Dakos served with tomatoes and cheese on a pretty plate

Eight must-try foods in Crete

Michelle Tchea

Contributing writer

The island of Crete stands proudly apart from the mainland of Greece, with its own flavours, traditions and food culture.

While Cretan cuisine has been highly regarded and respected in Greece for centuries, the rest of the world has only realized the rich bounty of ingredients the Mediterranean island has to offer in the last few decades, with it being the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet - a concept now widely accepted.

Traditional and typical Cretan food focuses on using fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Simple cooking is at the heart of the cuisine, with ingredients being the star of the show.

Crete is blessed by both the land and sea, offering locals a large array of delights, including mountain herbs, farm-fresh cheese, fresh fish caught daily from the sea, fragrant honey and, of course, Cretan olive oil.

Despite the island’s popularity, many of the restaurants, bars, and snack shops are still family-owned and run. Expect to find some truly delicious recipes that make you feel like you are enjoying a typical Cretan meal with your Greek family - even if you are just a tourist in one of Europe’s most stunning islands. 

Cretan dakos, a barley rusk topped with juicy tomatoes, cheese and olive oil

1. Dakos and Kritiko Paximadi

What can be described as a Cretan biscuit, kritko paximadi is a rusk or more simply a dried piece of bread made with wholemeal barley flour or oat flour.

Dating back to ancient times, the biscuits were the staple of farmers and Cretan sailors because they could be preserved for long periods without losing their crunchy quality.

Cretans use kritiko paximadi to make dakos, just one of the dozen mezes you find on the island. If you need a comparison, it is like an Italian bruschetta where the barley rusks are soaked in olive oil to soften them and topped with grated fresh tomato and myzithra, a creamy sheep or goat’s milk cheese.

The dish is then drizzled liberally with Cretan olive oil - of course! A favourite with travellers is served at Taverna Leonidas.

Kaltsounia, small pies filled with mizithra and drizzled with honey and sesame seeds

2. Kalitsounia

With origins from Crete, the tiny pocket-sized snacks are addictive for even those without a sweet tooth and can be found in both savoury and sweet versions.

In its most traditional form, unleavened pastry is filled with fresh cow’s milk cheese called myzithra and lightly fried into a puffy shell. Sweet varieties have cinnamon and lemon zest added to them.

Kalitsounia have become so popular these days that despite being an Easter treat, they are now enjoyed throughout the year. You can find them in restaurants, taverns and also bakeries all over the island.

A top bakery in Heraklion is where you need to visit for decent Kalitsounia.

Antikristo traditional roasted meat around a fire in Crete

3. Antikristo

Not a dish but a traditional cooking technique, Antikristo is basically the go-to way of cooking meat on the island of Crete.

A young lamb is cut into four pieces called goulidia, salted and then placed on large skewers and arranged around a fire in almost a circular shield to help cook the meat uniformly.

The name antikristo means “across the fire”, and the process is a true reflection of what “low and slow” cooking can do to farm-raised meat: succulent, juicy and just truly delicious meat barbequed to perfection and best enjoyed with a tall glass of Greek beer.

For something truly authentic without heading to the mountain tops of Crete, head to Bacchus Restaurant in Minos Beach Art Hotel, Agios Nikolaos and enjoy a true Cretan tradition on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Chef Poppy brings her family’s tradition to the gourmet restaurant, and there is no better time spent on Crete than eating antikristo in the luxury 5-star hotel with good friends - Yamas!

A bowl of seafood stew

4. Kakavia

As Crete is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, you would be crazy not to enjoy the fresh seafood when you visit. One recipe to look out for has to be kakavia - a fish stew from Crete.

Traditionally, the recipe was cooked by fishermen in their boats after their fishing trip. Any odd bits of fish they couldn’t sell were added to seawater, onions and also potatoes to produce a rich seafood stew-like soup.

For a rustic version of this soup, head directly to InBlu restaurant in Minos Palace Hotel and Suites - a fantastic, yet unfussy restaurant perched on a small hill overlooking Mirabello Bay - long lunches are highly recommended here.

For a slightly more upscale version of kakavia, you can’t beat restaurant La Bouillabaisse at the sister hotel Minos Beach Art Hotel on the other side of the bay with chef Kyriakos Mylonas making the simple fisherman stew into something worthy of a Michelin table.

Traditional cretan pasta called skioufihta

5. Skioufichta

If you thought that only Italians ate pasta - think again. In Greece, hilopites (greek egg pasta) is widely enjoyed all over the country.

Fresh milk and eggs come together to make simple little pasta varieties which are most commonly served with olive oil and grated dry myzithra cheese. Different kinds of pasta are found in different areas of Greece, and in Crete, it is Skioufichta you have to search for.

Made with whole-wheat flour, salt, water and olive oil, the dough is rolled into thin strips and spiralled into a twisted little pasta shape. It is best served and enjoyed with burnt butter and, of course - a lot of local cheese like anthotyro or myzithra.

Once again, Inblu Restaurant has a great vegetarian one - a meal there is well worth squeezing into your Crete itinerary.

Chunks of mizithra, a whey cheese from Crete, with a bowl of grated mizithra

6. Cretan Cheese

Apparently, every Cretan village has its own signature cheese. Shepherds make their own sheep or goat milk cheese and sometimes even combine the two for a combination that is rich in aromas, tangy in taste and also texturally different to what you would normally find in any ho-hum supermarket.

There are many great local cheeses from the island, like graviera - a harder cheese with a nutty flavor upon aging - and soft creamy cheese like pichtogalo chanion.

Yet for many who visit Crete, the best and most popular has to be myzithra, a young whey cheese which can be served with salad, stuffed in Greek pies and also sprinkled over pasta.

A dish of lamb with stamnagathi

7. Lamb with stamnagathi

Cretans love their lamb and one of their favorite ways to serve it is with stamnagathi - a wild weed grown on the island of Crete.

A simple recipe would involve a Cretan lamb sauteed in olive oil with oregano and served with stamnagathi greens, which are drizzled with a lemon sauce called avgolemono.

One of the best lamb and stamnagathi versions you can experience is at Bacchus Restaurant with a super succulent and fall-off-the-bone lamb sitting on a bed of stamnagathi.

The greens are very nutritious and good for you so you don’t feel guilty going in for a second helping - if that ever crossed your mind!

A bottle and bowl of olive oil with dakos in a Cretan olive grove

8. Cretan olive oil

One of the main ingredients enjoyed in the Mediterranean diet (and in Greece) is olive oil. Crete is one of the country’s strongest producers of olive oil and it is highly regarded in terms of quality and taste.

Experts who know their olive oil well will tell you that the warm climate and minimal air pollution contribute to Crete's excellent olive oil. Combined with the strong olive oil culture - traditions of looking after the trees, olives and even the pressing of the olives - they make Cretan olive oil highly superior to others worldwide.

There are no rules to enjoying Cretan olive oil - trickle over dakos or Cretan cheese, or drizzle over your favourite Greek salad!

Planning a trip to Crete? Read our guide on food and eating out in Greece.

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Michelle Tchea

Author - Michelle Tchea

Michelle Tchea is the founder of Chefs Collective, an organization working with the world's greatest chefs, artisans and winemakers with a focus on sustainability. She is the author of five books on food and wine and is an established writer for magazines including Conde Nast Traveler, Time Magazine and The Guardian.

Last Updated 3 March 2024

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