As the biggest island of Greece, Crete is nearly a country of its own – and for many years, this was actually the case. Though it is no longer an independent entity, visitors can easily discern a strong, singular Cretan identity – and the same can be said about its cuisine, with plenty of local foods to discover in each region across the island. Though choosing 10 items to try when in Creteis a rather Herculean task given its diverse gastronomy, here is our top selection of must-eat options on this storied Greek island.
This one is a no-brainer. Though you can eat dakos virtually anywhere in Greece, this simple meze should be top of the list when you set foot in Crete. Though its name may vary from one region to another – some call it koukouvagia – dakos is a light yet filling salad based on barley rusks, or paximadi. These are lightly soaked in water or olive oil to soften them, and topped with grated fresh tomato and myzithra, a creamy sheep or goat cheese. For the final touch, virgin olive oil is sprinkled on the dakos, with a pinch of salt, pepper and oregano.Traditional Cretan salad with feta, rusks and tomatoes
If you know a little bit of Greek, then you might have guessed what gamopilafo is. A combination of gamos – the Greek word for wedding – and pilaf, gamopilafo is a rice dish traditionally eaten at Cretan weddings. Nowadays however, the dish can be found in many taverna on the island. Somewhat similar to a risotto, the dish is made with rice cooked in a meat broth with a dash of lemon juice and butter. The result is a rich, creamy dish you will easily fall in love with.
Sfakia pies (Sfakianes pites)
These delicious ‘pies’ are from the southern coastal region of Sfakia and may best be described as cheese-stuffed pancakes, although you may also find fillings of horta as well. The dough includes raki and olive oil and once it is filled and spread, it is lightly fried in a pan, just like a pancake.
Probably another one of the most iconic foods of Crete, the sarikopitakia (or sarikopites) are coil-shaped, sheep’s cheese-filled, phyllo pastries fried in olive oil. They are served warm with honey on top and named for the shape of the headscarf (sariki) worn by the local men.
Kalitsounia are small pies mainly made with cheese though available in a variety of options, including a sweet one. The savoury version involves a phyllo paste and can include different ingredients such as spinach and horta. For the sweet version, rosewater, cinnamon and sugar are added to the filling. Highly appreciated throughout the year, they deserve to be tried when you get a chance.Cretan pies kalitsounia with cheese, herbs and sesame seeds© geniuscook_com /Shutterstock
Apaki is smoked and salted pork meat. Left to marinate for two or three days in a strong vinegar, the meat is then smoked with aromatic herbs and spices. Apaki can be cooked and eaten on its own or added to omelets, legumes, vegetables or salads.
Fried Snails (Chochlioi Boubouristi)
This is a dish for the adventurer foodie. In this Cretan dish, snails (chochlios) – often still alive – are first fried with flour and hot olive oil in a pan, hence the name boubouristi, which is the popping sound you hear when the snails are fried. The next step involves dousing the snails with wine vinegar and rosemary.Fried snails on a white plate© Lara65/Shutterstock
Typically from Chania, the chaniotiko boureki is a simple yet tasty zucchini and potato pie. Also called kolokythoboureko (from kolokytho, pumpkin or zucchini), chaniotiko boureki includes zucchini, potatoes and mizithra cheese, covered by a sheet of pastry.A vegetarian meal of traditional Cretan boureki (courgette, carrot and other vegetables with mizythra cream cheese, topped with grated cheese and baked), bread and coffee at a taverna in Chora Sfakion©Paul Cowan/Shutterstock
Lamb with stamnagathi
In Crete, stamnagathi is everywhere. This wild green is the equivalent of spinach and they are credited by Cretans to be the reason for their good health. Usually boiled and savored with a dash of olive oil and lemon, they perfectly complement meat and particularly lamb. The combination features in many tavernas and even top-end restaurants.
You cannot go to Crete and not try raki, the local version of tsipouro. This strong spirit is a pomace brandy made from grapes, served in taverna and kafeneia. Called tsikoudia in certain regions of Crete, raki is to be drunk from a shot glass without any water added. It is the perfect drink to accompany mezes.