We’re all well acquainted with Greek cooking: gyros, skewers, pita. Dippable items with tzatziki even appear on menus where the Greek influence is non-existent. But have you tried Cretan food yet?
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and, with its abundance of history and culture (you’ve likely heard stories about the Minotaur), could be mistaken for its own country. When it comes to cooking, these guys are serious about fresh flavors, herby concoctions, and home cooked goodness.
These items are the most likely, and most delicious, to appear on any good Greek restaurant menu:
This is Crete’s version of bruschetta. The base oven-dried crisp bread is made with barley, which makes it sweeter, nuttier, and crunchier than its wheat-only counterparts. The bread is then covered with ripe, sweet tomatoes, black olives, and crumbled cheese. (Oh, and olive oil. Nothing in Crete comes without olive oil.)
Sarikopitakia is one of the island’s most iconic dishes and takes its name from the scarf worn by local men on the island. They’re essentially delicious cheese-stuffed pastries, deep fried in olive oil.
Another pastry lover’s dream, kalitsounia are noticeably similar to Italian calzones (folded pizza), but smaller. They’re usually stuffed with white cheese (the most common of which is mizithra) and herbs (Crete has the highest number of wild herbs of any European country). As with many Cretan and Greek foods, the sweet version simply involves a big dose of honey on top.
This dish consists of green beans simmered in a tomato sauce for around 45 minutes until they’re soft and have soaked up all the juices. The sweetness of the tomatoes means any bitterness from the green beans is completely covered.
Not just the regional cuisine of France, snails are also a very popular choice in Crete. In most of Greece, snails are called saligaria, but on Crete, they’re called kohli (meaning spiral or screw). Snails are usually served up in a tomato and garlic based sauce. Though tricky to eat, once you’ve got the method down, it’s more than worth the effort.
The sweet-toothed and no-toothed-due-to-being-sweet-toothed will have to muster restraint when ordering loukoumades. They’re like tiny donut holes, covered in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. It’s like a Cinnabon mixed with a donut – pure heaven. (Here’s a recipe).
If you’re heading to Crete and want to try these delicacies first-hand, the best restaurant on the island is Dounias (Ntounias). This restaurant is nestled up in the mountains with views out over the island, and offers the freshest cooking you’ll have during your trip (and I mean fresh – the lamb is often killed that day!) Get directions and more info here. The best way to holiday on the island is to choose whether you want to stay in the old harbor towns of the north, or more resort-heavy south (or if neither tickle your fancy, choose your location according to the hotel, rent a car, and drive to the hotspots like the Palace of Knossos).
It’s very difficult to find traditional Cretan dishes in the US, but these are the best restaurants that come close to authentic Cretan cooking:
• Agnanti – New York
Fantastic Cretan-inspired dishes – come here for a Dakos salad the size of your head!
• Kokkari Estiatorio – San Francisco
For those on the west coast, head here for traditional Greek cooking. Although the dishes may be called by different names, the menu contains some of the Cretan dishes mentioned above, and certainly won’t disappoint.
Hollie Mantle is a travel and food blogger living in Europe (and occasionally Japan!)