Greek cuisine, with all the abundance of fresh vegetables, meat, fish and cheese, is actually so unique because of Greek herbs and spices. Even the great Greek salad wouldn’t taste so Greek just because of feta and tomatoes – a right touch of oregano and basil makes it what it is.
Greek herbs are the essence of the dishes that look so simple but taste much better than any fancy plate in one of the world famous restaurants. The truth is that Greek cooking itself is simple – it can’t be simpler actually. The secret of any unbelievable taste you carry with you after eating in traditional Greek restaurants and your taste buds remember even years later – are Greek herbs. Herbs are used either solo or combined with Greek spices, enhancing each others’ tastes. It’s not that Greeks overuse herbs in their cooking, quite opposite: the herbs just add that tiny, magic, and unique touch to flavor.
7,500 species of Greek herbs
Greek herbs are unique because of a combination of natural “ingredients” that make them as they are: abundance of sunshine during the year, sea, air, rich soil…There are 7,500 different species growing in Greece and about 850 can be found only in Greece. It’s a common knowledge in the culinary world that some of the best herbs of the world grow right here in Greece. To mention a few: Greek chamomile, mountain tea, tilio, sage, basil…
Greeks have a long history of respecting herbs and not only using them in cooking. In ancient times, many of herbs were used for medical purposes (oregano, basil, and chamomile) and had even religious meanings. To present day, Greeks are particular about herbs: as much as Greek landscape is determined by colorful hills and valleys full of plants, people like to seed oregano, basil, dill, parsley, mint and other herbs in pots at their balconies or in their yards. Greeks used herbs both fresh and dried, as whole leaves or crushed/flaked, they use stems and not only leaves from many herbs for cooking…And they use them on a daily basis and practically in any dish.
It’s not easy to make a top-ten list of Greek favorite herbs because there is a trap to be very subjective, but there is maybe a chance to be objective in making a list of most commonly used ones. Hence, the most commonly used herbs in Greece are: basil, bay leaf, oregano, parsley, dill, rosemary, mint, marjoram, fennel, purslane, thyme, sage, chamomile, coriander…It’s more than ten already but it’s hard to try to limit Greek herbs.
Most used Greek Herbs
Basil (Vasillikos) is one of the most beloved herbs in Greek cuisine. Used both fresh and dry, it complement so many salads and dishes that even trying to think about them is a hard work. It helps that basil itself has a few variations so Greeks are very particular about what kind of basil they use for what dish. Be sure to use the one with long green leaves for salads (fresh of course), while more rounded leaves, even dried, can go to cooked dishes.
Bay leaf (Daphni) is used more dry than fresh because of not so bitter flavor, and it is used in all range of dishes – from soups and sauces to stews and it also accompanies meat and fish.
Oregano (Rigani) is probably the most used herb in Greece since it goes in almost all meat dishes, all salads, in sauces, and it’s a must ingredient in many marinades. Even the simple plate of olive oil with oregano served with fresh bread is a treat!
Marjoram (Mantzourana) is very similar to oregano but it is sweeter and lighter when it comes to the taste. It’s mostly used in a form of dried leaves or flower parts, or in powder. Goes with all meat and can be a substitute for its bitter cousin.
Parsley (Maidanos) is also one of the very common herbs in Greek cuisine – the flat-leaf parsley that is tastier and more flavor-rich than its curly cousin. There is no rule: Greeks use parsley in all dishes as much as they like or want – in soups, stews, meat, fish, seafood, sauces…
Dill (Anithos) is another herb with distinctive flavor so that some of Greek dishes like dolmades, pies (pitas), salads (tzatziki, for example) some breads, cannot be made without it. Both leaves and stems are used, either fresh or dry.
Rosemary (Dendrolivano) is a Greek must- use herb for lamb and chicken (all meat actually), or roasted potatoes. Fresh rosemary is definitely better to use but its dry version in cooking won’t disappoint given the herb’s rich flavor anyway.
Mint (Diosmos) or spearmint to be more precise, is a secret ingredient of Greek meatballs. But it’s not all – in some salads, both leafy and fruit salads, spearmint is simply unavoidable. Greeks use it a lot in a cheese and rice dishes while it’s almost a sin to omit a dash of it in tomato sauces.
Purslane (Glistritha) is widely use in the Greek cuisine – fresh leaves are used in salads, especially in Cretan refreshing summery salad made of purslane and yogurt. It’s often cooked for a side dish and goes well with soups and some meat dishes.
Fennel (Maratho) is very used in Greek cuisine either as herb or leaves. Its great, a-la-anis taste gives amazing touch to meat and fish dishes, as well as to stews and some delicious pies. To vegetable dishes it gives a very distinctive flavor.
Sage (Faskomilo) is also a meat friendly ingredient usually in smaller quantities due to its sharp flavor.
Thyme (Thymari) is usually combined with other herbs and found in stews and meat based dishes but the most known honey of Greece is made of thyme! In addition to widely known use of coriander seeds, Greek also used coriander leaves to “spice” soups and salads.
Chamomile, one of the best Greek herbs is mostly used as tea – both its leaves and flowers, either fresh or dry.
The story of Greek herbs doesn’t stop here. But we will finish it reminding everyone one more time that these herbs are just the most commonly used herbs in the Greek cuisine. Although cooked they don’t have particular – if any nutritious value, used in other forms or for other purposes they “blossom” in full. All of them have additional history and usage in medical and therapeutic fields and it’s been like that since the ancient times. Many of them can be served simply as teas, each of them having healing, calming or curative effects. Many of the Greek herbs are also used for a production of therapeutic oils or baths.