Crete is Greece’s biggest island, situated at the country’s southernmost border, right where the Aegean Sea fuses with the rest of the Mediterranean. Crete is simply gorgeous in every way: its landscape is varied and beautiful, from its snow-capped White Mountains to its several breathtaking views of rolling slopes, and of course its unique beaches and their captivating variety.
Besides its unrivaled natural beauty, Crete boasts a rich heritage and history spanning at least three millennia. It has remained vibrant through the ages, making Cretan culture one of the oldest and most distinctive in the region. One of the most central parts of any culture has always been its cuisine, and Cretan culture is no different.
All of the variations of traditional Greek cuisine fall under the Mediterranean diet, which is considered one of the healthiest and most sustainable diets in existence. Of these variations, the Greek Cretan cuisine subset is easily at the top in terms of varied, healthy, delicious eating.
Having meals and eating culture in Crete is a lot more than simply putting food in one’s belly. It is a ritual, an experience through which you are supposed to communicate with others, make merry, and even make new friends. A lot of Cretan food specialties and dishes are designed to enable exactly that!
It is, therefore, safe to say that you are in for a treat when it comes to visiting Crete and trying its amazing, healthy food made entirely of home-grown or local ingredients! And while there is too great a variety to include all the delectable dishes you can try, the ones below are a must-have, so make sure not to miss out!
- Cretan Mezedes
- Skaltsounia (or Kalitsounia)
- Kohlioi (Snails)
- Wild Greens (Horta)
- Staka and Stakovoutyro
- Gamopilafo (i.e. the Wedding Risotto)
- Sfakianopites (Sfakia pies)
- Xinohondros (Cretan tarhana)
- Chaniotiko boureki
- Pork and Celery
- All the cuttlefish dishes
- Seafood Saganaki
Traditional Cretan Food to Try
Cretans have a robust drinking culture. However, unlike in other countries, drinking solo or drinking without some food accompanying the drinks is considered anything from unsavory to completely unacceptable!
Mezes means “a flavorful bite” in Greek, and this is exactly what this dish is all about: When the shots of ouzo, tsipouro, raki, or retsina are served, they come with small dishes with a variety of bite-sized food designed to counterbalance the alcohol and add more nuance to the palate.
A mezedes dish could be quite simple with a few bites of local cheese, olives, and sesame rusks doused in olive oil, or it can be quite elaborate, depending on the place and the occasion: there could be meatballs, special fritters, tiny fried fish, seasonal vegetables, tiny Cretan pies, and toasted local bread with special dips.
What is standard is that a mezedes dish is always representative of the local village’s abundant produce: if you are at a fisherman’s village, the mezedes will have seafood. If you are at a mountain village, expect cheeses and pies. Always wash down with a sip of whatever alcohol the mezedes have come with for the complete experience!
Dakos, also called koukouvagia in many places in Crete, is the quintessential Cretan Greek Salad and it is a thing of beauty: On a bed of special, traditional barley rusk, chopped up tomatoes, olive oil, feta cheese, there come sprinkles of oregano and chopped up kalamata olives to make for a wonderful lunch or appetizer.
While the special rusk starts off hard, the juices from the tomato and the olive, mixed with the fragrance from the oregano, the saltiness of the feta cheese, and the tanginess of the olive oils progressively soften it into a crunchy delight which you can’t miss.
Skaltsounia (or Kalitsounia)
Skaltsounia is actually a class of food in Crete: the traditional Cretan pies! These pies can be baked or fried in olive oil, and they are meant to be small: you should be able to eat a skaltsouni in a single bite, or at most two. They are supposed to be crunchy and chewy at the same time.
These pies are made with a special type of phyllo dough and filled with Cretan mizithra cheese, various herbs, spinach, fennel, olive oil, and more depending on the region.
Skaltsounia are meant as a meze or as a welcoming treat, so you may be served that on the fly! They can also be a great appetizer. As they come in a great variety, make sure to try each type when you encounter them.
Usually listed as kohlioi, snails are especially popular in Crete and considered great delicacies. They are very specific to Crete, which means you are unlikely to find the dish anywhere else in Greece, and they can be cooked in several ways.
