Dear Culinary Backstreets,
Both my husband and I are vegetarian and we are planning a trip to Athens. We’ve heard that Athens doesn’t have a lot of choices for vegetarians and are a bit worried. Will it be possible for us to eat some of that lovely Greek food? What kind of traditional vegetarian dishes would you suggest we try?
At first glance, it certainly might seem like Athens is a city that doesn’t cater to vegetarians. Although the traditional Greek diet is rich in greens and legumes, recent decades have seen Greeks consuming more and more meat, mainly due to a shift towards a more urban lifestyle that took place in Greece from the ’60s onwards. Greeks have become such meat-eaters, in fact, that there are only two strictly vegetarian restaurants and one vegetarian-friendly café/bistro in all of Athens.
However, the options are not as limited as they might seem. In fact, the abundance of good fresh vegetables and legumes all year round means that most venues offer quite a few tasty alternatives for vegetarians. There is a whole category of Greek food, ladera, consisting of vegetables cooked in olive oil. Offered at a number of places in Athens, these dishes are mainly seasonal. Winter specialties include spanakorizo (spinach cooked with rice) or laxanorizo (cabbage risotto), while spring sees the arrival of fresh peas with dill and potatoes and aginares a la polita, a dish of boiled artichokes with carrot and onion. Summer brings imam baildi (eggplant stuffed with tomato, onion and garlic), bamies (okra in tomato sauce) and gemista (tomato and peppers stuffed with rice). Ladera dishes – which go fantastically well with feta cheese, by the way – can be found at most lunchtime mageireia (“cooking places”), including Doris and Kentrikon, an old-fashioned venue hidden inside an open-plan arcade behind Syntagma Square.
While not specializing in vegetable dishes, most tavernas offer a variety of salads and legumes throughout the year, including boiled greens; fava bean dip with plenty of onion and olive oil; gigantes beans served either as a soup or cooked with a spicy tomato sauce; and dakos, Cretan-style barley rusk with tomato, onion and olive oil. Good places to try these dishes include Triantafilos, Kriti and Paradosiako. Most of the more recently opened souvlaki places will also do a meatless pita filled with potatoes, tomato and tzatziki if you ask them; some, such as Derlikatesen, even offer a souvlaki of roasted halloumi cheese or mushrooms.
Lastly, there is a brand-new vegan and vegetarian restaurant in Athens that is very good. Located in the hip, happening area of Gazi and just a five-minute walk from Kerameikos metro station, ImproV Café offers a variety of vegetarian dishes made with fresh ingredients, of which the gluten-free bean burgers and the gyro made with seitan are the most popular. The gyro is in fact the only vegetarian gyro to be found in Athens and it’s actually quite tasty, with a flavor that resembles pork but without the heaviness and oiliness of a pork gyro. The very light “un-cheesecake” (a “cheesecake” without the cheese, topped with sour-cherry jam) also stands out, while the excellent selection of – for reasons unclear to us – Czech beer has made this friendly place a nice, relaxed hangout.
In short, thanks to the quality of the vegetables, legumes and olive oil used in Greek cooking, all you really need is a bit of advance research to make eating in Athens as a vegetarian a pleasant and rewarding experience. – Despina Trivolis