Greek street food, a conflict between tradition and change.
Street food, something that is either familiar to us all or music to our ears. There are many different variants of this quick bite around the world but it all started a long time ago in ancient Egypt. Sailors baked fresh fish on an open fire and sold it in the harbour. Not long after that, this delicacy also reached the Greek ports and had the Greeks in its grip. From there, the prehistoric street food spread all over the mainland where it continued to evolve, even to this day.
‘Frésko psári, frésko psári’ an old woman yells ‘fresh fish, fresh fish’ from an old corner shop near the port of Thessaloniki, Greece. Her name is Katalina, together with her husband Tobias she has been selling fresh fried fish at the port of Thessaloniki for almost 40 years. The fish are hooked onto a stick and baked over an open wood fire until they almost fall off the stick. ‘Every morning the local fishermen bring us their best fish, we have a small agreement, we the best fish, they have free lunch haha.’ says Katalina. My husband lights the fire every morning while I clean the fish, not too much, it’s not a beauty pageant here. Just simply remove the organs and put them on a stick. Then I sit next to the fire for a whole day and fry the fish the way my mother taught me.’ Katalina is a charming old lady who has a lot of respect for the culture and the transmission of the traditions. They still cook the fish like the sailors did hundreds of years ago. “Tradition is very important to us, so our son will take over our business when we stop, but that’s not for now, Tobias laughs.”
Regionality has also played a major role in the spread of street food. Street food was initially something for the poor. They couldn’t afford to eat lavish meals every day so they went for a quick bite on the road. The costs were a lot lower at the stalls because they worked with what was available, a fusion Asian Greek burger was nowhere to be found at that time, local products preferred in this form of cooking.
On the coast there was mainly the well-known fried fish available, further on the mainland this was a bit different. Because the soil is very poor and the area is not really suitable for growing many crops, the Greek mainland is mainly meat oriented. In many places in the Greek mainland you will therefore also find street food that is mainly based on meat. A very well-known Greek meat dish is the souvlaki. Souvlaki is essentially meat on a stick, usually pork or lamb, which is cooked over an open fire. In this way the meat gets its typical smoky taste. Before being served, it is topped with lemon juice, an essential part according to street vendor Andreas “Souvlaki is nothing without the lemon juice at the end, it not only enhances the flavour but it also takes the fatness out of the meat”. Andreas sells his pork souvlaki near the oracle of Delphi. Originally he ran a restaurant in the village, but due to the crisis he went bankrupt. “In Delphi there is an abundance of American tourists, they are always hungry and want meat, they love that it is cheap and healthy. My stall pulls better than my restaurant did. I say that with a heavy heart, but I can’t complain about the current situation, it’s good here. I have company and good food, that’s all you need in life.”
As mentioned before, street food is very impressionable. Not only climatic conditions influence Greek street food, the geography also provides certain influences. The Greek Kerkini Lake is about 10 kilometers away from the Bulgarian border. It’s a remote region where street food is limited to a few stalls around the lake and a booth at the local gas station. Local produce here includes water buffalo and spinach. Water buffalo meatballs are a delicacy that attracts many tourists to the region, but what is less known but just as tasty are the so-called spinakopita bites. Spinakopita is a dish that is often prepared in the north of Greece. It is a Bulgarian inspired casserole with cheese, filo dough and spinach. For many Greeks, this is a real comfort food. To be able to eat it easily and everywhere, they sell spinakopita bites, small puff pastries with a filling of cheese and spinach. A twist on an authentic recipe but with respect for tradition.
Tradition is a very important fact for the Greeks. They stick to old customs and are very patriotic. Outside the big cities, food is not really used creatively. In the countryside you will find pleasant restaurants or small stalls selling incredibly tasty food, but they are not innovative. This is also not surprising as there is no influence or interference of any kind. The people who live in the countryside consist of two groups. On the one hand the local population and on the other hand the tourists. The locals have no interest in fusion cooking and the tourists come to the countryside to discover the authentic cuisine.
In the cities it is a bit different. They mainly consist of a multicultural community that influences each other. Experiments are already taking place more quickly, which fortunately results in innovative and tasty dishes. To stimulate this and put it in the spotlight, the Athens Street Food Festival is organized every year. The festival takes place on the weekends of May. It takes place in the center of Athens where a square is closed off and you can visit all the street food stalls. “The Athens Street Food Festival is a place where we want to put the spotlight on the street food vendors of Athens and the rest of Greece. The idea is to sell Greek food with a twist, and that can be anything. This year, for example, we have a stall that cooks fusion Italian Greek. They make Aranchini, fried risotto balls, with souvlaki and spinach.” Said Gaia Katrakis, one of the organizers of the Athens Street Food Festival.
In conclusion, we can say that not much has changed in Greek street food yet. The basis and the recipes are still the same, the interpretation has sometimes changed a bit. But the cities are working hard to change this, street food is about change, influence and fusion, so it’s good that the new generation of Greeks is finally starting to understand this and want to do something about it. By the way, there is nothing wrong with following tradition, it simply should not be all-encompassing. Or as street food vendor Ares so beautifully said at the Athens Food Festival: “The Greeks are too proud of their traditions, they need to get their heads out of their asses and go explore the world. It is so beautiful here when you try to see it!”