15 Mouth-watering Cretan Foods You Won’t Be Able to Resist!
The largest of the Greek islands, Crete is one of those places where the world managed to fit in a little bit of the best of everything.
Going to Crete is an unparalleled experience! You will be surrounded by breathtaking beauty, grandiose landscapes, and amazing hospitality. Only in Crete can you combine vacations at the seaside and the mountains. Only in Crete can you lounge on beaches that should be in the Caribbean in the morning and take your coffee in a castle village in the mountains in the afternoon. Only in Crete will you taste food that is irresistibly delicious and healthy at the same time!
Local Cretan cuisine is considered one of the best, if not the best, of all the local Greek food, and that is saying something. The peak of the famous Mediterranean cuisine manifests in Cretan dishes, mixing a wide variety of herbs, vegetables, legumes, fruit, and olive oil in a symphony of flavor and color that you will simply fall in love with.
If you happen to be in Crete, make sure you sample at least the following very popular Cretan dishes and desserts to kickstart your culinary journey of guilt-free enjoyment!
The uniqueness of Cretan cuisine
The Cretan cuisine and diet aren’t only famous for being very healthy. They are also very old. There is solid evidence that Cretans ate roughly what they eat today as much as 4,000 years ago.
Minoans would store olive oil, honey, legumes as their food staples, much like current Cretans do. And just like back then, Cretans still prefer to rely on the produce of their island to feed themselves.
This tendency for food independence preserved Cretans through several very challenging and tough times in their rich history; after Byzantine times especially, such as during the occupations by the Venetians and the Turks. And thanks to the indomitable Cretan spirit, living off the land alone didn’t mean living frugally with less than satisfactory food!
Cretans love good flavors, so through the ages they developed remarkable skills, making even their island’s wild greens tasty! That’s how Cretan cuisine became renowned through the ages as being unbelievably delicious.
Then, in a seminal study published in 1960 comparing the dietary habits of seven different countries, it was discovered that the Greek diet and especially the Cretan variant protected people from cardiovascular diseases. More studies revealed that even though the Cretan diet is high in fat, these fats are low-saturated and balanced out with high levels of antioxidants, fiber, and a wide range of vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids to name just a few of the beneficial elements.
Furthermore, people that lived on Crete and followed the Cretan diet had additional benefits, as the produce growing on the island seemed to be of a superior quality. That included the conditions in which livestock was raised. In short, to make the most of the Cretan diet, you must live there. But even if you don’t, following it will still benefit you greatly.
So, what would you eat if you were following the Cretan diet?
First off, you would eat plenty of greens and vegetables. Herbs, legumes, seafood, and fruit would also be in abundance. Your main source of fat would be olive oil. Dairy products would be moderately consumed and meat would be eaten only once a month or so. If you were to go hardcore, you would stay meat-free for around 180 days a year: the sum of the Greek-Orthodox fast days! But don’t worry, everything you would eat would be succulent and delectable anyway!
Because the Cretan cuisine is so tasty, there are few things that aren’t popular or mouth-watering to include in this introductory list. So, we chose some of the most iconic Cretan foods to serve as your gateway to a world of healthy eating and stunning variety of flavor.
1. Horta (Wild Greens)
A salad of wild greens is a staple of the Cretan table. It is also a dish you will taste many times and each time discover a new flavor!
That’s because there are over 300 different types of wild greens that Cretans harvest from their land to put in the salad. You may get anything from arugula, spinach, and sorrel to kale, curly endive, beet greens, collards, and dandelion greens to name a few.
The salad may be raw or lightly boiled, tossed with chives, olive oil, and sprinkled with fresh lemon.
Cretans know all the best combinations, so always order it and don’t be surprised that there’s rarely a description of which wild greens you get to sample!
Another iconic appetizer or snack or salad (depending on when it is served) you must sample is dakos.
Dakos is the name of a very large round, almost bagel-like hard wheat rusk. It forms the basis for this surprisingly tasty salad.
On the rusk, which is flat on top, freshly chopped tomato, feta (or other types of soft Greek cheese), olive oil and herbs are placed. The juices from the tomato and the oil soften the rusk to make it crunchy and tasty with the blending tastes while the herbs make it fragrant and the cheese makes everything pop!
Dakos is also called koukouvagia (meaning owl) so keep that in mind!
3. Skaltsounia (Cretan Cheese Pies)
These cheesy hot pockets, called skaltsounia or kaltsounia, are deep fried and unique thanks to the hand-kneaded dough and the filling that varies by region.
They can contain a variety of soft cheeses (almost never feta!), some milder some more flavorful, and there can be herbs and other ingredients that make each bite creamy inside, with crunchy goodness on the outside!
4. Chaniotiko Boureki (Chania Pie)
Coming from the city of Chania, as its name implies, this special pie is made of layers of zucchini, potatoes, and soft mytzithra cheese covered with a layer of dough or pastry, made from scratch of course!
The flavor is exquisite, somehow transforming this extravagant cheese pie into a pastry-wrapped casserole. Make sure you try it!
Stamnagathi is a wild green but it gets its own spot on the list because it’s a variety that only grows in Crete and is iconic of Cretan cuisine.
You will find it served on its own as a salad with olive oil and lemon, but you will also find it in many combinations with eggs or meat, in cooked food and pies, and in deep fried snacks. Its taste is slightly bitter and flavorful on its own. When in other dishes, it offers balance and flavor, helping to blend everything into a unique taste.
Make sure you try it in the iconic lamb with stamnagathi dish, where the meat is cooked together with the greens for extra flavor and topped with avgolemono sauce (egg and lemon sauce).
