Easy to find everywhere in Greece, the delicious street-food takes some skill to master to avoid a sloppy mess.
Souvlaki is a streetfood, which means it is usually consumed – unsurprisingly – on the street. This raises the question: how do I eat this delicious thing with the right degree of verve and style? As luscious as every mouthful of the pita-tzatziki-tomato-meat-onion mix may be, the sight of someone with tzatziki on their face and orange yogurt-tomato juice trickling chin-to-shirt is definitely a look to avoid.
This may be a food of the masses, but there is still as much etiquette involved in consuming it as there is for gulping oysters out of their shell or twisting splash-free pasta round a fork. So here are your dos and don’ts of proper souvl-etiquette:
PICKING A PLACE TO EAT
Do: look for a place that is busy with a large number of locals. This is worth any number of Tripadvisor ratings and the high turnover will mean the meat is always fresh.
Do: decide if you want to sit and eat or take your souvlakia away. If the former sit down and a server will come to you. If you want to take it with you, head to the counter.
Do not: look for that abomination known as ‘doner’ found in other countries. This does not exist in Greece. Proper gyros is made with real meat, not reconstituted industrial waste. Should you by chance come across doner somewhere, run and don’t look back.
Do not: order at the counter and then sit at the restaurant’s tables unless first making clear that that is what you intend to do. The server may take offense because you just cut him / her out of the picture.
NEVER: eat takeout souvlaki on a bus or in any other confined space with strangers. Souvlakia are like children: fantastic if they’re yours, less tolerable if not.
Do: feel free to ask for extra salt, chilli pepper (kaftero piperi) even a little extra tzatziki from the line cook.
Do: get your order straight in your head before it’s your turn if it’s busy. The cooks don’t have time for your indecision, and neither does anyone else.
Do: ask for it ‘sto heri’ (in hand) if you’re going to eat it immediately or ‘se paketo’ (wrapped) if you want to take it away in a bag.
Do: think of others while ordering. If you think your group might like some extra fries, get some extra fries. For under well under 10 euros per person you can all eat like medieval knights.
Do: decide if you want gyro (pork or chicken), or ‘kalamakia’ (pork or chicken) as your meat base. Kalamakia are small skewers of meat.
Do not: Ask for a kebab unless you know what this means. ‘Kebab’ in Greece refers to a spicy minced meat, and most souvlaki joints don’t have it. The skewers known as kebabs in English are known as kalamakia in Greek.
Do not: ask for all the crispy bits from the gyro. That’s just selfish.
Do not: suddenly remember you didn’t want onions in it. It’s too late.
Do not: say ‘I’m not really hungry I’ll just have a bite of yours.’ Seriously Becky, get your own.
Do not: ask for lamb. They won’t have it. Pork or chicken only.
Pro tip: If you’re on a date or just want to avoid garlic breath ask for yoghurt instead of tzatziki. It adds almost as much flavor to your souvlaki just without the added garlic. Most places will have this but rarely put it up on the menu.
When you’re ready to eat
Do: note which is the widest end, and position it with that end pointing upwards. Then carefully tear the paper and/or foil in a spiral from that top part only, holding the rest firmly with several tissues at the bottom in case it leaks (it usually does). Continue to unwrap as you eat. This way the structural integrity of your wrap is maintained until the last bite.
Do not: unwrap the whole thing at once, or holding the souvlaki sideways / upside down.
NEVER: unwrap the whole thing on a plate and pick at it with your fork. If you order a wrap eat it with your hands, or not at all.
That said… if you order a merida or portion of gyro / kalamakia, you will get a massive plate of all the elements of a wrap. It is acceptable to eat this with a knife and fork – and if you finish an entire one, you’re a hero.
While you’re eating
Do: try to take bites that include all the ingredients at once for the full experience. And always keep plenty of tissues at hand.
Do not: be overambitious and end up with souvlaki face. Especially if you’re in public. Think about angles and plan your attack.
After the souvlaki
Do: wipe your mouth at either side (even the tidiest eaters are often surprised by residue), wash your hands and eat a breath-mint.
Do: give any leftover bits of meat to that stray dog / cat. C’mon, look at that face.
Do not: speak too close to anyone’s face, unless they’ve been indulging in souvlaki too.
Where to find the best souvlaki?
Athens’s most famous souvlaki is arguably O Kostas, which has people queuing daily for its minimal, high quality content. Stuffed in a non-oily pita with plain yogurt, lean and tender meat, chopped parsley and onion slivers this is one of the most refined options out there.
The bottom of Mitropoleos street in Monastiraki is another central souvlaki hotspot, with places like Thanassis and Savvas overflowing daily. However, the financial crisis led to a huge spike in souvlaki shop openings as the street food is cheap and deeply satisfying, so you’ll find a good souvlaki practically in every part of the city.
How many types of souvlaki are there?
From the least desirable variety – oily pita-bread wraps with grisly meat of questionable provenance, soggy pre-fab frozen fries and weird mustard-yogurt-ketchup-type sauces – to artfully made versions packed with a balanced pop of flavors, high quality textures and ingredients, or even epicurean renditions. In short there is a vast range out there.
When the cook asks you whether you want “ap’ola?” that literally means ‘with everything?’ and usually includes fries stuffed in the wrap. Subtract ingredients as desired. If communication proves a problem, opt for the universal language of pointing as the ingredients will be all out there right in front of you. And enjoy.
NOTABLE SOUVLAKI QUOTES:
“ To give you an idea of the power of souvlaki, Greece is the only country in the world where MacDonalds loses money, caught between the Goody’s hamburger chain and the resurrection of the souvlaki.” Matt Barrett, Athens Guide
“If you could choose between eating souvlaki every day or going out with the person of your dreams, what would you like in your souvlaki?” Seen on the chalkboard of a souvlaki restaurant.
“I should be souvlaki. Lucky, lucky, lucky.” Jim Stephanides, character in Australian sitcom ‘Acropolis Now’.
Get inspired with some Souvlaki Poems
Illustrations by Philippos Avramides