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What is Souvlakia?

By L. Jablonsky
Updated May 16, 2024
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Souvlakia, also known as "souvlaki," is one of the quintessential dishes in Greek street food cuisine. Souvlakia consist of skewed grilled meat and can be served with pita bread, tomatoes, onions and tzatziki. Souvlakia are the Greek counterparts to the Turkish shish-kebabs.

In the Greek language, souvlakia literally means "little skewer." Souvlaki dates as far back as Ancient Greece, where a dish called "kandaulos" was served, made with grilled meat, cheese, and dill wrapped in pita bread. During the Byzantine period, there are records of vendors selling souvlakia as street food in Constantinople, making it a classic form of fast food. Today, it's served in restaurants all over Greece and in Greek restaurants across the world.

Souvlaki's main component is the skewed meat, with different recipes using different meats. Pitta-souvlaki includes pork, pitta-kebab contains lamb, and pitta-kotopoulo has chicken meat. Some restaurants and food stands even use seafood in souvlaki recipes or offer vegetarian renditions of the classic dish.

The key to the preparation of souvlakia meat is the marinade. Some recipes include red wine vinegar, olive oil, and lemon juice. Herbs, usually Greek oregano and thyme, are added to the liquid components. The souvlaki meat marinates in this mixture for a few hours, resulting in a flavorful meat. Some recipes recommend that the meat should be marinated for more than 24 hours.

After threading the pieces of meat on wooden or metal, souvlakia is grilled on high heat, which caramelizes the exterior. Cooks should watch the meat carefully, however, as it should still be juicy on the inside. Cooking the souvlaki on very high heat may dry out the meat on the skewer. After grilling the meat, cooks may season it with salt, pepper, and a dash of paprika.

Technically, "souvlaki" only refers to the skewed meat, which is typically served on the skewers. Foreign variations of kebab and souvlaki recipes alternate the meat with different types of vegetables, such as peppers, mushrooms or onions. Traditionally, souvlakia are served wrapped with a round of pita bread, however. Some cooks serve fresh onions, tomatoes, and parsley with the souvlaki meat. The dish may be served with a thick dollop of tzatziki, a dip made of Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, and sometimes dill or mint.

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