An Athenian Food Experience
An explanation of my dietary restrictions (a short answer and a long answer)
My feelings about trying new foods (and the unexpected difficulties I’ve encountered)
A few examples of foods I encountered in Athens (scattered throughout the post)
The effects the food I ate had on me
Some things about food and restaurants that surprised me
Panos Tavern, the first restaurant we went to in Athens. It was good, simple, classic; I recommend.
Many people would agree that trying local foods is one of the best parts about travelling. When it comes to me, I feel 50/50 about it. I’m always down for trying local food—whether it’s something completely new or a familiar favorite in another country—but the catch is that there’s some stuff I just can’t (or won’t) eat. Over the years I’ve collected some dietary restrictions, and because of that, my food experiences in other countries have to first pass one major threshold before I can get enjoyment out of it: Is there anything I can eat?
In Morocco and Qatar, the two countries I had visited before Greece, I was pleasantly surprised to find there was always something for me to eat, so I figured that Greece would offer a similar experience. I quickly realized, though, that the food norms in Greece were quite different than the other countries I had been to in ways I didn’t expect. To get right to the point: I didn’t much enjoy my eating experience in Athens.
Some background: What do I eat?
The short answer:
Before I get into my Grecian food difficulties, we need to know what made it so difficult, right? Well, the short answer is that I’m a lactose intolerant pescatarian with nut & fruit allergies. I also don’t care for sweets or soda most of the time, I don’t digest fried food well, and my alcohol intake over the past two years has been exactly two hard ciders, two beers, a quarter glass of wine, and two ounces of rum (as in to say, I essentially don’t drink). This combination of dietary restrictions and personal choices made finding food for me to eat in Athens difficult (and the food I did manage to find had unexpected effects on me).
The long answer:
My diet isn’t black and white; there’s some nuance. For example, like all lactose intolerant people, I’ve got a spectrum of what I can and can’t eat based on the quality & quantity of the dairy item and whether I take lactase supplements before I eat it. However, I still tend to just avoid dairy altogether because 1) It’s usually not worth risking my body’s stability and 2) I find it bizarre that adult humans consume dairy anyway, especially the dairy of another animal . . . there’s a reason why nearly ¾ of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. In short, though, I guess I could say that I avoid dairy about 90% of the time, and when I do eat it, I select from a short list of body-approved options and I only ever eat it to satisfy a craving or try something new (as opposed to finding some nutritional value in it).
These are macaroons I got from a gelato place in Monastiraki. One is chocolate, the other is pistachio. I had a very strong allergic reaction to the pistachio, which was interesting because I’m not allergic to pistachios . . . unless they’re uncooked.
When it comes to my nut and fruit allergies, they aren’t actually nut and fruit allergies. What I’ve really got is a pollen allergy and, through extension, Oral Allergy Syndrome (which sounds much scarier than it actually is). Oral Allergy Syndrome—also called a pollen-food allergy—is more or less caused by the pollen I’m allergic to sticking to the fruit that plant creates (on a microscopic level). As a result, I get an itchy mouth or throat if I eat certain raw fruits, nuts, or vegetables, but if you cook the fruit in question, I can eat it just fine (because the pollen protein I’m allergic to gets “cooked away”).
The meat market at the Central Municipal Athens Market
When it comes to being a pescatarian, that’s completely by choice. When I was a teenager, I stopped eating meat after reading that it might help reduce symptoms of depression. I already didn’t eat beef, so I figured taking the other meats out of my diet for a while wouldn’t shock my system. When it came to helping symptoms of depression, I’d say it did help a little bit, but in a roundabout way. I had this bizarre realization that I had never actually liked meat anyway and when I gave myself permission to not eat it, I felt a little better about myself.
I do still eat eggs—which is meat, not dairy—but only about once a week because eating eggs is kind of weird too (after all, those little things are packed with the goo needed to turn a fertilized egg into a chick—akin to placenta in humans—and we don’t need that sort of “life creating” nutrients in our already-created bodies). I also eat seafood—which is definitely meat, in case there’s still debate about that—but I still usually choose the vegetarian option even if seafood is available. The way seafood is treated these days, whether it’s on the farm or swimming through polluted water systems, has it some risk factors too, but not as much as red meat and poultry.
