Greek the Salad
The Caesar is the most popular; the Cobb has its devotees; and I’m sure somebody must love a Waldorf, but the Greek is my favorite in the pantheon of classic American salads. Crunchy raw vegetables, theoretically juicy tomatoes, raw onion, dried oregano, and the salty/sour punch of feta cheese, olives, and maybe capers or pickled peppers — it’s a powerful, flavor-forward salad that’s hard to mess up.
Like many other classic American dishes (ground beef tacos, spaghetti and meatballs, General Tso’s chicken), the Greek salad is a domestic creation with a vague reference to some other country. It is common to find excoriations of the American Greek salad that claim that a dish called horiatiki (pronunciation is close to whore-YA-tee-kee) is the truly authentic Greek salad, the one Greeks love, the reason that any real, authentic, Greek person from Greece and not America would look at an American Greek salad and think, “Pah! This is not authentic!” (Horiatiki is a salad of roughly chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, and sometimes sweet green pepper, with feta cheese, olive oil, olives, and oregano. It has no lettuce.) Ahhhh, authenticity.
On the other hand, there is no such thing as authentic food. The concept requires that all cuisines from primarily non-immigrant countries be thought of as static and unchanging, which of course they are not. Dishes are created all the time, even in countries with much longer culinary histories than ours. Existing dishes are modified. New influences change the way people eat. Regional specialties overlap, mingle with each other.
When you talk about traditional or authentic food, it’s also important to remember that basically zero world cuisines were unchanged by the introduction of New World ingredients in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It took some cuisines an extra couple centuries to figure out how great corn, squash, chiles, potatoes, and, especially, tomatoes are. Greece was one of those. Tomatoes weren’t introduced to Greece until the beginning of the nineteenth century, and then a civil war further postponed widespread adoption, so it wasn’t until the late nineteenth and even early twentieth centuries that tomatoes became really popular in Greece, despite the fact that they grow readily in the sunny Mediterranean climate.
“We always have a salad, this is a thing you always have at the table,” Aglaia Kremezi, a cookbook author, cooking school instructor, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Greek cuisine, told me. There are many ancient Greek dishes that we would recognize today as salads, one in particular taking shape thanks to the needs of farmhands. “In the original village kind of salad, it was a lunch you could take in a box and eat in the fields,” Kremezi says. You’d have a pepper, a cucumber, some cheese, some onion, and, importantly, some bread. You’d chop it all up and have a meal, right there in the field. The farmhand salad, which does not really have a name, is fairly similar to a Lebanese salad called fattoush and an Italian salad called panzanella. They all use some form of stale bread-like product (the Greek version uses paximadi, twice-baked barley bread that has a texture similar to a biscotti) to soak up liquid from a fresh vegetable salad.
Greek cuisine shares some similarities with western European cuisines like Provencal and Italian, but in many ways it’s more similar to the cuisine of Turkey, with which it shares a short border. As in Turkish cuisine, Greeks often start a meal with an array of small salads and plates — you’d have some cheese, some savory pastries, some salads, each one a separately prepared mini-dish that’s served all at the same time for you to pick and choose. These mini-dishes, when served in this way, are sometimes called meze, like the Turkish version, and sometimes called orektiko.
Horiatiki was not one of the salads Kremezi grew up eating, because it didn’t exist until the mid-nineteen sixties. “When you sat down at the tavern, you ordered tomato salad and feta cheese, and then whatever else you wanted to order,” Kremezi says. Tomato salad, sometimes with cucumber or onion, sometimes not, was its own dish. A big slab of feta cheese (sheep’s milk only, or if you must, a tiny bit of goat’s milk, says Kremezi), covered in olive oil and dried oregano, was its own dish. Olives, too, were separate. Horiatiki takes all of those disparate meze dishes and combines them into one big salad.
Horiatiki was created, and then adopted throughout the country, in response to Greece’s desire in the sixties to be considered a real urban power — a European country, not a Middle Eastern country, like Turkey. Horiatiki is a salad to compete with niçoise. And it showed off so many of Greece’s strengths: phenomenally powerful herbs, strengthened in flavor by having to struggle in the dry, hot climate; truly world-class cheese; incredible fruits and vegetables; and some of the best, strongest, fruitiest, most flavorful olive oil anywhere. If you were an American tourist in 1968 and you had horiatiki at a seaside tavern, your mind was blown. This was some good shit.
To Greeks, it was kind of silly. “My parents were snubbing it, saying this is an overpriced way of serving,” says Kremezi. “And the whole thing backfired, because tourists would order the horiatiki and nothing else. They would call them horiatiki tourists, cheap tourists.” The name is curious as well. In Greek, “horiatiki” means “village,” a term and concept that was anathema in the sixties as Greece tried to appear modern and European. “If you wanted to dismiss something, you would say ‘this is horiatiki,’ to mean, this is not good,” says Kremezi. “So for a salad to succeed with that name, it must have been a great salad!” It was, and is, a great salad, and soon it exploded in popularity all over the country. Now it’s found in any tavern, any resort, or any seaside fish shack in Greece. It’s also found year-round, though to Kremezi, ordering a horiatiki off-season is a clear giveaway that a diner doesn’t know what he or she is doing. “Horiatiki is a summer salad,” she says. “Now, of course, they make it all year round, but if people know their food, they don’t order horiatiki in the winter. In the winter we have the greens salad, mixed greens.”
