For millennia, the Greek people have inherently acknowledged the wisdom of following a healthy and wholesome diet. Ancient teachers like Plato, Hippocrates, Plutarch and Socrates expounded on the many benefits of an ethical, medicinal and non-indulgent diet. Generation upon generation of Greeks, no matter where they lived, passed on valuable nutritive “formulas” throughout the ages like a precious, but disintegrating, baton.
The famous Cretan and Mediterranean diets, too, exemplify the profound understanding the Greek people have had of the health-giving properties of food. However after suffering the worst famine in Europe during the Second World War, dietary astuteness slowly but surely was replaced by consumerist excess, brought on by the growing accessibility (and foreign fashion) of processed and packaged foods and formerly expensive products like meat (in all its forms), wheat and dairy. Alarmingly, one of the most evident repercussions of this change became evident in the 1990s, when Greek children emerged as the most obese in Europe, with adults closely following suit.
Perhaps it took a dark, dingy and depressing financial crisis to make the light at the end of the dietary tunnel visible, as in recent years, a new awakening has occurred regarding the major, multifaceted and long-term benefits of healthy eating. Food professionals in the dietary sector confirm that it’s as if a newfound pragmatism has reactivated the simple memory of the ancestors regarding how food is a practical and direct way to be our best self. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” wrote Hippocrates. “Drink down more antibiotics, painkillers and antidepressants with a fizzy drink and eat another plate of horsemeat meatballs,” said no one.
The appetizing evidence of this new approach can be found in the flourishing number of health-oriented restaurants, juice bars, cafes and grocery stores around the capital but also in other parts of the country. I visited the most well-reputed and spoke with their owners about this tasty new wave.
MORE THAN JUST SALADS
When I came to Greece in the early 1980s, vegetarianism was an alien concept and a good excuse to mock someone mercilessly. However, in the last decade in particular (perhaps also due to growing interest in alternative therapies and exercise like yoga) Greeks have become familiar with the vegetarian ideology and practice, and more recently the vegan diet too. That said, the Greek diet has a broad variety of vegetarian and vegan dishes, and the religiously faithful go on several vegan fasts per year, some as long as 40 days. Yet, the presence of meat, and in huge varieties, has taken center stage on the family table.
Central Athens is beginning to buzz with healthy restaurants. One of the first to emerge was Avocado, which has a relaxed, non-health-freak ambience. Amid a fresh, minimal decor, it offers an organic menu of soul food with pleasing ethnic twists (spicy Indian influences especially), as well as many delicious, nutritious, take-away options – from sandwiches to raw dishes, rich chocolate tart to juices and smoothies bursting with superfood power.
Also attracting healthy foodies is the newish “earth mother” themed cuisine of Mama Tierra, which serves a broad variety of vegan and vegetarian dishes inspired by Latin America, India, the Mediterranean and Middle East, with hearty everyday foods such as (mushroom) burgers, colorful salads and soothing soups, made with ingredients sourced from small, local, organic producers.
Rosebud is the only restaurant in Athens to have taken the vegan nouvelle vague to Greek gourmet level, serving innovative dishes like seafood sushi – without seafood! – and spaghetti with truffle carpaccio and coriander. Unique in its mission (and very brave, considering it opened during a financial crisis in a meat-impassioned nation), Yi serves a menu almost exclusively based on raw cuisine. With hip health-guerillas like Troo Food Liberation, raw cuisine has become a cool phenomenon that younger Greeks are warming to, something to which the budding presence of health food stores, organic street markets and uncooking workshops around town attests. More of a cafe than a restaurant, Yi produces its own nut-and-seed “butters” and “cheeses”, sprouts, wheatgrass and other “ethical” ingredients used in various dishes, the most popular among which is the burrito platter. Their fan base has grown mainly due to the mouthwatering list of “I can’t believe it’s raw!” desserts, such as their hazelnut mousse, glossy berry cheesecake and gooey warm chocolate brownies. “Most people keep returning,” says Yi chef Anna Hohlaki, “which is a good sign, and tell us they’re learning a new way of eating through us.”
“The Gods created certain kinds of beings to replenish our bodies; they are the trees and the plants and the seeds” – Plato
GETTING INTO THE MEAT OF THINGS
If you want to eat healthily but want your meat too, you can now find a good range of restaurants in Athens that boast of using only or mainly organic ingredients, “ethically farmed” and organically fed meat. They also include superfoods, or at least organic, local and seasonal ingredients, in most dishes.
Inspired by 1950s Hollywood and with stores in Glyfada, Kifissia and Kolonaki, Nice N’ Easy prides itself on farming its own buffalo meat near Lake Kerkini in northern Greece, buying only wild or organically raised salmon, and sourcing their produce from small local farmers who grow produce using only authentic, old Greek seeds.
IT Restaurant, which serves hangover remedy cocktails and eggs nine ways at its Sunday brunch, also has a menu to please the most demanding health food lover. With a strong Greek influence (cheeses, honey, olive oil, pulses) and fresh salads, pasta dishes and a variety of burgers, it has created a loyal and mounting following over the last decade.
Avocado: 30 Nikis, Syntagma
• Tel.: (+30) 210.323.7878
Mama Tierra: 84 Akadimias
• Tel.: (30) 211.411.4420
Rosebud: 42 Skoufa, Kolonaki
• Tel.: (+30) 210.339.2370
Yi: 69 Grigoriou Lambraki, Glyfada
• Tel.: (+30) 210.964.8512
Nice ’n’ Easy: 60 Omirou, Kolonaki
• Tel.: (+30) 210.361.7201
IT Restaurant: 29 Skoufa, Kolonaki
• Tel.: (+30) 210.363.5773