Some of the most popular ways to cook snails is in vinegar and rosemary and fried in olive oil, or cooked for a longer time in tomato with various herbs, again depending on the region.
Usually, snails will be served in their shell, and you are supposed- and expected- to suck them from it or fish them out from it with your fork. Don’t be shy and consume the dish the way it was meant to!
Wild Greens (Horta)
Crete is renowned for its opulent natural resources, and there’s nothing better to represent that than its wide variety of edible wild greens which you can find everywhere in Cretan tavernas.
Wild greens are boiled for a few minutes only, then served hot with fresh lemon which you squeeze over them to your heart’s content. Olive oil is optional but highly recommended.
Wild greens are very seasonal in Crete, and depending on the season you’ll find a vastly different selection. From beet leaves to chickory leaves to wild asparagus to local varieties such as stamnagathi, each plateful of wild greens is a delight and the taste varies dramatically from variety to variety. Make sure you taste as many kinds as you can!
They are a great accompaniment to your main dish, especially fish or meat.
Staka and Stakovoutyro
Other specialties you will only find in Crete are staka and stakovoutyro. They are made at the same time from the same process, and they are two very special types of dairy products.
It all begins when goat’s milk gets pasteurized in the home (which means over a very low fire for a long time).
Staka is harvested from the cream of goat milk while it is being skimmed. Then this cream is salted and peppered then a rue (flour and water) is carefully added while everything is simmering. As it simmers, the staka starts detaching from the walls of the pot, and its very rich butter also starts separating.
The butter is gathered in a separate container and the remaining protein is cooking thoroughly into a different spread. This spread is what is called staka and the butter is called stakovoutyro.
Both are extremely flavorful and fragrant but in different ways: Staka is almost flavorless, but everywhere it is added in different dishes, it adds a feeling of opulence and richness to the dish’s dominant flavor: it’s what the Japanese call kokumi.
Stakovoutyro can be used like any typical butter, as a spread on rusks or bread. Its milky, buttery fragrance is very characteristic and appetizing. It will also add great flavor to several dishes that need butter, including Cretan risottos!
Gamopilafo (i.e. the Wedding Risotto)
Traditionally, this risotto was only cooked on wedding occasions and was intended for consumption primarily for the bride and groom. This was because gamopilafo is considered to be especially strengthening and boosting for the organism, and the young couple was expected to need all the energy and stamina they can get for the first few weeks!
Gamopilafo is made in a broth of several different kinds of meat, so it is especially tasty. The rice is cooked to a creamy consistency with stakovoutyro or staka added as extra flavoring. As a result, it’s considered one of the tastiest and most nutritious risottos out there despite its apparent simplicity. It’s served with a dash of freshly squeezed lemon.
Nowadays you can find gamopilafo in most Cretan tavernas, so don’t miss it!
These are coiled-up little cheese pies. They are iconic when it comes to Cretan cuisine. The phyllo pastry is handmade and deep-fried in olive oil. They are served as a snack or a dessert, doused with Cretan honey.
The taste is mostly sweet with a touch of savory and they are very crunchy. They are named after their shape, which resembles the traditional male Cretan headscarf, the sariki.
Sfakianopites (Sfakia pies)
These are flat pies, almost like pancakes, made out of dough kneaded with raki and olive oil. They are filled with any local cheese variety or with wild greens and then fried. If they are cheese-filled they are sometimes served as a dessert with copious amounts of honey drizzled on top. Otherwise, they make for great snacks or appetizers.
Apaki traditionally was homemade curated meat meant to be served in thin slices like cold cuts or added as a highlight to choice dishes.
Apaki is made from fat-free pork which is heavily salted, peppered, and treated with special local herbs such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, and more (depending on the house recipe). It is then hung to dry and smoked over fragrant wood to add to the smokey aroma. This process takes at least a few days.
This was traditionally kept in cellars over the entire winter and spring seasons and served very sparingly and in very thin slices. It’s extremely fragrant and tasty. You can find it in the market nowadays but if you ever get the chance to taste the traditionally made, homemade thing, jump to it!