Then, from a spiritual standpoint, I don’t think humans are supposed to eat things that aren’t sustainable . . . “God” wouldn’t put us on earth without an endless supply of food (in the sense that one plant—fruit, vegetable, nut, etc.—produces multiple seeds, meaning that you can live off that food indefinitely as long a you keep planting). Similarly, one fish produces hundreds or thousands of eggs every year. From there it becomes a spectrum of sustainability based on number of offspring and gestation periods: Seafood on one end, then poultry, pork, and finally beef (since cows only birth one calf at a time and are pregnant for about 9 months). Additionally, humans are built with flat teeth and jaw motions similar to herbivores; if God and evolution wanted us to eat meat, we’d be built for eating meat (just compare your mouth to the mouth of a wolf or bear).
I’ll always try something new, though
A dessert café near the hostel. There were a lot of these in Athens.
As long as I’m not allergic to it, I’ll try a tiny piece of nearly any kind of new food when I’m experiencing a new country. The emphasis is on the word “tiny”, a key word that many people seem to ignore when I ask to “try a tiny piece of that”. People have this odd habit of giving me an entire slice of cheesecake or a whole chicken skewer when I ask to try it, only to get offended when I don’t finish 95% of it. I bring this up because moments like this have become par for the course during my food experiences abroad, but they were initially very unexpected. I’d always go into food situations thinking I’d have issues communicating with waiters and food venders about my dietary restrictions because of a language barrier, but to my surprise, it was always my English-speaking travel group that didn’t seem able to hear me.
They didn’t hear me when it came to both my desire to try new food in small bites and my actual dietary restrictions, the important things like not serving me certain nuts, fruits, or dairy. I’ve been in situations where I’ll repeatedly say, “I can’t eat that” but people in my group will put it on my plate anyway. I’m lucky in that none of my dietary restrictions are severe (in the sense that I don’t usually have to worry about allergen cross-contamination, for example), but it makes me wonder about the safety of others who do have severe dietary restrictions in that way. On one hand, we we’re all adults and are responsible for our own bodies, but on the other hand getting people to listen—and act with that information in mind—was a surprising uphill battle.
What food did Athens have and what did it do to me?
Athens had everything a Western palette would be accustomed to plus a significant number of dishes with clear West Asian influences. Everything I ate in Athens save for half a Greek salad (minus the cheese) and a hard-earned vegetarian souvlaki negatively affected my gut (and usually didn’t taste too good in my mouth anyway). I was never in pain; in fact, I was symptomless save for the most bizarre loose stool I’ve ever had. It didn’t matter what I ate—fresh fruit, pastries, pasta, eggs, a candy bar—nothing agreed with my body.
Granted, there’s always a gut-adjustment period in the beginning of eating food in a new country because of the unfamiliar flora present in that food. However, I had heard that this mostly happens to meat-eaters and/or people who were used to eating processed foods, which is why I wasn’t surprised to have never experienced a “gut adjustment” while abroad. I think, though, that my time in Athens was my first time experiencing it. It’s also likely that I was dehydrated and stressed (physically, mentally, and emotionally); things like that may have also played a part in my gut struggles. On top of all that, I had a hard time finding vegetarian, dairy-free options in general. I often ran into situations of a restaurant’s vegetarian dish being covered in dairy, while their dairy-free dishes were covered in meat.
This was a genuinely tasty salmon, vegetable, and alfredo pasta dish at City ZEN, a nice casual restaurant. I could only eat half of it comfortably, and usually I would have taken home my leftovers, but our hostel didn’t have refrigerators for guest use.
When you mix all of this together—the stress, the gut struggles, and the lack of ability to find meals I could eat—a difficult food experience in Athens couldn’t be helped. That right there is the gist of it, but I’ll still list some of the specific food experiences I had.
An abbreviated list of some of the food troubles I had in Athens
Cheese: Whenever cheese was served on or with a dish, it was very thick, heavy, and rich. For dairy eaters, this is probably exciting, but I steered clear as often as possible. There’s one dish—saganaki—that is literally a block of fried cheese. During group dinner the dish was placed directly in front of me and I felt like the universe was making a cruel joke.