6. Hohlioi Bourbouristoi (Snails)
Hohlioi in Cretan dialect means snails, and that’s exactly what this dish is: quickly fried snails finished with vinegar or wine, depending on the region. The snails are fried and served whole with a dash of lemon or rosemary or both!
This dish is considered a delicacy in Crete and Greece in general, and it has dedicated fans as well as dedicated foes. You have to taste it to know.
And a lot hinges on whether you like the texture of the snail as well as the taste, which is quite good regardless!
7. Apaki (Cretan Charcuterie)
Apaki is charcuterie made from pork. It is done through a slow and gradual process and is meant to last for the entire winter season.
First, it is marinated in strong vinegar made from specific types of Cretan wine. This lasts for at least three days. Then the meat is wrapped in a thick layer of herbs and spices (the combination varies but cumin is always part of it). It is kept wrapped like that for another three days or so, and then it is hung and smoked over sage and thyme twigs.
Once done, apaki is cut into thin slices and can be served as is together with raki, or ouzo, or wine, or it can be sautéed in butter or oil and served hot to accompany a chilled beer. Apaki is also used in several different dishes from eggs and pasta to pizzas, salads, and legumes.
8. Antikristo (Roasted Goat or Lamb)
Antikristo is probably one of the most ancient dishes because it uses a method of roasting on the spit over an open fire that has been described even in ancient texts!
The meat is mostly goat or in some cases lamb. It is roasted on the spit all around the fire (so some spits would be opposite each other, or antikrista, hence the name) and would slowly cook over several hours until succulent and tender.
If you are a meat lover, you must try the Cretan antikristo!
9. Goat with Marouvas and Tyrozouli
Marouvas is a special type of local wine that has to mature for several years before the barrel is opened.
Tyrozouli is a semi-hard goat’s milk cheese with a unique savory taste that has to be experienced to be properly described. Goat meat is stir-fried over medium heat with olive oil, garlic, and chopped onions. Then tomato paste and chopped carrots are added to further blend the flavors.
Finally, everything is placed in a clay pot with a lid and baked slowly with the cheese and wine until the meat is tender. The result is a mouth-watering, flavorful, very fragrant dish with great textures you’ll want to have again and again!
10. Gamopilafo (Wedding Rice)
Traditionally, gamopilafo is served to the bride and groom on their wedding day. It is supposed to strengthen them and give them vigor and prowess for their first few wedding nights… and they weren’t wrong!
Gamopilafo is an extremely nutritious, rich in flavor, amazingly tasty rice dish that can fool you with its plain appearance. It is cooked in a combination of meat broths (usually goat and rooster, but the more the better) and finished with a special type of butter and skimmed cream roux made from scratch in each Cretan household called stakovoutyro.
The consistency is that of a creamy risotto and served with a dash of lemon. Even if you don’t attend a Cretan wedding, you will find gamopilafo served in almost every Cretan taverna!
11. Cretan Meat Cake
This delectable pie is usually made for Easter celebrations. It is made with a thick leavened dough and the filling is made of several cuts of boiled goat mixed with as wide a variety of cheeses as possible, cinnamon, and stakovoutyro.
The result is a meat lover’s delight that is opulent and full in taste and goes great with wild green salad!
12. Fennel Cuttlefish
This is yet another iconic dish, this time with seafood, from Crete where cuttlefish is cooked slowly until very tender together with fennel and olives.
You will find it mostly served during Lent as it’s during the spring season that fennel grows on the island. The flavors are perfectly balanced with the richness of the fennel and the tanginess of the olives, topped off with the cuttlefish’s creamy freshness.
Enjoy it with chilled wine or ouzo!
13. Sarikopitakia (Sweet Cheese Pies)
Sariki is the term Cretans use for the iconic black knit bandana with the small tassels that men tie around their heads.
These cheese pies take their name from that, thanks to the looped or spiral shape they have. The dough is special as it is kneaded with tsikoudia, which is a type of Cretan raki. This makes it easier to roll out into very thin sheets.
They are filled with sweet creamy cheese and deep fried in olive oil. Afterwards, they are served with a good dash of thyme honey. Sarikopitakia are great served right out of the pan as well as cold, with creamy smoothness within and crunchy sweetness outside.
Traditionally these are made to offer to guests arriving for big celebrations or weddings, so you know they’re bound to be good!
This is yet another dough that is kneaded with raki and rolled out into very thin sheets, then swirled into the shape of a big rosebud and deep fried. They are served with thyme honey, sesame, and cinnamon.
Kserotigana are very crunchy, light and sweet as well as a gorgeous sight!
15. Moustalevria (Must Pudding)
This unique dessert is made in September, when the grape harvest is in, and the year’s wine is being prepared.
It’s one of the most ancient desserts in Greece, dating back to early antiquity. Its basic ingredients are must (the grape juice before it is put in barrels to become wine) and flour. It is cooked together to form a thick pudding and topped with nuts and cinnamon. It makes for a warm, slightly tangy, and very sweet dessert you won’t find elsewhere!
We have barely scratched the surface of the vast variety and richness of Crete’s cuisine, so as we wrap up we should mention the excellent Cretan produce that you can sample and even take home with you: from pure thyme honey to the famous Cretan olive oil, which is considered one of the best in the world, to the vast variety of hard and soft cheeses that are only produced in Crete.
There is a lot awaiting you if you choose to embark on a culinary adventure while you are in Crete. And we highly recommend that you do so for an even more unforgettable time in the jewel of Greece’s crown that Crete will always be!
Did we mention that Crete is only a two-hour boat trip from the amazing island of Santorini. We strongly recommend a trip to this epic Greek island and if you go, check out our round-up of the most famous foods in Santorini.
Related: Most Popular Greek Desserts