Greek Salad Is A More Recent Invention Than You Might Think

When it comes to healthy eating, there are few recipes that come to mind as readily as the universally-loved Greek salad. A medley of fresh vegetables dressed in high-quality olive oil and oregano, and of course topped with a generous chunk or sprinkling of feta cheese, the Greek salad has long been a staple of traditional Greek cuisine — but perhaps not quite as long as you might think.

In Greece, this sumptuously fresh dish is known as horiatiki, meaning, "from a village" — a name that alludes to its humble early origins in the rural farms and villages of Greece in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though its origins do stretch back over 100 years (a short time compared with Greece's rich 3,000-plus year history), Greek salad has only been around in its current form for the past six decades or so. However, it does make for a fascinating chapter in the country's modern-day history, demonstrating just how much politics, economics, and history itself can shape the kinds of foods we include in our diets today.

The authentic Greek salad

Over the years, various cultures (especially here in the U.S.) have put their own spin on the beloved Greek salad, most often adding lettuce to make it more of a traditional salad. However, the authentic version of the dish actually involves a very specific — and relatively small — number of ingredients, for which quality is of the utmost importance. The vegetables must be fresh — particular attention is paid to the variety of tomatoes used — and using anything less than extra virgin olive oil is nothing short of sacrilege.

If you're lucky enough to have sampled an authentic helping of horiatiki, you'll know that the central ingredients comprise hefty chunks of tomato, cucumber, and crispy onion. Add to that the savory flavor of Greek olives, the buttery smoothness of high-quality olive oil, and the herbal zing of Greek oregano, and voila! But, of course, no respectable Greek salad can go without feta cheese, either crumbled or chunked, to top everything off.

Enter: the tomato

It's hard to imagine any variety of Mediterranean cuisine without the tomato. The juicy red fruit has become a staple in the food of countries and cultures all across the world, including in Greece, where it's a key ingredient to such national dishes as moussaka and horiatiki. However, the truth of the matter is that tomatoes only made their way to Europe a few hundred years ago — think somewhere between the 16th and 17th centuries — by way of the Spanish conquistadors. And even then, the fruit didn't become widespread for another century or two.

In fact, the strange new fruit only made its way to Greece sometime in the early 19th century, when only a few brave souls dared to experiment with it as a component in their meals. Though traditional Mediterranean recipes that have been passed down for generations are naturally resistant to change, the Greek people's hesitation to embrace the tomato was largely due to the plant's uncanny resemblance to the atropa belladonna, or deadly nightshade. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that native Greeks began to welcome the tomato into their cuisine.

Earliest origins

In many ways, the Greek salad that we enjoy today came out of a time of economic turmoil in Greece's history. On December 10, 1893, then-prime minister, Charilous Trikoupis, announced to the Greek parliament (per Independent), "Regretfully, we are bankrupt." The state had severely over-borrowed in its enthusiasm to modernize and grow its infrastructure at a time when the Greek economy was already dangerously unstable. Their disastrous involvement in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 served only to further mire the dismal financial situation, resulting in considerable hardships for the everyday Greek citizen.

Due to the increased financial strain, locally-grown vegetables — like onions, cucumbers, and even the recently-embraced tomato — became an ever-more prominent part of the Greek diet. Rural villagers and farmers, in particular, developed a culinary habit of wrapping a tomato, cucumber, onion, and chunk of feta in a dish towel and carrying it out to the fields for a midday snack or meal. These farmers would typically eat each ingredient separately, bite by bite, but the practice set the stage for a completely new dish to be born a few decades later.

Fast forward to the 1960s

A hop, skip, and a few more financial crises later, the Greek state had imposed a cap on the selling price of certain essential products, including local tomatoes and cucumbers. While this was meant to keep the cost of food affordable for native Greeks, many locals (especially restaurateurs) had begun to rely on the growing tourism industry to make a living. The price cap limited just how much they could charge tourists for the fresh and delicious foods that were, and still are the country's claim to fame.

Some time during the '60s and early '70s, an unknown tavern owner (or owners) in Plaka, a district of Athens that lies near the foot of the Acropolis, added feta to a medley of chunked tomatoes, cucumbers, oil, and oregano. The additional ingredients created a "new" dish, for which they could legally set their own price without government involvement. The dish, called horiatiki as a call-back to its humble rural origins, was a hit with locals and tourists alike. Over time, other chefs and restaurateurs added olives, onions, and occasionally even green peppers, creating the dish we know and love as a Greek salad.

Regional variations

As the invention of the savvy Athenian tavern-owners took off, various other different regions of Greece began to put their own spin on the Greek salad, depending on what ingredients were widely available to them. Two of the most widely known and consumed variations hail from Tinos and Crete. In Tinos, a picturesque island in the Aegean Sea, you're likely to find a medley of capers, sweet seaweed, black and green olives, and both orange and banana peppers mixed into the baseline Greek salad ingredients. In Heraklion, Crete, the so-called Cretan salad incorporates local barley rusk and replaces the traditional feta with local mizithra cheese, which is most often cubed instead of crumbled.

Being the fascinating and incredibly diverse country that it is, each region of Greece has adjusted the traditional horiatiki recipe to suit its local taste. In Northern Greece, parsley often replaces or accompanies oregano as the dish's main spice. In Paros, lettuce is an acceptable addition, along with black-eyed beans. Cheese is the name of the game in Naxos, which replaces feta with the local specialty, xynomizithra cheese. And for an even different, ultra-summery twist, natives of Mykonos prefer to replace tomatoes with watermelon during the warmer months. Hint: for an Americanized DIY version of the Mykonos salad, check out our mouthwatering watermelon and cucumber salad.

Greek salad becomes a national dish

Considering that the Greek salad's many variations all evolved over the last 60-odd years, it's truly mind-blowing to think of just how quickly horiatiki became such an iconic dish. Whereas the recipe in anything resembling its current form wasn't even a part of the country's cuisine 100 years ago, horiatiki now stands alongside moussaka, spanokopita, gyro, and baklava as a quintessential example of authentic Greek food (if international cooking is your thing, check out our nine divine Greek recipes).

The dish has already worked its way up to a special place in the traditional Greek meal structure. Alongside a generous platter of olives and cheese, a real Greek meal can hardly begin without a hearty helping of horiatiki. In a relatively short amount of time (at least compared to the country's lengthy history), Greek salad has become as essential an element to a typical meal as family, friends, and free-flowing ouzo. For anyone even remotely familiar with Greek cuisine, to leave out the fresh, iconic dish is all but unthinkable.

Greek salad goes international

Whether you prefer to call horiatiki by its authentic moniker or the simpler (for non-Greek speakers) Greek salad, you've likely seen it or a variation on more than a few menus in your hometown or city. It's so well-loved by local Greeks and tourists alike that the dish has long since cropped up in other countries cuisines, sometimes with a delicious local flare. That is especially so here in America, where Greek salad is widely regarded as a favorite lunch option.

The dish has had such a takeoff in U.S. popularity that there are nearly as many regional variations here as there are in Greece itself. For instance, if you happen to order yourself a serving of Greek salad while in Detroit, don't be surprised if the recipe includes some form of beets. Naturally, in California, avocados are added for an extra kick of health and creamy deliciousness.

Lobster is a popular addition in New England, while Tampa natives seem to prefer their Greek salad topped with a helping of potato salad. No matter whether you prefer the simple-yet-authentic Greek horiatiki or a variation of your choice, the fact that so many cultures have taken the recipe to heart is proof that the dish is just the latest of Greece's many gifts to world cuisine.