Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Culture Share: Food and Drink Customs in Greece by Dario Ciriello

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Dario Ciriello discusses food and drink customs in Greece.

Food and Drink Customs in Greece by Dario Ciriello

In the course of a dinner party, or during a social occasion where hors d'ouevres are served, it's not unusual for me to catch people eyeing me with mild disapproval. It's true: even after twenty years in the US, I still forget that reinserting, or 'double-dipping', the same chip or carrot stick you have just taken a bite of into a bowl of salsa or dip is simply not done. While I doubt this would raise a hair in Europe (see Fondue), I've more than once seen people drilling their kids on this point.

I, on the other hand, find it distressing to see even the most well-mannered Americans pushing food--peas, say--onto their fork with their fingers, a cultural oddity which must have something to do with the Old West, or perhaps the Great Depression. Why on Earth can't they use a knife in their off-hand? It drives me crazy.

In Europe, we believe that soup should be served piping hot, something that is universally ignored in the US. Salad comes after an entrée, not before—the idea is that the fresh, crisp greens or vegetables clean your palate after a rich main dish. Dessert is something for special occasions, and a plate of fruit, and/or cheese, is a tasty and healthy way to finish a meal And why is water always iced in the US, even in winter?

In Greece, where my wife and I spent a wonderful year on the small island of Skópelos, customs concerning food and drink are even more different, and sometimes challenging.

If you have the fortune to be a guest at a Greek table, you'll find that bowls and serving dishes are set out family-style, but without serving implements. Diners simply use their forks or spoons to pick at the dish, a mouthful at a time. To someone who's at all concerned about hygiene and matters bacterial, this is easily as disturbing as the business of double-dipping.

The first time I encountered this, I surreptitiously noted where my hosts—all apparently healthy, but one can never tell—inserted their utensils into the various dishes, and tried to serve myself from in-between these 'hot spots'. At first, it was easy, like keeping a mental count of the last few numbers that come up on a roulette wheel. But between the growing number of dishes, the shifting patterns of spoon- and fork-insertion as gaps appeared on the plates, the difficulty of keeping up a conversation in a language which I only vaguely grasped the outlines of, and my frequently-replenished wineglass, I was soon forced to abandon my efforts and simply hoped for the best. I was in Greece, and would have to learn Greek ways.

Nor are Greeks shy about using their hands to serve food, as we discovered when we were invited to an Easter celebration. When, after several hours on the spit, the lamb was done, our host and his future son-in-law manhandled it to the table and set it down in front of Máhi, our hostess. Máhi made a couple of big incisions, plunged both hands into the steaming carcass, and began to tear big off big hunks, laughing as she piled them onto our proffered plates. We'd never seen meat served this way at a dinner party, but at least it must be tender.

Then there's the business of heads. At Easter, the lamb carcass on the table still bore the charred remains of its face, complete with pointy teeth and cooked, milky eyeballs, facing us not two places away, a sight that is still vivid in my memory. And if you order mezés (snacks) at an ouzería, you'll at some point find yourself confronted with fish which still have the head attached, and which you're expected to eat.

When it comes to drink though, Greeks (and Southern Europeans generally) exhibit a good deal more sense than Northern Europeans or Americans. Drink is never, never served without ballast to accompany it and cushion the drinker's stomach against the too-rapid absorption of alcohol. If you visit an ouzería or tsipourádiko (oúzo and tsípouro joints, though the terms are somewhat interchangeable), every round of drinks comes with a selection of different, strongly-flavored mezés, or snacks: vegetable and kalamári dishes, spicy sausage stews, or small broiled fish. So over the course of a few rounds of drinks, you end up eating a good-sized meal.

Another interesting custom is that traditional Greek tsipourádikos and ouzerías serve their shots in sealed 50ml. miniatures, which makes billing easy for the server—at the end of the evening they just count the bottles on the table. It also gives the customers a growing array of decorative little empties to play with. Retsína, on the other hand, is sold by weight rather than volume, and served chilled in a cheap aluminum jug. After a little while, ordering wine by the half-kilo seems normal.

Greeks also dine late, in keeping with tradition in Latin and European countries. The normal dinner hour is 10 p.m., and 11 p.m. is not unusual. Of course, when businesses close for four hours in the middle of the day, typically between 2 and 6p.m., this is understandable. Most people work until 8 or 8:30 p.m., but the emphasis is always—and correctly, I believe—on family and social life rather than work. So what if you regularly get to bed at one or two a.m.? At least you were having a good time, and the office doesn’t open until 9 or 10 a.m. anyway.

We could learn a lot from this culture.

Dario Ciriello spent a year living in Greece on the island of Skópelos, and has written a memoir about his experiences entitled Aegean Dream.


  1. You remind me of an amusing culture clash shortly after I returned to the States. We were reading Wuthering Heights in English and the other students were horrified when the old man stirs the porridge with his fingers. Not concerned about burns, just contamination.

    And while I never met the face of a lamb in Greece, I did graciously allow a friend not one but both of the eyes of the fish one time. A delicacy I just couldn't stomach.

    Thanks for the details, and the memories they returned.

  2. Well, Greece is now higher up on my list of places to visit. It sounds like such a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere to eat and drink in!

    I'm wondering how many world cultures find it acceptable for everyone to take bites of food from the same plate. I got used to it while eating family-style meals with a South Korean family, but other Canadians tend to hesitate at the sight of everyone's chopsticks digging into the same food.

  3. Hey, Margaret! Good to see you here :) Great example from Wuthering heights. And I'm right there with you regarding the fish eyes...

    Heidi, I suspect we are in the minority as regards the etiquette on sharing food: so many people are still grateful just to *have* food! And, yes, Greece is an unforgettable place. Visit strongly recommended!

  4. Great post, Dario. I was dirt poor when I spent a week on Andros Island in '74 so I ate cheaply. I still remember the wonderful thick skin-covered yogurt, the halvah, and cheap retsina.

  5. Thanks, Doug (and thank you, Juliette, for the spot!).

    The yogurt I really miss is the ewe's milk one made right on the island. Complex, animal-pungent and incredibly rich. Linda wouldn't touch it. And halvah... mmmm! That's dangerous. I occasionally buy some at an Arabic food store near here, but have to limit myself: once I'm into halvah I can't stop till it's gone!