Ever wonder why Greek food just tastes better? Or why Greek dishes prepared outside of Greece don’t taste as good as the real thing? The secret is in the spice. Greece’s warm climate and rich soil give its spices brighter, more pungent flavours than those grown abroad. And Greeks love to shower all their dishes with the region’s signature mirodika (herbs) and baharika (spices).
In the realm of mirodika, garlic (skordo) is used in almost every Greek dish (tip: when cooking goat or lamb in the oven, make slits in the meat and stick one garlic clove in each. When the meat is done, the cloves will be soft and creamy, and the meat more flavorful). The second most commonly used mirodika is oregano (rigani). It’s often sprinkled with olive oil on boiled or oven-grilled meat and fish to make a ladorigani dressing, or with olive oil and lemon to make ladolemono dressing (whichalso makes an excellent dip for shrimps).
Other popular herbs include thyme (thimari) and rosemary (dentrolivano), which are good on meat and fish, and parsley (maintano) and dill (anitho), which are used in bean and spinach dishes. And every Greek’s secret weapon is laurel leaves (daphne) cooked in stews, meat sauces, and legume/bean dishes for around an hour and then removed, leaving behind an aromatic flavour.
Meanwhile in the land of baharika, black pepper and cinnamon are classic Greek favourites. The former is dashed lightly in stews and sprinkled over grilled meat, while the latter is used in desserts and kokkinisto dishes (tomato-based stews and sauces). As a rule of thumb for using cinnamon in kokkinisto, you should be able to smell it (or “hear it”, as the Greek saying goes) when taking a deep whiff of your dish without the aroma being overpowering—three dashes should do the trick. Certain kokkinisto dishes, stews, and meat sauces also use a touch of nutmeg (mos-hokarido) and cloves (garifallo).
If you like a dose of rare spices, there’s plenty of baharika to brighten up your dishes. Fans of spicey will enjoy paprika (paprika), which is commonly sprinkled on gyros and used in dishes from northern Greece and Turkey. Saffron (saffran or krokos) is another rare herb from northern Greece, and the variety cultivated in the northern region of Kozani is considered the best in the world. Saffron can be expensive to buy on its own, but you may see it in pre-packaged foods, such as flavoured rices or readymade meat dishes.