Known for its diversity and seductive flavor palette, Greek cuisine is a reason unto itself to visit Greece. But what happens during Lent, when tradition restricts the consumption of Greek favorites like fresh fish, grilled meats, and feta-rich salads and pies? Simple, healthy, and vegan-friendly, the Greek Lenten menu is bound to surprise you.
Last week, Greeks celebrated Kathara Deftera—literally: Clean Monday—a public holiday that marks that beginning of the Great Lent: seven weeks of fasting and reflection leading up to Easter. People of all ages took to the mountains and beaches, flew kites, and tucked into lovingly prepared picnics in the company of family and friends. And whilst every year, Greeks look forward to Clean Monday for the opportunity to enjoy a long weekend and some time outdoors, many are those who look forward to the beginning of lent… for the food!
So what’s on the menu that actually makes people look forward to fasting?
Let’s start from the top. The basic rule of the Lenten fast is simple: no animal products. Well, mostly. Red meat, pork, poultry, dairy, and eggs are all off-limits and so is fish—but here’s where it gets interesting: Octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and shellfish are allowed. And so is honey. Of course, there’s no shortage of fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, and grains, and whilst traditionally, olive oil and wine are only permitted on the weekends, that restriction is no longer widely observed.
True to the spirit of Lent, which calls for modesty and simplicity, Lenten cuisine does away with luxury and extravagance and centers on modest, flavorful dishes that showcase the simple elegance of the Greek culinary tradition. And these dishes, called nistisima (literally: for Lent), just happen to be delicious! They’re also healthy, perfect for clean eating, and—with the exception of seafood—fantastic options for anyone looking to enjoy vegan and vegetarian Greek food.
With Greek cuisine widely associated with grilled meat and feta cheese, you might still be wandering what we’re talking about. Without further ado, here are a few of our favorite Lenten dishes.
We’ve marked vegan and vegetarian options for you, but different cooks have different methods, so make sure to double check before ordering!
Lagana is a traditional unleavened bread eaten almost exclusively on Clean Monday. Flat and roughly oval-shaped, it’s traditionally decorated by making small depressions in the dough with the fingertips and then sprinkling over generously with sesame seeds. The foundation of Clean Monday menus, lagana is an essential tool for consuming the various dips, spreads, and small dishes that are served on this day. • vegetarian & vegan!
Taramasalata — Made from fish roe, olive oil and lemon juice, this delicious savory treat is widely popular throughout Greece and is one of the most characteristic Clean Monday dishes. Naturally beige and sometimes colored pink, this might take a moment to get used to, but it’s guaranteed to have you reaching for another bowl.
Fava — Not to be confused with fava beans, Greek fava is made from split yellow peas, which are boiled and mashed and served drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped raw onions and fresh herbs. Simple and delicious, this is the Greek answer to hummus! • vegetarian & vegan!
Horta is the Greek catch-all term for boiled greens. A delicious side dish or salad that’s served with olive oil and lemon, horta can be made from dozens of cultivated and wild varieties — it’s not uncommon to see Greeks roaming the hills to harvest wild greens! — but the most popular and widely available kinds are: vlita (amaranth), radikia (dandelion), vrouves (mustard greens), and zochoi (sow thistle). • vegetarian & vegan!
Ladera — From the world ladi, meaning oil, this is an entire range of vegetable dishes cooked with a base of tomato, onion, garlic, and plenty of olive oil. From simple green beans or okra stews to more elaborate dishes like the baked stuffed eggplants known as imam bayildi (literally “the imam fainted”), these are a staple of Greek cuisine. • vegetarian & vegan!
Gemista — Literally meaning ‘stuffed’, these are a quintessentially Greek warm-weather dish that is made with plump tomatoes or bell peppers that have been hollowed out and stuffed with rice and a mixture of chopped onions and herbs. Often prepared with minced beef, the Lenten version usually sees the addition of raisins and pine nuts into the rice mixture. • ask the cook
Grilled octopus — An absolute essential if you’re anywhere near—or even not so near—the Greek coast, octopus grilled over an open flame is a classic Greek meze that rightfully claims its place on any gastronomic bucket list. Enjoy it with a small glass of ouzo, preferably at a seaside taverna.
Fried calamari Locally known as kalamarakia, this is taverna staple that’s hugely popular during the spring and summer. Battered and fried in olive oil, these are fantastic with a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
Halva — is a versatile dessert eaten across much of Europe, Asia and North Africa. In Greece, there are two main varieties: one based on sesame and one on semolina. Both are sweetened with sugar or honey and are often flavored with nuts, fruit or cocoa. A favorite childhood treat and classic Lenten dessert! • vegetarian! (and sometimes vegan, but ask the cook)
The list goes on: stuffed vine and cabbage leaves, plump juicy olives, lentil stew, bulgur salads, bean soups, and vegetable casseroles. Using fresh, quality produce and key ingredients like olive oil, lemon juice, and tomatoes, Lenten cuisine opens up a whole new world of Greek gastronomy.
Lenten dishes are available everywhere from Clean Monday until Easter, and you can also find nistisima options in bakeries and supermarkets. Whether you’re a first-time explorer of Greek Lenten fare or a seasoned gastro-traveler, there’s a wealth of delicious options to try and enjoy. So let us know, what’s your favorite Lenten dish?
Some of our Bespoke Tour Experiences and Classical Heritage Tours include gastronomic experiences and make for ideal opportunities to explore Athens’ local attractions and treat yourself to a selection of Greek dishes.