Traditional Cretan Food
Traditional Cretan food has always been prepared from local ingredients, raw or prepared as simply as possible – grilled or baked. Since ancient times, Cretan cuisine has been based on several basic elements: olive oil, herbs, fish and seafood, goat or lamb meat, vegetables and fruits grown on the island. Later, Venetian and Ottoman influences were added to them, which created a special cuisine. Crete has many dishes that are found everywhere in the mainland of Greece, but also some specific only to this area. Today, the traditional Cretan diet is considered one of the healthiest in the world, so you can’t leave without eating in Cretan taverns.
Eating Out in Crete
Crete has plenty of restaurants specializing in certain types of food and drink. Although the differences between them are not too significant, we will show you what to expect.
Psistaría is a place specializing in grilled dishes, with a relatively limited range of salads and mezédes. A tavern is a bit bigger, with several dishes, including mageireftá, but also grilled meat or fish and wine in carafes. Most of the taverns are family businesses. A psárotaverna offers mainly fish and seafood dishes.
Ouzerí offers not only oúzo, the alcoholic drink specific to Greece, but also mezédes, to accompany it because you should never drink oúzo on an empty stomach. Oúzo is usually served with pieces of octopus, olives, cheese or fried fish, but you can choose something else. Mezedopolío is a bit more elaborate than oúzeri because here, the emphasis is on food. Kafeníon is a typical Greek café, formerly exclusively for men, which is still valid in the traditional villages in the centre of the island. Simply furnished, with old tables and chairs, it is the place where political events are debated, and backgammon is played.
Eating Time in Crete
The resort taverns also offer European breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. In general, the Greeks do not eat breakfast – maybe just a coffee and friganiés (a kind of toast) or a pastry. Lunch is eaten between 14:30 and 16:00, followed by the sacred afternoon siesta before resuming work, from 17:30. Dinner is eaten late, starting at 21:00, with some restaurants open until midnight.
Cretan Food Specialties You Must Try
At most restaurants, you will receive a reasonably varied menu. The menus are suggestive, so you know if the prices are within your budget or not – especially if you want to eat fish or meat, which are more expensive. All restaurants have a special fee, usually for bread brought at the beginning of the meal. Still, it does not exceed € 1 per person. If you have the opportunity, try paximádia (a dry Cretan bread) or dákos (salted barley biscuits), which are served with a well-known salad called koukouvágía in the Réthymno region.
Mezédes or Appetizers
Carefully chosen appetizers, called mezédes, can even be a dish in itself in Crete. They are made to be shared by all who eat, which brings a sense of closeness.
The most famous Greek appetizers are: tzatzíki (yoghurt with garlic, cucumber and mint); dolmádes (sarmale in vine leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables – very rarely with meat) – served hot with avgolémono sauce made from eggs and lemon or cold with yoghurt; taramosaláta (cod caviar in breadcrumbs, olive oil and lemon juice); gígandes (beans with large grain, in tomato sauce); keftedákia (meatballs); fried squid; pleurotous mushrooms and tyrokafterí (a spicy cheese sauce).
Saganáki is fried cheese, and feta psití is feta cheese baked with spices and garlic in aluminium foil. Kalitsoúnia are kind of doughnuts filled with greens or sweet cheese which served with honey.
Traditional Cretan specialities include volví skordaláta (wild narcissus bulbs with garlic), marathópitta (fennel pie), apáki (pork cooked over low heat) and sýnglinos (tender but slightly fatty pork). Wild greens such as stífnos, stamnagáthi (chicory, often served with meat) and askolýmbri (yellow squash) are often used in Cretan dishes. Greek salad or horiátiki saláta (which translates as “village salad”) contains tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bell peppers and olives, plus a healthy slice of feta cheese.
Winter is under the sign of soups, but in summer, they are not very common. Psarósoupa (fish soup) can be found at most restaurants serving fish and seafood. Fakés soup (lentils), revýthia (chickpeas) or fasoláda (beans) are excellent for vegetarians.
Fried Snails – Popular Cretan Delicacy
Chochlioí Boumpouristoí – snails or “choclioi” from Crete are highly prized throughout Greece. They are eaten fresh only in the summer months when they are inactive or immediately after the rain when they come out of the shell and are kept frozen to be prepared before Lent. Chochlioí is prepared in countless ways (it is said that there are at least 40): bathe in salt water, boil with potatoes and pumpkin, fried with oil, rosemary and garlic or cooked with tomatoes, potatoes and thyme, in a dish called egíni.
Cretan Fish and Seafood Dishes
At fish restaurants, the catch of the day is displayed at the entrance on ice, so you can choose the fish you want. It will be weighed, cleaned and cooked – pay attention to prices. If the fish or seafood is frozen, this is specified in the menu by an asterisk or directly in Greek (and is likely to happen between June and September).
Larger fish are grilled or baked, and smaller ones are fried; all are served with lemon or ladolémono (olive oil with lemon juice). The most common fish species are barboúni (mullet), xifías (swordfish), koliós (mackerel) and various types of bream. Seafood is also often grilled, but there are also more complex dishes, such as ktapódi krasáto (octopus with red wine and tomato sauce); soupiá (cuttlefish with rice and spinach) or garides saganáki (shrimp in cheese sauce).
