Although souvlaki (small chunks on meat on a skewer) was mentioned in the works of Ancient Greeks like Aristophanes and Xenophon (around 450BC), recent research has revealed that the Ancient Mycenaeans were grilling meat in this way much earlier than this. Archaeologists have found cookware, such as trays and griddles, at sites dating back 3,000 years which were tailormade for cooking souvlaki.
Unlike Ancient times, nowadays we have all the mod cons of well-equipped kitchens. However, grilled dishes continue to be appealing for any occasion. Not only is grilling a much healthier alternative to frying, but it is often more sociable. Instead of the cook being stuck in the kitchen alone, guests gather round and take part – good-naturedly arguing over the best way to grill dishes or the best marinades/herbs to use.
Above all, whatever you grill is given a different taste by the cooking process. The smoke permeates every part of the food and releases its flavours.
Grilling meat Greek-style
Apart from souvlaki, modern Greeks grill most meats such as chicken, lamb and pork. The marinade for such dishes, which might be added during the cooking too, is usually the simplest: extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and herbs. The choice of herbs varies from region to region but is usually mountain-grown oregano or thyme.
At the official start of Carnival (and before the 40-day fast for Lent), Greeks celebrate ‘Tsiknopempti’. The word ‘tsikna’ means ‘burning of meat’ while ‘pempti’ is the Greek word for ‘Thursday’. On this day, everyone in the country grills meat while restaurants put on a special menu of grilled dishes in celebration.
Grilled seafood dishes in Greece
Although most visitors to Greece have probably tried grilled sea bass or sea bream, most fish can be grilled successfully. The secret is to cook the fish whole so they don’t dry out. A simple olive oil/lemon juice/thyme/salt dressing allows the taste of the fish to come through. Fish only need 7-8 minutes on the grill until the outside is slightly charred and the fish flaky and opaque white in colour.
Smaller fish like sardines are ideal as appetisers (or mezes) and can be served with salads and a glass of ouzo.
Apart from fish, another traditional Greek grilled seafood dish is octopus. In the past, freshly-caught octopuses used to be beaten up to 100 times to remove the excess water and then be left to dry out during the day for grilling in the evening. Nowadays, braising the octopus for up to 45-60 minutes achieves the same results (and is much less strenuous and quieter!)
If suitably tenderised in this way, octopus only needs to be grilled on a high heat for 5-8 minutes to be cooked to perfection. Any longer and it might be unpleasantly rubbery to chew.
Popular Greek salads from grilled vegetables
To accompany their grilled meat and/or seafood dishes, Greeks often grill a variety of vegetables. One popular vegetable for a barbecue is aubergine. They are grilled over a high temperature until the skin looks charred. Once the skins have been removed, the inside is mixed together with salt, red wine vinegar and olive oil to create a delicious aubergine salad.
Apart from aubergines, vegetables like red or green peppers also work well on the barbecue. Once the outer charred skin has been removed, salt, vinegar and olive oil are added. Alternatively, red peppers can be mixed with feta cheese for a tasty accompaniment to grilled meat and fish.
Whatever you cook – whether that is meat, seafood or vegetables – grilling brings out the flavours of the food.