Defying Definition: Greek Street Food
Defying Definition: Greek Street Food
The first time I ate at Cantina, it was 3 AM, and I had been hopping around Athens’ many nightclubs for hours. I was ready for something hearty and cheap – and Cantina was the perfect choice, serving customers in my state in that exact spot on Syggrou Avenue since 1993. The owner, Thanasis Kavadas, methodically puts the hot dog together, piling carrot slaw, ketchup, mustard, and a homemade mayonnaise (with a top-secret chemist-made recipe). Everybody knows this place, but the exact definition of the food is up for debate, as it becomes co-opted by trendy restaurants and cafes.
Food in Greece is ever-evolving. In addition to the stellar tavernas and mezedopoleia (or meze restaurants) that have almost always existed, a hungry traveller can also find hole-in-the-wall Thai spots, custom-made sushi, and even American-style burgers. But “street food” seems to be one of the most popular categories. The term itself seems to have developed into a description for just about any type of food in the country, whether or not it actually applies to something that can be eaten on the street. During an evening walk around Athens, I saw it used on menus and restaurant signs to describe dishes like stir fries and ramen. And while street food might be a trend worldwide, it has become an interesting issue in the Greek food world as they try to balance incoming trends with established culinary traditions.
First, there’s the definition. Michalis Michael, editor-in-chief at the Greek publication Lifo, says that “the few things that we consider ‘street’ in Greek food culture were not served on the street.” This, he says, is in contrast to “cantina” food, a more recent invention in the country. Michael tells me that this food is also known as vromiko, or dirty, and it existed primarily around football stadiums. But this distinction, which many street food vendors themselves (including Thanasis) maintain, only create more questions than answers.
Michael also says that the most popular Greek street food, souvlaki, was actually sold in a brick-and-mortar shop. But it’s not just the most popular, it’s also the oldest. According to Greek chef, food stylist, and TV consultant Carolina Doriti, the word has appeared in Homer’s Iliad, and Aristotle and others have referenced its original term obeliskos in philosophical texts. According to Doriti, pies (like the widely-known tiropita and spanakopita) were another “original” street food - Ancient Greeks brought cheese and meat pies to hear public speeches and performances. Other Greek food writers have broadened the term to include anything that you can consume on the go, from sandwiches to coconut. One of Greece’s most established street vendors has a coconut stand on Ermou Street, the main pedestrian street in Athens. He lobs the top off, and you sip the milk through a straw as you walk.
In all, the definition of street food might be: affordable and accessible. Because of these traits, some established street food places were able to survive Greece’s economic crisis, which began in 2008, even though restaurant owners may have had to scale back. Some, like Thanasi, are still feeling the effects of that today. His stand used to be surrounded by clubs during what Thanasi calls “the good years.” Back then it was fun, he says – his customers included celebrities, and they’d line up around the block for one of his €3 hot dogs (which are still sold at the same price). Three people worked in the shop’s tight space. Now, Thanasi is able to handle the workload alone.
In all, the definition of street food might be: affordable and accessible. Because of these traits, some established street food places were able to survive Greece’s economic crisis, which began in 2008, even though restaurant owners may have had to scale back.
One of the places where street food appears in name only is Estrella, a brunch restaurant that originated in Thessaloniki, north of Athens. Dimitris Koparanis, the chef and mastermind behind the menu, says that Estrella began using the tag “World Street Food” since it opened in 2013. People would wait in line for hours for the restaurant’s signature dish, the bougatsan, a combination of typical Greek dessert bougatsa and a croissant. Koparanis says that when they first opened, street food was still the traditional Greek fare: souvlaki, gyros, pies, and koulouri, a circle of baked dough covered in sesame seeds.
Although Koparanis drew much of the menu’s inspiration from these traditional street foods, he acknowledges that what he makes, by definition, cannot be street food. For instance, the koulouri breakfast pizza is made with tomato sauce, cheese, and eggs on top of a koulouri base. For him, street food specifically is “the food cooked outside or in a small kitchen, served in a way to be consumed by [sic] hand, on the go. It is cheap and with an intense flavor.” But, perhaps most importantly, “there is no sense in serving street food in a restaurant.”
He’s not the only Greek chef who feels this way. In a November 2018 article in Lifo, chef Giorgos Venieris, of the Chalandri neighborhood’s popular Mr. Pug, expresses a similar sentiment: “Street food is only on the street, the salesman on the street selling chestnuts, corn, buns, falafel, skewers... Street food in a shop is not street food.” And the more I come to learn about what Greek street food has always been, the more I believe that it is losing its identity to bigger establishments.
Kiria Pitza is another surviving street food legend. For 40 years, she has been serving souvlaki out of a stand she built onto the front of her house. Even though her stand is a 15-minute drive outside of the city center, in a neighborhood called Koridallos, her souvlaki is worth the trip. She garnishes the meat in a smoky red sauce that Pitza claims only involves two ingredients - and nobody but Pitza herself knows what those are. In the time that I was there, Pitza had a steady flow of customers at her takeout window (there’s no seating anywhere) and is answering phone calls requesting delivery, so she is consistently busy. There’s no other souvlaki in the city like this, both in the experience and the flavor; but after her retirement, the stand and her magic sauce will no longer exist. Even though she pays taxes and her operation is fully legal, government regulations say she can’t pass this business down to her sons, so she and her loyal customers have resigned themselves to the end after her reign.
This regulation has affected other street food vendors as well. Some simply moved to permanent storefronts adjacent to their temporary setup, but others were forced to close altogether, leaving behind legacies and stories of great street food. So far, vendors like Thanasis have managed to avoid this fate, but if they continue to need to compete with established restaurants, it’s difficult to say how much longer this hot dog institution will remain.
Thanasis is proud of what he has, but he keeps his mind on the good old days: “Don’t pour salt in my wound,” he says when I ask about the future.