Souvlaki: The Origins of Greek Fast Food



    Greece is well known for its delicious cuisine and healthy Mediterranean diet, but what about its fast food? Everyone who has visited the country has tasted at least once the famous “souvlaki” or “souvlaki with pita” or “pita gyros,” three dishes combining meat in a very tasteful dish that has become a trademark of the modern Greek culture over the years along with other products such as the frappe, ouzo, retsina and feta cheese.

    Whether to take away, eat it out on the curb or just sit in the shop and enjoy it at your leisure, souvlaki and pita gyros have become the most popular, convenient, and cost-effective food option someone can come across in Greece despite, or even rather because of the times of the economic crisis.

    The word souvlaki is a diminutive of the Greek souvla (spit), itself borrowed from the Latin word subula. But the origins of souvlaki date back to ancient Greece. It was known with the name obeliskos (dim. of obelos –spit), mentioned by among others in the works of Aristophanes, Xenophon, Aristotle etc. A meat and bread recipe which resembles the way pita souvlaki is served today with pita bread was also attested by Athenaeus in his “Deipnosophistae” and called the plate kandaulos. The skewered kebab-like recipe existed as a favourite in ancient Greece during Archaic times, as the earliest references are attested in Homer. However, excavations held in Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini by professor Christos G. Doumas, unearthed stone sets of barbecues for skewers (Greek: krateutai) used before the 17th century BC. Even later on, during the Byzantine era, references survive describing street vendors selling souvlakia with pita in Constantinople.

    The first souvlaki shops in Greece appeared in Livadia in 1951, selling souvlakia on a stick and rotating gyros. It may be served on the skewer for eating out of hand, in a pita sandwich with garnishes and sauces, or on a dinner plate, often with fried potatoes.

    Souvlaki or Kalamaki

    Kalamaki (little reed) is a synonym for souvlaki proper in Athens, in order to differentiate it from other forms of souvlaki. For kalamaki, the meat is cubed into 1-inch chunks, marinated overnight in lemon juice and olive oil along with pinches of Greek herbs and spices such as oregano and on occasion thyme. Then it is skewered on wooden skewers (the “little reeds”), broiled over charcoal, and generously salted and peppered.

    The terminology used in Thessaloniki and most parts of northern Greece is different; the word kalamaki is never used to order a souvlaki; a joke suggests that any Athenian or other southerner visiting Thessaloniki asks for a kalamaki will be mockingly given a drinking straw (also called “kalamaki”).

    Souvlaki pita

    This course consists of souvlaki meat garnished with sliced tomatoes and onions, sauced with tzatziki, and wrapped in a lightly grilled pita. When chicken is used instead of pork meat, tzatziki and onions are replaced with a special sauce and lettuce to be compatible with its taste. Various other garnishes and sauces are possible, including shredded lettuce, paprika, fried potatoes, ketchup, and mustard, though these are considered heretical by purists. In Athens and southern Greece it is called pita-kalamaki. Any of these components may not be included, at the request of the customer. Hungry customers may occasionally request a two-pita wrapping (diplopito) and/or a double meat serving (dikalamo).

    In Thessaloniki any pita-wrapped souvlaki is referred to as a “sandwich” with its desired ingredients (meat and its method of preparation, plus each and every condiment) meticulously listed by the customer each time.

    Another difference between southern and northern Greece is that “souvlaki ap’ola” (souvlaki “with everything”) typically includes tzatziki sauce in Athens, unlike Thessaloniki.

    In Corfu, a special tomato sauce is added to souvlaki, plainly called “red sauce.”

    Gyros pita

    In this case, the souvlaki is replaced by gyros (kebab usually made of pork or chicken). This is also nicknamed souvlaki in common speech due to its resemblance to the above, and because gyros meat is rotated on a mechanical skewer.

    The meat used for souvlaki varieties is usually pork in Greece and Cyprus. In other countries and especially for tourists, souvlaki may be made with other meats such as lamb, beef, chicken and sometimes fish (especially swordfish).