It's been said, you go to Santorini to fall in love, to Mykonos to party and to Crete to EAT!
Three parts fresh seasonal ingredients, mixed with two parts tradition, plus a heap of famous Cretan hospitality is the recipe for a great food experience. Chania is full of culinary delights. Small-scale and family run farms are a huge part of the economy so fresh vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, honey, and fresh meat are abundant. These foods can be found in most local taverns and moderns twists have been popping up in trendier downtown restaurants. Let this list be your guide to be sure you have the best foods Chania has to offer.
Bougatsa dates back to the Byzantine Empire and is made throughout Greece but in Chania it is made a little different. Instead of a sweet custard filling between layers of phyllo, bougatsa in Chania is made with mizithra cheese. Mizithra cheese is a savory creamy cheese made from sheep and goat’s milk. This more sour cheese is layered between handmade phyllo and topped with sugar and cinnamon. Try a piece at Bougatsa Iordanis in the center of Chania. (Picture courtesy of thetinybook.com)
Staka is essentially butterfat from goat’s milk thickened with flour. The butterfat is skimmed off the top of the milk as it is being pasteurized. It is pure decadence. Often times you’ll see it on a menu served as an appetizer or with eggs. Staka is best enjoyed on gamopilafo. See next.
One of the courses at a traditional wedding is boiled lamb. Well that gorgeous lamb broth is not wasted. Rice is boiled in the lamb broth and topped with lots of lemon and staka. This rice dish is called gamopilafo. It is creamy, starchy, lemony perfection. A lot of traditionally taverns now include gamopilafo on their menu, no wedding crashing required.
4. Extra virgin olive oil
The average Cretan person will consume 25 liters of olive oil a year. It is in everything! You will inevitably have olive oil when you’re in Crete, but it’s more important to take some home with you. Make sure you look for the words “extra virgin olive oil” and “cold pressed” or “cold extracted” on the label to ensure a superior quality.
5. Greek yogurt
Forget everything you think you know about Greek yogurt. If your spoon doesn’t stick straight up in it, it’s not the real deal. Real Greek yogurt is strained in a cheese cloth which is how it gets so thick. It’s also made of sheep’s milk which has a higher fat content than cow’s milk. Greek yogurt is versatile as sweet or savory. Try it with drizzled honey, or fruit preserves, or as a dip with your stuffed grape leaves.
Dakos are one of the freshest simplest appetizers you can have. Dakos are large paximadia aka rusks smothered with pureed tomatoes and spices, topped with mizithra cheese. A note about rusks: Rusks are dried bread much like a large crouton. Shepherds would take rusks with them when they tended their flocks. Sometimes they would be gone for weeks at a time and fresh bread would go stale but rusks would sustain them for their duration away. (Pictured: Dakos from Chrisostomos Restaurant)
7. Gyro pita
While visiting Crete you must have at least one gyro or souvlaki. It’s our famous street food. Gyro is seasoned meat in a pita flatbread served with tomatoes, onions, and yogurt. I have written extensively about gyro here.
Dolmades are grape leaves stuffed and rolled with rice and herbs like mint, dill, and oregano. In the summer months you can find zucchini flowers stuffed with rice and herbs as well. Often served with a scoop of Greek yogurt.
Fava, not to be confused with fava beans, is a spread made of pureed yellow lentils. Fava can also be made with the addition of garlic, onions, or carrots.
10. Wild greens
The Cretan landscape is covered with over 300 unique types of flora and fauna. Some of the green you see growing you may mistake for weeds, but in fact a lot of them are superfoods. Wild greens are seasonal but there’s always at least one type available. Xorta, vleeta, stamnagathi, radikia to name a few are usually served boiled with olive oil and lemon but also served raw in a salad.
Kalitsounia is the Chania term for cheese or wild greens pies. Rolled out dough stuffed with cheese, greens, or a combination of the two. You’ll see them square shaped or half moon shaped. Most bakeries will have them in their displays.
12. Cretan salad
Cretan salads do not have lettuce. They don’t even have feta. Chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, rusks, mizithra cheese, and a ton of olive oil, salt, and oregano. That’s it. The key is the super fresh and local vegetables. Order one with every meal. (Pictured: Cretan salad at Manousakis Winery)
Marida are tiny little fish, lightly battered, fried, and served with lemon. They are to be eaten whole, head and all. A great meze to have beach side.
14. Graviera cheese drizzled with honey
Graviera cheese is a hard cheese made of sheep’s milk. It is often served drizzled with famous Cretan honey. It’s an amazing flavor combination.
Gigantes are giant beans baked in a tomato sauce accompanied with other seasonal vegetables. These are essential for any vegans visiting to try.
Of course lamb needed to make the list. Lamb is everywhere on every menu. It's hard to go wrong. If you visit a mountain village, look for antikristo, lamb cooked against a flame.
Snails or xoxlous, are a must-try. When you order them, be prepared that you will get a small mountain of snails, not 4 or 5 like when you order snails in France. They are often prepared bourbouriastous, or sautéed in olive oil and topped with wine/vinegar with rosemary.
(Pictured: Xoxlous bourbouriastous from Chrisostomos Restaurant)
Another essential wedding item, these are fried phyllo dough wrapped into a spiral topped with walnuts and honey, sometimes sesame seeds. There’s a lot of variations as some are made with raki and others with egg. You can find them in most pastry shops.
Patsas is only for hard core foodies and those wishing to avoid a hangover. It’s tripe soup. The best place to get patsas is in the agora, municipal market. There’s a back door for Agapinis Tavern for the wee hours of the morning.
20. Sfakianes Pites
As the name implies, Sfakianes pites are best enjoyed in Sfakia. A visit to Sfakia is worth the winding road just for these cheese pie pancakes smothered in honey.
(Pictured: Sfakianes pites with Saviolakis honey)