You simply cannot go to Greece without experiencing souvlaki. It is a major Greek street food and is considered the national dish of Greece.
Like kabobs, the word souvlaki simply means “meat on skewers”. But Greeks also use it to describe the actual meal — a warm pita, loaded with perfectly marinated grilled meat and topped with tzatziki sauce. Other fixings are typically included, and even a handful of fries are tucked into the pita.
What is souvlaki?
Souvlaki is a well-known treat in Greece. Greeks eat souvlakia (plural) all the time either hastily on the streets while they move on to reach their destination or sitting at the table of a souvlatzidiko, the restaurant which sells souvlakia. Souvlaki is rather cheap, you can buy one with pita bread for about two euros and a one on a skewer without the pita accompanied with some bread for about a euro and a half.
Souvlaki is usually made from pork pieces of meat but you can also find some chicken souvlaki or lamb souvlaki. The pita bread souvlakia contain, apart from the meat, fresh tomatoes and onions, French fries which are optional and tzatziki. Tzatziki is a delicious Greek sauce made with yoghurt, garlic, olive oil, cucumber and a bit of vinegar. The pita is oiled and then grilled before being used to wrap all the ingredients. If you do not like the onion, you can ask them to prepare a souvlaki without it. Generally, any ingredient can be omitted but the taste is not the same and all the ingredients add up to a unique tasty bite.
Souvla, or “skewer” in Greek, refers to large chunks of meat grilled on a rotisserie. Souvlaki, or “little skewer”, on the other hand, is the quintessential fast food of Greece. Cubes of meat cooked on thin skewers less than a foot long. That said, you can always make souvla using the rotisserie on your grill or by roasting the meat in the oven; just be sure to marinate big pieces of meat overnight.
Many of us associate souvlaki with roast lamb, but in the back alleys and on the roadsides of Greece, pork and chicken are actually more common. Pile the hot skewers and the warm pita on platters, set out the toppings, and let everyone assemble their own sandwiches.
History of souvlaki
As in other parts of the world, the practice of cooking food on spits or skewers has an ancient history in Greek culture. Excavations in Santorini, in Greece, unearthed sets of stone cooking supports used before the 17th century BC. In the supports, there are pairs of indentations that were likely used for holding skewers. The line of holes in the base allowed the coals to be supplied with oxygen.
Mycenaean Greeks used portable trays as grills. These trays were rectangular ceramic pans that sat underneath skewers of meat. It is not clear whether these trays would have been placed directly over a fire or if the pans would have held hot coals like a portable barbecue pit. In Classical Greece, a small spit or skewer was known as ὀβελίσκος (obeliskos), and Aristophanes mentions such skewers being used to roast thrushes.
The word souvlaki is a diminutive of the Medieval Greek souvla (σούβλα), which means “skewer”, itself borrowed from Latin subula. Souvlaki is the common term in Hellenic Macedonia and other regions of northern Greece, while in southern Greece around Athens it is commonly known as kalamaki or “reed”.
Souvlaki is a popular Greek fast food consisting of small pieces of meat and sometimes vegetables grilled on a skewer. It is usually eaten straight off the skewer while still hot. It can be served with pita bread, fried potatoes, lemon, and sauces, but the souvlaki itself is eaten on its own, with the side dishes eaten subsequently. The meat usually used in Greece and Cyprus is pork, although chicken, beef, and lamb may also be used. In other countries (and for tourists), it may be made with meats such as lamb, beef, chicken, and sometimes fish.
Differences between gyros and souvlaki
Many people today mistake the difference between the gyro and souvlaki. But in fact, it is two different meals. The gyro is considered a main meal, whereas souvlaki is a fast food.
While Greece was a part of the Ottoman Empire until the nineteenth century, its cuisine developed under the Ottoman influence. In Greek, the gyros means “turn” and it is cooked on a vertical rotisserie.
A gyros is usually made with lamb, beef, pork or chicken. The meat is marinated with Mediterranean herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and oregano. The meat is served in handmade pita bread, along with fries, tomatoes and red onion and, of course, tzatziki sauce.
Souvlaki is linked to the Greek word souvla (meaning spit), and the origins of the Greek kebab dish date back to ancient Greece. Back then, the dish was known as kandaulos. The main difference between a gyro and a souvlaki is the way the meat is cooked. Where gyros are cooked as vertical cones of meat, the souvlaki meat is cooked horizontally, on skewers that are rotated on a grill. Gyro is also known as shawarma and doner kebab. On the other hand, souvlaki is often termed as shish kebab and kalamaki.
Variations of souvlaki
Kalamaki (small reed) is a synonym for souvlaki proper in Athens, where the word souvlaki is used colloquially for any kind of pita wraps. Kalamaki can also be accompanied with vegetables such as tomato, peppers and onions as well as some lemon juice. There are some places in Greece where kalamaki is not connected in any way to souvlaki. In these regions, when people say souvlaki, they mean the dish that is called kalamaki in Athens.
Merída means portion. While souvlaki is eaten plain on hand as a fast food, it is also served as a full plate, served with fried potatoes, vegetables, sauce, and quartered pita bread. Usually, it consists of the ingredients of a souvlaki-pita, but laid out on a plate, instead of wrapped together for eating on hand.
Pita is a form of partially leavened, flat, round bread with a diameter of approximately 6 inches, used to wrap souvlaki or gyros. It comes pre-baked and will additionally be grilled on the meat drippings just before serving, unless the customer requests it not to be. In Athens and southern Greece, it is called pita-kalamaki.
A souvlaki-pita consists of meat garnished with sliced tomatoes and onions, fried potatoes, 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. Sauces like ktipiti, Russian salad or melitzanosalata can also be used as an extra option.
Any of these ingredients may be omitted at the request of the customer. Hungry customers may occasionally request a two-pita wrapping (diplopito) and/or a double meat serving (dikalamo).
One thing that all types of souvlakia have in common is that they all hit the spot, no matter where you eat it or how! Be sure to check out this homemade Greek souvlaki recipe.
- 2 lb pork tenderloin (or beef tenderloin)
- 1 onion
- 5 sprigs rosemary
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 3 cloves garlic , chopped
- 5 tablespoons of olive oil
- 10 teaspoons white wine vinegar (incl. 5 teaspoons for the marinade)
- 1 pinch coarse salt
- 2 large tomatoes , sliced
- 3 scallions , cut into strips
- A few pita breads
- Tzatziki sauce
- In a bowl, pour five tablespoons of white vinegar and crumble 2 sprigs of rosemary and 2 sprigs of thyme.
- Dip the wooden skewers in this marinade for 1h30, so that they do not burn while the meat cooks and they release a great aroma.
- Using a sharp knife, remove all the white membrane that covers the top of the pork (or beef) tenderloin. This step is very important, otherwise the souvlaki would remain hard.
- Cut the meat into small equal size 1-inch thick pieces.
- Place the meat in a salad bowl and reserve at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Quarter the onion. Separate the layers and add them to the meat.
- Crumble the remaining rosemary and thyme and add.
- Add 5 tablespoons of olive oil, 5 tablespoons of white wine vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper.
- Let stand in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the grill or barbecue.
- Thread the pieces of meat on the wooden skewers by inserting 2 or 3 pieces of onion in between the meat pieces.
- Place them on the barbecue and grill until the meat is cooked and browned.
- Serve with grilled pita bread, onions, tomatoes, fries and tzatziki sauce.