Why Great Lent in Greece is Great for Vegan Travellers

By Wendy Werneth

The traditional Greek diet uses fresh fruits and vegetables and the Greek Orthodox religion has shaped the local cuisine. That’s why Lent is full of vegan food and it’s a good time for vegeterian or vegan travellers to visit Greece!

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If I asked you to describe Greek food, the phrase “vegan-friendly” would probably not be the first thing that popped into your head. For most people, Greek food means gyros (the meat you see roasting on a revolving spit in kebab joints the world over), souvlaki (barbecued pieces of meat on a skewer), and plenty of dairy products such as feta cheese, Greek yoghurt or tzatziki. Doesn’t exactly sound like a veggie paradise, does it? Well, the good news for vegan travellers is that this couldn’t be further from the truth! The traditional Greek diet actually uses meat very sparingly, while fresh fruits and vegetables are found in abundance. While this is true of a number of Mediterranean countries, in Greece it is even more the case, due to the role that the Greek Orthodox religion has played in shaping the way Greeks eat.

The Orthodox calendar includes more than 180 “fasting” days, when the faithful follow a nearly vegan diet and abstain from eating any land animals, eggs, dairy products or fish (though they still eat honey and some aquatic animals such as shrimp or octopus). As you might imagine, this has had a huge influence on the development of Greek cuisine, which includes an incredible variety of naturally vegan dishes. And, while these dishes are widely available in restaurants year round, the best time to look for them is during the seven-week period leading up to Orthodox Easter, which is the most important fasting period and is known as the “Great 40 Days”, the “Great Lent” or the “Great Fast”. During this time, restaurants are likely to offer even more nistisimo (“fasting”) foods than usual. Below is just a sampling of the dishes you can expect to find.

  • Aginares a la Polita: a stew made with artichokes, carrots, and potatoes and flavoured with lemon and dill. aginares a la polita
  • Briám: an oven-baked dish similar to ratatouille in Southern France. The vegetables used can vary but always include potatoes and zucchini.Briam
  • Gemista: tomatoes or red bell peppers stuffed with a rice and herb mixture. Occasionally contains minced meat but is usually vegan.gemista
  • Imam Baildi: A whole braised eggplant stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes and simmered in olive oil until soft enough to melt in your mouth. Delicious!Imam Baildi

And don’t overlook the mezedhes (appetizers) at the front of the menu. It is quite common to make a meal out of a selection of these small dishes. Here are some to look out for:

  • Tomatokeftedes: tomato fritters with mint, fried in olive oil.tomatokeftedes
  • Gigantes: giant white beans cooked in tomato sauce and various herbs.gigantes
  • Melitzanosalata – a cold eggplant dip similar to baba ghanoush.melitzanosalata
  • Dolmadhes – grapevine leaves stuffed with rice and herbsdolmadhes
  • Skordalia – a dip made with mashed potatoes and lots of garlic skordalia2

And that’s just to name a few! While all these dishes are usually vegan, recipes can vary from one restaurant to another, so ask to be sure.

While the above dishes are commonly found throughout the country, there is also plenty of regional variety in Greek cuisine. The island of Crete, for example, is particularly famous for its local dishes and cooking style. If you’re heading that way, be sure to look out for Kolokythoanthoi.These are similar to dolmadhes, except that the vine leaves are replaced with the more delicate zucchini flower, which is stuffed with rice and herbs. Just be sure to ask your server to hold the yoghurt, which is normally served on the side.dolmadhes and kolokythoanthoi

Another vegetarian Cretan dish that can easily be veganized is dakos (sometimes spelled ntakos). To make dakos, you begin with a couple of slices of paximadi – a rusk or hard, dried bread made from barley that is a local specialty in itself. These are moistened with a few tablespoons of water and then topped with chopped tomatoes, olive oil, olives and herbs. Feta or mizithra cheese is normally also part of the topping, but it’s no problem to ask for dakos without it.dakos without cheese.

Santorini – an island whose sunsets are wildly popular among travellers to Greece – is also known for the high quality of its local agricultural products, thanks to the fertile volcanic soil. Some of the more famous produce items include capers, cherry tomatoes, white eggplant and a legume with the scientific name of lathyrus clymenum that is not cultivated anywhere else in the world. The latter is the main ingredient in a popular meze dish called fava. This name can be misleading, because it actually bears no relation to fava beans (otherwise known as broad beans). Rather, the lathyrus clymenum is a type of pea that is similar to the yellow split peas used to make dhal in India. In Santorini then, fava is a dip made from puréed yellow split peas.fava

Now, with all these naturally vegan dishes found in traditional Greek cuisine, there’s not much reason to seek out vegetarian restaurants in Greece. Which is just as well, because you won’t find many. As vegan-friendly as Greece is, the concept of veganism (or even vegetarianism) is not that widely known, and if you say to someone that you are vegan they are unlikely to understand you. So vegans, remember the magic word – nistisimo! As long as you ask for nistisimo (“fasting”) food and make it clear that you do not eat any seafood (or honey, if that’s the case), then you should be good to go. And if you aren’t vegan, don’t let that stop you from trying some of these delicious Greek specialties! They have been pleasing the tastebuds of Greek meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters alike for generations.

This awesome text was brought to you by Wendy – author of The Nomadic Vegan Blog