Chania is a northwestern city on the island of Crete. Its stunning rocky coastline, picturesque harbor, and quaint narrow streets charm visitors from around the world. We visited for two weeks, and felt we could have stayed longer, and of course both said over and over that we need to go back. One of the huge draws for us, beyond having ample opportunities to enjoy a glass of wine while watching the sun go down or the world go by, was the superlative cuisine. We’ve certainly been to places that we’ve enjoyed but don’t long to return to, if the food was lackluster. That was certainly not the case with Chania.
Visitors to Crete won’t be disappointed if they’re seeking typical Greek dishes. But, beyond the standard Greek favorites, Crete has its own food traditions. Cretan dishes are often made with a few fresh locally sourced ingredients. One local quipped to us “if the dish has more than five ingredients, it is not Cretan.”
During our stay we explored some of the back streets of Chania and discovered cherished local favorites. We also indulged in some of our favorite traditional Greek cuisine. Here’s a few of our favorites, and where to find them.
Traditional Greek Dishes in Crete
Pastitcio is a baked dish made from long hollow noodles mixed with a minced meat (often lamb) and tomato sauce. It is then topped with a thick layer of bechamel sauce and baked until golden brown. This rich, creamy dish is admittedly heavy, but so addictively good don’t be surprised if you finish a large slice all by yourself.
We found our favorite at the Κρύο Βρυσάλι restaurant, Dionopapa 9, Chania, Crete, where they also have a variety of sampler platters so that you can dig into a few dishes, including local Chania favorites, at the same time.
Bougatsa is a cheese filled pastry surrounded by thin phyllo dough. The typical version is made with sweet semolina custard and covered sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. We chose the less typical, more savory version, made with mizithra cheese, which suited our tastes perfectly! Visit one of the shops making this delicacy and watch and the phyllo dough is rolled out until it is paper thin.
Our favorite place specializing in this breakfast treat is Bougatsa Jordan (Iordanis), which is open from 6:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Monday – Saturday and 6:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. on Sundays.
Many restaurants offer several types of grilled meat, from sausages to marinated skewers (soulvaki) to various cuts of lamb, pork, chicken and beef. Our recommendation is to get a sampler platter that invariably comes with a stack of warm pita bread. Order a little tzatziki sauce on the side and let the good times begin!
Spicy Feta Cheese Dip (Tirokafteri)
This spicy feta cheese dip is a nice alternative to yogurt-based tzatziki sauce. The best versions, in our humble opinion, have big chunks of feta mixed in with the creamy yogurt and blended with minced spicy red peppers and lemon juice. It’s fantastic smeared on warm pita bread or used as a base for a gyro sandwich, piled high with grilled meat, onions, tomatoes and cucumber. Try Kosta’s Grill (address: askalogianni 51, Chania Town, Crete) for authentic food, friendly service and locals prices.
Moussaka is Greek’s answer to lasagna. Thinly sliced potatoes are layered with spiced roasted eggplant (sometimes including minced beef or lamb) and then topped with a thick layer of bechamel sauce. It’s typically baked in a big pan, and served in hefty portions (just like lasagna).
There’s nothing like eating fresh seafood while dining outside overlooking the ocean. A visit to Chania provides ample opportunity to do just that. Fresh grilled (or fried) seafood such as shrimp, octopus, fish, or squid are widely available. For a special treat, try the grilled calamari (squid) stuffed with feta cheese, or seafood saganaki (seafood simmered with tomatoes, spicy peppers, ouzo and feta cheese). Our favorite seafood restaurant in Chania, located down a narrow unassuming street with tables nestled into the rocky beach is the Thalasino Restaurant. The view, food and sunset from there were all perfection.
Dakos are a popular Cretan appetizer made with dried barley bread slices topped with fresh tomatoes and topped with feta or creamy mizithra cheese (similar to ricotta) and finished with olive oil and oregano.
Kalitsounia (Cretian Pies)
Kalitsounia are delicious folded pies most often filled with Cretan cheese or spinach, but they can also be made with sweetened cheese topped with honey. The dough is more similar to pie dough than flaky phyllo dough, which is used to make Greek Spinach Spanakopita.
Sfakia pie is similar to a pancake which has been filled and carefully rolled out to make sure that the entire pancake has an even layer of whatever delights inside. The most popular types are cheese sfakia, which is grilled and then topped with honey, or savory version filled with fennel. An excellent place to sample this treat on the back streets of Chania is the Kormoranos Cafe (address: Mezedopoleio, 46 Theotokopoulou, Chania Town, Crete).
Stifado is a Greek dish that is particularly revered on the island of Crete. It is a slow cooked dish, featuring beef, rabbit, pork or lamb intermingled with onion, red wine and tomato and spiced with oregano, rosemary and cinnamon. Often it is served with Cretan bread or on a bed of orzo pasta. In the above dish, the orzo was added directly to the dish, and while this isn’t a traditional way of cooking the dish, it was especially delicious as the pasta was able to soak up the juices, adding a little extra flavor.
This rice dish is typically served during on Crete during weddings or special occasions. Lamb or goat is boiled in water, then the resulting stock is used to cook Arborio rice along with a hint of lemon juice. The rice is served on a platter with the meat alongside.
Snails are a very popular Cretan delicacy that are found on many restaurant menus. There are a few popular ways to prepare them, including boiling and then frying them with herbs before finishing the dish with vinegar and rosemary (boubouristi), or cooking them together with tomato, zucchini and potatoes.
Old Chania Market
The Chania Market, located in the heart of the city, is a perfect place to find the traditional dishes of Crete. Along with local products, including wine, olive oil, olives, sweets, honey and carved products made from olive wood, there are a few restaurants in the market that serve Cretan dishes. The food here is simple and made with recipes that have been passed down for generations.
Boureki is a baked layered dish made with potato, zucchini, creamy Cretan cheese (mizithra) and mint. It’s a perfect example of a dish that can be found in the market and made just like it would be in a local family home.
While Raki isn’t necessarily a Cretan product, it won’t take long to discover the islanders love of this potent drink. Raki is a distilled white liquor made from the leftover grape product (pumice) after wine production. After almost every meal (besides breakfast), the waiter invariably appears with a small pitcher of Raki and a few shot glasses. With an alcohol level of 45%, you can imagine that the taste is quite strong. For those who prefer a more gentle introduction to Raki, there are plenty of stores (including the stalls in the Chania Market) that will provide samples of the product that has been cut and flavored with essence of anything from coffee to watermelon.
Crete is actually on of the oldest wine making areas in the world. The tradition of producing wine was imported to Crete from Georgia before spreading to mainland Greece and throughout Europe. As you can imagine with their expansive knowledge of wine making and fertile growing areas, it is not difficult to find beautiful wines on Crete. Wine lovers can book a tasting at a quickly wine shop, Miden Agan that includes a history of Cretan wines and an overview of the styles produced on the island.
At the end of the day, when you have a such fantastic scenery, ocean views and a spectacular sunset, it’s very difficult for everything not to taste just that much better. That, and a little Raki, is all it takes to decide that one taste of Crete is not nearly enough.
PIn it for later!
View from Zepo’s Restaurant, Venetian Harbor, Chania Greece
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