A palm-sized, chocolate-covered waffle cake
Waffle cake: We stopped at a bakery for lunch during our tour, but the place only sold baked goods and meat sandwiches. I decided to get what I thought was a small chocolate waffle—something firm, not to sweet, and kind of crunchy—but it was actually a spongy cake with a fast-melting layer of chocolate that was so sweet it didn’t taste like chocolate. It also had some kind of . . . nuts? I couldn’t tell what those specks were. Either way, I was nauseous for the next three hours.
Apples at the airport
Apple: I bought an apple, washed it, and ate it. The apple tasted great, but an hour later my stomach was upset.
Oil: One teacher hypothesized that maybe all the olive oil in the food was part of what was making me sick. I had only ever associated oil with fried food, but after she said that, I realized that olive oil was in everything one way or another.
Little Kook, a restaurant near our hostel. Whimsical atmosphere and very sweet desserts.
Crepe: Sweet and savory crepes were very popular in Athens. I don’t particularly like crepes, but I wanted to try one in Athens because of their popularity. I bought one at a tea & dessert restaurant around the corner from our hostel, but it was basically a crepe lost in an ocean of chocolates, syrups, and Nutella. I couldn’t continue eating it after three bites.
Seafood: I thought there would be more seafood options with Athens being so close to the water, but alas, I barely found any.
Fruit at the airport and in the mini mart across from our hostel
Fruit: I was surprised (and concerned) over how big the fruit was… it reminded me of the U.S.
Olives at the Central Municipal Athens Market
Olives: The vacuum sealed kalamata olives I brought back to the U.S. were huge and apparently very strong. My parents said they burned in their chest, like alcohol, and that they could feel the effects of the olives in their head . . . like alcohol.
I have never liked olives, but I did try them when I was in Athens. I thought that maybe the olives I had had in the U.S. were in some way subpar; after all, I was convinced I didn’t like mangos until I ate a mango in Qatar, which tasted completely different. I thought that maybe experiencing an olive in Greece would produce a similar change of taste. I was so, so wrong. Those were the most disgusting olives I had ever had.
Water and a flower at Panos Tavern. The tap water in Athens is safe to drink, by the way.
“Complimentary” water: You know the water you get served at the beginning of a meal whether you want it or not? Some restaurants in Athens did that, then ultimately charged us for it.
The price of a nice view: There was a separate charge to sit in the part of a restaurant with a nice view, which was frustrating when that was the only table available in an otherwise packed restaurant. I’m pretty sure this is because we were in a touristy part of town.
The menu at a restaurant near Monastiraki Square. I find it interesting that the flavors are orange, blue, and lemon . . . what does blue taste like?
Blue Fanta: Greece had blue Fanta! Granted, the restaurant didn’t have it when I tried to order it, but it was still on the menu and I had never seen blue Fanta before.
“Complimentary” alcohol: Similar to the water, some restaurants served us ouzo at the end of our meal, drinks that we didn’t ask for. I was told that serving ouzo was a cultural hospitality norm but charging for it doesn’t seem to fit that description. I can’t let go of the fact we were young Western tourists in a touristy part of town, and thus, easy targets for easy money.
As with food, I’m willing to try a sip of alcohol I’ve never tasted, especially when it’s something like ouzo, the national drink of Greece. I expected it to be nasty, as all alcohol is, but I did not expect it to taste like fermented toothpaste brewed in expired mouthwash. They would always serve us two shots each, and I always gave both of my shots to someone else.
The legal drinking age in Greece is 18, which unsurprisingly led to some issues within the group (which was primarily 21 and under). I mention it briefly in the post about travelling in a group, which is also where I talk about a student in the group essentially stealing the ouzo I bought for my family.
But here’s a bright side, sort of
I’m not sure how to conclude this post, so I’ll leave you with a slight bright side: Worldwide acknowledgment of the word “vegetarian”. No matter where you go in the world, there’s always someone who understands the word “vegetarian”. Whether or not they have a dish that fits that description is a game of chance, but while I was in Greece, it was a bit of a comfort knowing I could at least ask that question and get a clear answer before choosing to sit down for dinner.