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Ouzeri, resembling a Spanish tapas bar but with a Greek twist, delights in serving ouzo — a potent distillate crafted from grape or grain-based alcohol, carefully distilled with anise, fennel, and other aromatic herbs.
These delectable small plates showcase cherished Greek classics, creating an inviting atmosphere where one can savor savory bites while enjoying a drink. Rather than a full-fledged meal, it offers an assortment of delectable morsels. Unlike Spanish tapas, which serve as a prelude to dinner, the Greek tradition embraces leisurely moments spent indulging in small meze dishes, considering it a complete culinary experience.
Rooted in history
Once upon a time, ouzeris emerged as humble establishments for the working class, serving modest portions of straightforward fare. These included smoked herring or pickled bonito, perhaps accompanied by a slice of sausage and a small chunk of kasseri cheese, olives, a couple of fried or pickled peppers, and a slice of “village bread.”
An Athenian ouzeri is typically a cozy spot, often described as a hidden gem, serving as the epicenter of Greek meze culture, particularly in Athens. This vibrant culinary tradition revolves around small plate cookery, enticing patrons to pause and relish a quick bite. Greeks consider it unthinkable to drink without partaking in food, and hence, ouzeris provide a plethora of appetizers.
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These local establishments welcome friends and relatives to gather, enjoying a swift drink and a few delectable nibbles while engaging in discussions about the day’s political scandals, family and friends’ news, recent theater reviews, or any other topic that arises.
In the present day, the array of small dishes varies from simple plates of little fried meatballs or freshly grilled or fried cheese wedges to small flame-grilled sausages paired with a tangy mustard sauce. Alternatively, one might encounter more elaborate offerings, such as an omelet stuffed with cubed potatoes and a paste of cooked skinless tomatoes, sautéed red and green onions, and celery. Another intriguing option could be a sandwich brimming with crabmeat. Roasted chicken wings in a spicy sauce represent a newer addition to the meze repertoire.
Additionally, one can enjoy puree of yellow split peas and olive oil known as fava, alongside pickled olives, cornichons, and an assortment of pickled or tinned fish. The starring roles are shared by small fresh fish, lightly floured and deep-fried, as well as succulent morsels of smoky, charcoal-grilled octopus, battered fried mussels in a garlicky sauce, and various spreads like taramosalata, tzatziki, eggplant salad, and scordalia – a powerful dish combining mashed potatoes and generous amounts of freshly cooked garlic. To complete the experience, freshly baked, crusty bread is always on offer.
These diverse offerings form the foundation of meze, which can range from modest combinations like a small wedge of hard kefalotiri cheese, a slice of cucumber, a quarter of a tomato, and a couple of brined olives – usually included in the price of the drink – to elaborate spreads encompassing a medley of all the aforementioned delicacies. While these dishes require payment, they still remain reasonably priced.
Accompanying the meze, groups of friends, known as the “parea,” indulge in ouzo, bottled beer, or a carafe of wine. It is worth noting that in Greece, teenagers are considered adults-in-training and are allowed to consume alcoholic beverages, gradually acclimating themselves to responsible drinking without succumbing to intoxication. With a cultural inheritance dating back to ancient Athens, the prevailing sentiment in Greece today is that being visibly drunk is a social faux pas to be scrupulously avoided.
The concept of meze in Greece traces its roots back to at least the time of Aristophanes, who described symposium appetizers encompassing radishes, olives, beans, and cheese. Ancient texts even mention sweet cheese pies, potentially serving as precursors to tyropitakia, the iconic Greek feta-in-phyllo triangles beloved by many.
During my recent trip to Athens, I stumbled upon a centrally located ouzeri that offered a delightful variety of meze. This gem, known as Ouzeri by Papaioannou, is situated near Syntagma Square on Valaoritou Street, close to the upscale Kolonaki neighborhood. I had the pleasure of enjoying an afternoon repast there with friends I hadn’t seen since 1967, and it evoked cherished memories of the vibrant Athenian lifestyle of my youth!
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