Xinohondros (Cretan tarhana)
Xinohondros was the traditional, ancient way for Cretan households to preserve excess milk. While it’s not easily encountered in a taverna, you will find it in many Cretan villages during the summer months when it’s mostly made.
Xinohondros is basically cracked wheat and sour goat milk cooked together and then spread out in the sun to dry. It looks like a kind of coarse pasta, and it is used in various soups to add flavor and make them more filling.
This is an iconic vegetable pie from Chania. It consists of layered phyllo with slices of various vegetables, such as zucchini, potatoes, or even eggplant, mixed with Cretan cheese such as mizithra and fragrant herbs such as spearmint.
Chaniotiko boureki is extremely tasty and varies in its filling according to the season as any available vegetable can be added, such as squash in the winter instead of the summer zucchini.
It is supposed to be crunchy on the outside while flavorful and chewy on the inside to allow you to enjoy the full impact of its many flavors.
Boureki is never exactly the same from taverna to taverna and household to household, so make sure you always sample it!
This is a dish for meat lovers. Antikristo, which means ‘opposite each other’ in Greek, means that the meat has been cooked not over an open fire, but very near it. The pieces of meat were put through long skewers which were then installed in the periphery of an open fire (opposite of one another) and allowed to slowly cook by the heat but without the fire ever touching them. This makes the flavors very enhanced since the meat is allowed to cook in its own fats without being rushed.
Crete has had this way of cooking, especially lamb, since antiquity and it is something you shouldn’t miss! Antikristo roasting makes the lamb meat tender and succulent in ways the other types of roasting don’t allow.
This is again an iconic Cretan dish, especially for meat lovers. It’s usually lamb or goat in olive oil, cooked over very low heat over a long period of time.
This is achieved by cooking the meat in a sealed pot that doesn’t open once until the time is up and the meat is ready. In this way, the meat becomes extremely tender without losing any of its nutrients to heat.
Make sure to accompany this dish with wild greens for a balanced symphony of flavors.
Pork and Celery
Pork cooked with celery is a staple of Cretan cuisine. It is a stew made from the Greek variety of celery, which is very leafy with think stalks. Like many Greek stews, it cooks over a slow fire with strategic timing in the adding of the various herbs and the celery to produce an especially fragrant, flavorful dish.
Depending on the region, this stew might be served with egg and lemon sauce (avgolemono) adding an extra layer of richness to the dish.
All the cuttlefish dishes
Crete is famous for its various ways of cooking cuttlefish, and this stew with fennel is a great introduction to the unlocking of unique flavors! Cuttlefish with fennel is often cooked with olives, adding extra character in a dish that is extremely seasonal: it is made during late spring when fennel is abundant.
Cuttlefish with cabbage and Cretan ouzo or raki is also a must-have if you happen to visit Crete during the winter. This is a very warming and tasty stew with the extra flavoring provided by the iconic Cretan alcohol of choice.
You should also not miss the stuffed cuttlefish, usually stuffed with tomato and cheese, usually goat’s cheese. However, depending on the region, you can get more opulent stuffing such as dried tomatoes, anchovies, and sage. Stuffed cuttlefish is usually baked and allowed to cook in its own juices and olive oil.
Different types of seafood saganaki are also very popular in Crete. Saganaki implies the method of cooking, which is in a pan with a base of olive oil, tomato, garlic, and an assortment of herbs.
Make sure you don’t miss prawns saganaki, mussels saganaki, and a variety saganaki where different kinds of seafood are all cooked together in the same base.
This is a typical Cretan dessert, with sheets of dough deep-fried and then doused in Cretan honey, sesame, and crushed nuts. The dough is made with raki and kneaded with a special technique to ensure maximum crunchiness and flakiness.
Though you will find extremely tasty samples in all Cretan bakeries, if you have the privilege of eating them from a local’s home kitchen, they will astound you with their airy sweetness.
These are star-shaped little sweet pies. They are made of a sweet mizithra filling while the dough is a soft, perfectly textured cross between a cookie and a pie.
Lihnarakia (their name means ‘little lamps’) are supposed to be slightly crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside to maximize flavor. They are a great sweet snack or dessert!
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