Traditional Cretan Food with Meat
Among the meat dishes that you can eat on the run, we recommend gýros (a fluffy pita, made with pork, garnish and tzatziki) or souvláki (skewers of barbecued pieces of pork or chicken). The more generous meals include whole roast chicken, loukánika (sausages, the best being in the Sfakiá region), lamb or soúvla (roast pork), all cooked to perfection. Brizóla – pork or veal – is the classic cutlet; lamb or goat chops are called païdákia. Baked or grilled lamb is eaten mainly at Easter. Gída vrastí (boiled goat meat) is more common in the village, where it is usually served with a garnish of gamopílafo (rice pilaf).
Among the stews, we mention kléftiko (lamb cooked over low heat in tomato sauce), stifádo (beef with onion) and giouvétsi (meat with sauce and small pasta called kritharáki) – all these dishes are served in clay pots. Tsigaristó is a less elaborate stir-fry of lamb or goat chunks with vegetables.
Perhaps the most well-known traditional Greek dish prepared in the oven is mousakás – layers of sliced eggplant, potatoes and minced lamb covered with a thick layer of bechamel sauce. Nutmeg is the ingredient that gives it an exceptional flavour. Pastítsio is another layered dish, this time with macaroni, meat and cheese sauce.
For those who do not want meat, we recommend gemistá – tomatoes, zucchini or bell peppers stuffed with rice and spices (be careful, sometimes in rice preparation, is used meat soup). You can also try melitzánes imám (baked eggplant with tomatoes, garlic and olive oil) and briám or tourloú (vegetable pots).
Most cheeses on the island of Crete are made from cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk, often from a mixture of two types of milk. The most famous cheese is feta which appears in all Greek salads or served plain, with olive oil and oregano. Graviéra and kefalotýri are harder cheeses with a more intense flavour; there are also many types of soft cheese, such as manoúri and anthótyro. Stáka is a very thick cream made from goat’s milk.
Traditional Cretan Desserts
In a zaharoplastío (confectionery) you can taste the appetizing sweets, most of them inherited from the Ottomans: baklava with walnuts and honey syrup; kataïfi, with crushed almonds and honey; galaktoboúreko, a pie with cream and semolina or ravaní. If you prefer a lighter dessert, try yoghurt with honey or ryzógalo, rice with cold milk. You can find both at a galactopolío.
The fruit platter offered by the restaurants on the house as a dessert contains seasonal fruits: watermelon or muskmelon in summer, grapes and pears in autumn, apple slices with cinnamon all year round; citrus or strawberries in spring. Greece imports few varieties of fruit from Italy or Spain and has almost no tropical fruits.
Local Drinks in Crete
Wines of Crete
The Greeks have been making wine for millennia; the quality of the wine has increased a lot in the last decades. However, as production is low – many vineyards do not produce more than 20,000 bottles of wine a year – likely, you have not heard of even the best of them. Cretan wine was highly prized in antiquity; only in more modern times does it lose importance.
You can order red, white or rosé wine at the restaurant by hýma or varelísio, meaning by quarter, half or full carafes. The quality varies quite a lot on the island; if you are unsure, you can ask for a small quarter-litre carafe and some mineral water.
Oúzo is served at the beginning of the meal, with ice and water; due to anise, when mixed with water, oúzo becomes whitish. Cretans prefer a local spirit, rakí, distilled like oúzo also from grapes, but without anise. The strength varies between 40% and 50% alcohol. It is the cheapest drink on the island, often even cheaper than water, and many restaurants offer it on the house at the end of the meal.
Beers of Crete
Many types of beer are also produced in Greece, among the well-known Greek brands being Fix, Vergina (which are considered the best), Alfa and Mythos. Some brands you may find when out for a drink in Crete are Cretan Brewery, Solo Beer, Charma Beer or the brand new Notos Lager by Notos brewery.
The coffee is ellínikós or “Greek coffee “, strong and served in small cups. It automatically comes quite sweet (glykós) unless you specify that you want it métrios (medium) or skétos (without sugar). Don’t drink it until the end because it has coffee grounds on the bottom. Instant (nes) coffee is very popular in Greece, but it is even more appreciated when it is made Freddo – cold nes with milk, well mixed.
Cretan Mountain Tea
Mountain Tea is also called Shepherd’s Tea. This is because shepherds would use the plant for making tea while tending their flock in the mountains.
Real Cretan mountain tea is made from ironwort. This plant has many beneficial properties. The Greeks use iron tea for colds, lung diseases, stomach anxiety, even stress. Greeks also love to mix herbs to create a special type of tea. Such exquisite drinks can be found in all restaurants and cafes in every city of Crete.
Soft drinks are the same as everywhere and it should be noted that fruit juices are not always freshly squeezed but pasteurized. For something simple and refreshing, try the mineral water, which springs from the mountains of Crete.