In the US, Greek salad is a little different. It’s commonly found in diners, in pizza joints, and at any “American food” type chain. It’ll have a base of iceberg or romaine lettuce, feta cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes (sometimes cherry, sometimes sliced), onions (usually red), and a dressing of olive oil, vinegar (usually red wine), and oregano.
This Greek salad, not to be confused with the horiatiki, emerged at around the same time, in the sixties. (There are references to “Greek salad” before then, as early as the nineteen thirties, but these were bizarre concoctions of mayonnaise and cabbage and it’s unclear what, if anything, made them the least bit Greek.) Greek immigrants flowed into the US in their biggest numbers from around 1890 to 1923, when a law put a cap on immigrants; hundreds of thousands came to avoid the chaos of the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and World War I. Many of those found work, as immigrants tend to do, in restaurants. But Greeks, for whatever reason, managed to connect with Americans by creating or co-opting two very important American restaurant types: the diner, and the pizza joint.
Greek immigrants disproportionately ran both; most New York City diners, for example, are owned by people of Greek descent. Greek immigrants also found notable success in the pizza world. The inventor of Hawaiian pizza is a Greek guy who immigrated to Ontario, and the owner of the famous Mystic Pizza hails from Greece as well. Greek restaurant owners, while catering to the tastes of their new home, also inserted a few elements from home onto their menus, most notably in the Greek salad, an American riff on the concept of combining a whole bunch of Greek classic items onto one plate. With the success of both diners and pizza joints, generations of Americans have grown up with the Greek salad as a nostalgic touchstone.
There is no true Greek salad; horiatiki, aside from being only a few decades old, is also as fluid as any other dish. Some versions, says Kremezi, include herbs like purslane, a lemony succulent that’s also common in the northeast US, or rock samphire, an herb which grows out the sides of cliffs above the Mediterranean. Some might include sweet green peppers. She always includes capers. But what I found most interesting is what she doesn’t include: vinegar, and olives.
“In Greece we never add vinegar. Why do people add vinegar? Tomato is quite sour,” Kremezi says. “Why do they add vinegar, balsamic vinegar, these things? It’s beyond me.” She finds, as well, that olives, being very salty, throw off the balance of the salad. “Feta is already quite salty,” she says. She’s right; I never thought about it, seeing the Greek salad mostly as a salty and acidic kick in the teeth to balance out some greasy pizza, but it is not a particularly well-balanced salad. Kremezi’s version, though, is.
The basic elements of a good Greek salad are fairly uncomplicated. You need good tomatoes, in season. Heirlooms are perfect. This is a limited-edition salad, only ideal for a few short weeks in the summer, because you need top-quality tomatoes: they’re going to be supplying both acid and sugar. Get nice cucumbers (Kremezi likes either English or the curved, ridged Armenian type). Good quality fancy olive oil, preferably a heavy, fruity one. Good feta cheese — Greek, or Bulgarian, made of sheep’s milk, packed in brine. God help you if you buy pre-crumbled grocery store feta.
An underrated key to the Greek salad, whether American or horiatiki, is in the herbs. In Greece, most herbs and greens are gathered wild, and are powerful and unusual because of it. A jar of McCormick dried oregano is not really a good substitute. But fresh oregano is very easy to grow in pots, and absolutely delicious. Oregano is a key ingredient in Greek cuisine; Kremezi says there are more than twelve different varieties, all used for different things in different parts of the country, and that the best stuff is the wild type that’s never watered and is all the more potent for it. “But the fresh one,” like you would grow in pots, “I like the fresh one,” she says. “And I think it adds a very interesting touch to the salad. With the feta it’s very ideal.”
And with that, we’re ready to do the recipe. It’s simple, direct, all about the ingredients. This is my recipe, not Kremezi’s — you can find hers here, and I’d highly recommend reading more of her recipes over on her site (or buying her books on Amazon). But it’s influenced by what I learned from her.
Shopping list: Heirloom tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, red onion, fresh oregano, olive oil, black Russian bread or pumpernickel, purslane, sheep’s milk feta
Slice bread into cubes, about an inch on each side, and put in the toaster oven to toast. When they’re done, let them cool and dry out — we want to simulate stale bread here. Put into a big bowl. Carefully slice tomatoes into large chunks — irregular if you want, this is a rustic salad, go nuts — but do it over the bowl, so as not to lose any juice from the tomatoes. Slice cucumbers in half lengthwise, then chop into fairly chunky half-moons. Slice red onion thinly, and mince a lot of fresh oregano. There is no substitute. Get fresh oregano. Do the same with about as much purslane leaves — it’s not quite as strong as oregano, but you want its flavor to be less dominant.
Toss all this in the bowl, and carefully crumble a lot of feta in there. Pour on more olive oil than you think you need. Toss gently and let sit for about half an hour, then add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with olives on the side.
I will continue to get a Greek salad, with shitty hothouse tomatoes, olives, maybe anchovies, maybe hot peppers, and definitely lettuce, with my pizza, because I love it. But Kremezi’s version is a different type of salad, one that for me is as exciting as any new recipe I’ve tried. It’s not authentic, but it is delicious.
Photo by Alpha