Acropolis now: the rise of Greek food in the UAE

Greek food has never been more en vogue and the UAE is seeing a rise in the number of places to try the cuisine

Dakos salad with Cretan homemade barley rusk, grated tomato, Feta cheese & extra virgin olive oil, at Elia, Dubai. Courtesy Elia
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A couple of years ago, there were articles in New York and London publications suggesting that following on from Peruvian and Mexican, Greek was about become the celebrated cuisine de jour.

Many were doubtful Greek food could enjoy such a revival, but it appears the predictions may have had some truth to them. And that is being reflected in the rise in the number of noteworthy places to eat Greek across the UAE.  

Greek cuisine has always been with us of course – not surprisingly as the country practically created western civilisation. But for decades it has perhaps been one of the most underrated cuisines.

Elia Greek Restaurant at the Majestic Hotel in Bur Dubai has long been a beacon of Greek gastronomic brilliance, and in the cooler months the small terrace out the back is one of the enduring gems of the city's dining scene. But recently, three branches of Eat Greek Kouzina have opened in Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates and The Beach at JBR, with another one about to open in Abu Dhabi at Galleria Mall, joining Acropolis at Le Méridien Village.

Elia Greek Restaurant, Majestic Hotel, Bur Dubai. Courtesy Elia
Elia Greek Restaurant, Majestic Hotel, Bur Dubai. Courtesy Elia

There's also Little Greece, the Greek deli in Al Barsha Mall, Dubai, for those who are looking to buy authentic imported ingredients.

Grecian Grill in Dubai Marina Walk opened this month and the emirate's JLT (Jumeirah Lake Towers) area has become something of a hub for Greek food, with Labbys The Hellenic House, Public Cafe and, most notably, Mythos Kouzina & Grill all in the area.

The latter is being touted as one of the best new restaurants in the city and has been a big word-of-mouth brunch success over the past 18 months.

Why this has become so popular – and not just in the UAE – is open to some conjecture, but the Mediterranean diet has undoubtedly grown in popularity over the past few decades, having been strongly promoted for health reasons. And Greek food epitomises that diet better than any other.

In fact, the Greek island of Ikaria is famous for its large population of healthy 80- and 90-year-olds, who experience Alzheimer's and dementia at a rate of one-fifth of people the same age in the United States, largely because the diet there has remained consistently Greek for centuries.

Greek recipes have seen a resurgence off the back of findings like this, which has led to more restaurants and a rise in general interest. The cuisine also lends itself to the now-ubiquitous idea of the sharing concept. As we increasingly move away from the old starter-main-dessert "all for me, thanks" model of dining, the cuisines that are growing in popularity are – perhaps not coincidentally – ones that work well with a more communal style of eating. It is a perfect storm of a cuisine, ticking all the right boxes at the right time.

According to Fay and Alex Economides, the owners of Mythos Kouzina & Grill, well executed authentic Greek cuisine is always appreciated, and right now there is a better representation of the cuisine in the UAE than there was previously.

The taverna setting at Mythos Kouzina & Grill at JLT, Dubai. Courtesy Mythos
The taverna setting at Mythos Kouzina & Grill at JLT, Dubai. Courtesy Mythos

"Greece is only four hours away from Dubai and people have been travelling to Mykonos and Santorini in particular over the past four years, so we have seen a growth in understanding and appreciation of Greek food," they say.

Alexandra Timotheadi, a Greek national who has been living in the UAE for nine years, attributes some of the rise in interest to the health of it. "Greek cuisine's secret is the quality of each ingredient rather than employing the use of heavy sauces or a lot of seasoning, and we also use an extraordinary range of herbs with health properties, extra virgin olive oil [itself a powerful antioxidant] and add honey in recipes instead of sugar," says Timotheadi.

Locally though, in the grand traditions of food, the recipes have travelled with the people.

"There is a lot of demand for Greek food from Greek people that have moved to the UAE because of the economic crisis back home," she says.

It now appears that demand is being met. And a key thing diners have noticed about most of Greek restaurants in the UAE is that they are actually run by Greeks, which not only lends authenticity to the dishes but also creates a more authentic atmosphere. An afternoon in Mythos is like a mini-break to Greece itself.

The menus across the UAE have a "meat feast" element to the main course, with classic lamb, chicken and beef dishes, with starters tending to be much lighter – 21 of the 24 starters at Grecian Grill are vegetarian.

Whether there will be any radical modernisation of Greek food in restaurants across the UAE, similar to how Peruvian and Mexican cuisine has changed, remains to be seen. Nearly all the restaurants have tended to stick to traditional classics rather than trying anything notably outré or offering new interpretations so far. But perhaps Greek food is simply something that was perfected centuries ago. 

The UAE now has lots of good options in which to try a cuisine that is as old as culture itself, but which has once again come of age in a time when increasingly we are realising that people were eating better in the past.

A traditional healthy Greek Salad, at Grecian Grill, Dubai. Courtesy Grecian Grill
A traditional healthy Greek Salad, at Grecian Grill, Dubai. Courtesy Grecian Grill

Greek salads 
The basic traditional one comes with feta cheese, oregano and extra virgin olive oil, but few national cuisines do salads quite so well and at Elia you can get one with sundried mackerel marinated with citrus and herbs, and boiled wild vegetables that is healthy and full of flavour. 
Chicken souvlaki 
Skewer of chicken chunks served with Greek fries (sprinkled with sea salt and oregano), homemade pita bread and tzatziki. It's typically Greek, but enduringly popular for a reason.
Tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice, then baked in an oven with fresh herbs and served with feta and roast potatoes. Mythos in JLT does a fantastic version of this classic recipe.

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