Where do you eat in Greece? A taverna, you might think is the obvious choice. Not quite. A taverna is a place where freshly grilled meat (what is commonly referred to της ώρας) is barbecued, usually on a charcoal grill. If that's what you you're looking for, then look for a souvlaki joint. Think of it as a close relation of a steakhouse. If you want to find well-cooked food that resembles home cooking, you need to look elsewhere.
The best place to eat in Greece is in one of those old-fashioned places where the food is on display in a transparent heated case, each different dish in its own large baking tin (tapsi). In this way, the customer can see what has been cooked on that day. This is called a mageirio (μαγειρίο), or maybe an oinomageirio (οινομαγειρίο), meaning a place where food and wine are served. Don't expect to find steak and chips: that's for a taverna, not a mageirio. The food is all cooked in the traditional manner, with an emphasis on home-cooking and an abundance of olive oil. It's also the place where you will find a traditional Greek breakfast soup that many early risers and heavy labourers will want (and need) to ea, also enjoyed by weekend revellers who'd been drinking all night and need a remedy for their stomach: patsas - tripe soup.
These places still exist, and there is no fear of their disappearance yet. The best ones in our town are in the Agora, the central town market, with a few other good ones spread around the central bus depot: their location is always to be in a central area where people are bound to linger. No point having a mageirio based in the middle of a high street; the customers will still be shopping, and will only sit down when they finish their shopping - and that's where the mageirio is located. They are usually quite reasonably priced. A food tour of the town of Chania will include these diners. They are only open during the day, even though the Agora is open during normal trading hours. It is an enclosed area, rather like an Arabian souk, but shaped in the form of a cross (which is visible only from the upper stories of the hotels across the road from it). People of all ages and and income levels come here, as the food is not very expensive, served in an informal environment and an incessant buzzing of chatter and hawkers' cries: "Ola freska, ola freska!" And you never know who you might come across in the Agora, as it is a meeting point for the locals, a place to be photographed, along with the tourists who buy packaged spices and Greek made-in-china souvenirs.
The Agora in Hania, as in all Greek towns is also the place to find fresh products, especially regional specialities and locally produced goods. There are stalls for every need: butcheries, fishmongers, bakeries, fruit and vegetables, dairy produce, local products, souvenirs and presents. Everyone will find something they want in the Agora.
Α visit to Chania, whether for business or pleasure, will almost certainly lead you to the Agora. Just look at who I found walking outside the Agora today: an old man dressed in traditional Cretan pants and headgear (probably from a faraway village, he came down by bus to do his weekly shop at the Agora), a gypsy selling embroidered linen, a woman selling daffodils. They were all found walking within a few metres from each other, across from the Agora. After a short glimpse, they would have disappeared into the muddle of traffic and pedestrians.
Greek food has been wholly misunderstood. It's not about fine dining, or nouvelle cuisine. It's not based on appetisers, mains and desserts, even though the tourist menus use these headings - that's simply an internationally recognised method to present a list of foods. It's not a cuisine where you will mix fish with meat, or fruit with protein. Real Greek food is not what you see in a taverna. If Greeks were eating grilled meat on a daily basis, they'd have been decimated ages ago. At a mageirio, you can find everything you'd expect a Greek mother to be cooking for the family on a daily basis, with the full range being offered.
Here is a selection of some good solid Greek cuisine that was on offer at the Agora of Hania today: okra (bamies, lady's fingers), egg and lemon stew, gardoumia, yemista, snails, seafood, yiouvetsi, gigandes; just the kinds of things I cook on a regular basis.
Many old Greek black and white movies are focussed around such diners. They are usually comedies; whenever someone laughs or looks cheery, there's bound to be some food to go with the atmosphere. I've based the following 'filmscript' on a similar dialogue that I once heard in an old Greek black and white comedy, whose stars are all long gone now.
A man enters the local neighbourhood mageirio, He is dressed in a dark suit, with a white collar and tie. He's short and rotund, but clean and tidy. He's a little bald and has a well-trimmed moustache. He takes a table in a rushed state and exclaims to the skinny waiter wearing a striped apron that goes all the way down to his shins:
"What have you got that's ready? I'm not very hungry but I'm in a bit of a hurry. Just something to nibble on. Have you got any gigandes?"
"Gigandes? No problem, coming right up, sir."
"One serving of gigandes, and throw in a couple of porkchops with that, thanks."
"Porkchops? I thought you said you weren't very hungry!"
"My good man, I'm not very hungry, but I can't eat just a bowl of fasolada on its own, can I? And don't forget to bring me a good Greek salad, something with lots of leafy greens."
"A salad too, sir?"
"Yes, yes, with plenty of feta cheese and olive oil, just enough to dunk a whole loaf of bread in."
"You want a whole loaf of bread?"
"To go with the gigandes and the salad, man, of course! I just want a quick bite to eat. You may as well add a couple of fresh snapper fillets with a pan of fried potatoes."
"Fresh snapper fillets?"
"Of course I want them fresh, what are you thinking, man?!"
"Well, the fishmonger hasn't delivered yet."
"Then how long do I have to wait? I've already told you, I'm in a bit of a hurry!"
"I'll see what I can do. You ought to know that we've just cooked some tripe in egg-and-lemon sauce, if you're interested."
"If I'm interested? Well, of course I'm interested! And don't just stand there, bring me a bowl of tripe. Didn't I tell you I'm in a hurry?
"Certainly, sir. Will that be all?"
"All? Of course that's all, I'm not very hungry, I only want a snack. And don't forget to bring me a carafe of house wine. But hurry, my good man, I'm rushed for time!"
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