.
Oily fish: In Greece, they don’t have lots of oily fish like salmon, mackerel or herring. The mackerel season is short, just for a couple of months in the summer. Traditionally we salt and hot smoke the oily fish and serve them alongside soups in the winter or with tomatoes in the summer as a salad.
Filo: Filo pastry is amazing when it's homemade by the old grandmothers in Greece, but it’s not something we can factor into our busy lives over here. Filo pastry is used to make a massive variety of pies. There are milk pies, cheese pies, spinach pies, chicken pies and sweet pies too. I like making a version of a milk pie with apricot (see recipe below).
And where are the best places to stock up?
In London, Greek delis such as The Life Goddess or a company called Maltby and Greek are great sources. They both stock a huge variety of ingredients, from fresh to dry. They even import vegetables from Greece, as well as wines and spirits.
Here are all the Greek ingredients you need to get started…
Are there any home appliances or tools that help?
My mum used to love the old-fashioned pressure cooker. It helps a lot when you want to cook the likes of a bean stew that would normally take up to three hours – with a pressure cooker, it can take just 30 minutes.
Which cookbooks do you recommend?
My top three are the Meraki Cookbook by my friend Athinagoras Kostakos, who works at Meraki. There’s also The Secret of Spice by Tonia Buxton and Under The Olive Tree by Irini Tzortzoglou – both are really good.
Finally, where are your favourite places to eat Greek food in London?
Stocked up on the essentials above? Here are three of Asimakis’s simple recipes to try at home…