Add these traditional Greek ingredients to your pantry for authentic Mediterranean meals.

Paximadia with tomato and feta cheese | Photo by Getty Images

Greek food is rustic and simple and mostly calls for ingredients that are commonly found in the average American grocery store. There are, however, local culinary products that are a little more exotic to those uninitiated to Greek cuisine. Here we decipher some of Greece’s lesser-known ingredients.

1. Mastiha

Mastiha, also sometimes spelled mastica or simply by its English name mastic, is the resin of the mastic tree. These trees grow in only the southern area of the Greek island of Chios. The world’s first chewing gum, it has been known since antiquity to have anti-microbial properties. Today, it is used in everything from pharmaceutical products to liqueur to baked goods, such as the Easter bread tsoureki.

Chios mastic tears | Photo by Getty Images

2. Petimezi

An ancient sweetener, petimezi is grape molasses, a byproduct of winemaking. Made by boiling down unfermented grape juice (moustos), it is full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. In Greece it is used in cookies (moustokouloura), pudding (moustoalevria), and more.

Moustokouloura | Photo by Getty Images

3. Tarama

If you’ve had tarama, it has most likely been in taramosalata—the famous Greek fish roe dip. Tarama is also used in fritters, called taramokeftedes, and to add punchy flavor to pasta dishes. The roe is from carp, cod, or mullet, and in Greece is available both white (natural and undyed) and pink (with dye added), with the white roe being a higher quality product. The white roe is difficult to find outside of Greece, while the pink is commonly found in the U.S. at Greek, Russian, and Middle Eastern markets.

Taramosalata | Photo by Diana Moutsopoulos

4. Krokos Kozanis

Greece produces its own red saffron, called krokos kozanis, named after the town Krokos in the region of Kozani, where the prized product is produced. Available to purchase online, it’s a high-quality and reasonably-priced alternative to saffron.

Krokos Kozanis | Photo by Diana Moutsopoulos

5. Mahlepi

Used in Greece as well as the Middle East, where it is called mahleb, this spice is made from the pit of a specific cherry. The pit’s inner kernel is ground to a powder, where it is used to flavor Greek baked goods, such as the brioche-like Easter bread, tsoureki.

Mahlepi and other spices | Photo by Getty Images

6. Horta

Horta is an all-encompassing term for "greens." Greeks eat a plethora of wild and cultivated greens; they are made into pies (the hortopita is just a spanakopita but with more greens than simply spinach), omelettes, and salads. The most common way to enjoy horta is to boil the greens until tender, then serve them at room temperature in a bit of their cooking liquid along with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. Some common variety of horta include vlita (amaranth greens) and italiki (red dandelion greens), though there are endless other varieties that are often foraged for in the countryside.

Heaps of horta at a Greek farmers’ market | Photo by Diana Moutsopoulos

7. Tsai tou vounou

Greek mountain tea grows wild throughout Greece’s mountainous terrain and is boiled with water to make a calming and rejuvenating tea. The plant, called ironwort or sideritis in English, has been known in Greece since the time of Hippocrates to be a panacea for coughs, colds, and more, and recent research has confirmed its anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.

Dried tea in basket. Isolated Image

8. Paximadia

Paximadia is a general term for bread rusks. There are a variety of rusks that feature in Greek cuisine, perhaps most famously in the dakos salad, which is essentially what we know as "Greek salad" (tomatoes, onion, feta, olive oil) served atop a hearty dried rusk made of barley or whole wheat flour—you might think of it as Greece’s version of panzanella or fattoush.

Paximadia with tomato and feta cheese | Photo by Getty Images

9. Selino

When you see celery called for in a Greek recipe, it is actually selino, which is wild celery. It looks very similar to its more cultivated cousin, but with thinner stalks. It is sold in Greek markets with the leaves and all, which are also chopped up and included as part of the dish. Though selino differs slightly in flavor, you can always substitute regular celery for a similar result.

10. Metaxa

Brandy, called koniak in Greek after the French cognac, is used to flavor many Greek baked goods. Metaxa is Greece’s most revered koniak. Produced since 1888, Metaxa used to call itself a brandy, but it has since fashioned itself as "the original Greek spirit." The rebrand is fitting, since sipping Metaxa is an entirely different experience than sipping brandy. Though they are both grape-based spirits, Metaxa is infused with a secret mix of botanics, and includes floral and citrus notes.

Metaxa | Photo by Getty Images

Explore recipes using some of these traditional Greek ingredients:

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