Culinary Inspiration: Ikaria, Greece

With its fresh ingredients and wondrous flavor profiles, Greek food is a constant inspiration to us here at Suvie. And we love understanding not just how the recipes come together, but the story behind the food, delving into the region, its culture, history, and people as often as we can.  Today we start our Greek exploration with a trip to Ikaria.

It’s said that Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León sailed to Florida in 1513 in search of the Fountain of Youth.  He might have had better luck on his quest if he’d sailed east, to Ikaria. The Greek island, perhaps named for the mythological character Icarus, lies a short ferry ride from Mykonos, but despite its wild beauty, the island is largely neglected by tourists.  

Ikaria is mountainous, its terrain shifting between barren, moonlike stretches and shrubby gorges navigated by goats and sheep.  Villages are found mostly along the coast — beaches alternate between hidden pebbly coves and sand-lined bays, lapped by aquamarine waters.  For visitors, languid days are spent hiking, enjoying simple meals, and relaxing along Mediterranean shores.

Credit: Flickr – almekri01

But what Ikaria is famous for is longevity.  One third of the island’s 8,400 residents live to be more than 90 years old and many thrive for a century amid the rocky, untamed landscape.  There is virtually no Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and compared to the U.S. Ikaria has 20 percent fewer cases of cancer as well as half the rate of heart disease and one-ninth the rate of diabetes, according to 2008 research done by AARP and National Geographic.

As one of five places around the world designated as a Blue Zone, where people live longest, scientists have studied the Aegean island for years trying to unlock its secret.  While there are many factors that may contribute to their remarkable ability to age well, a healthy diet is most certainly among them.

Meals in Ikaria tend to be enjoyed with a good dose of conversation and laughter, while the tavernas offer menus of typical Greek and Mediterranean fare, such as herb-marinated baked goat or grilled fish with potatoes.  Meat is not a major part of the diet in Ikaria, but lamb souvlaki is common and very easy to prepare at home.

Wine is very much part of the Ikarian diet too — in fact, the island is reputed to be the birthplace of Dionysus, god of wine.  Organic wine is produced by several small wineries, using the local Fokiano, Begleri, and Mandilaria grapes, and drunk by all, in moderation.

In truth, there’s not a lot of agriculture grown in Ikaria with most residents tending to their own gardens with fruit, vegetables, and herbs while fishing provides a staple protein. 

In summer, a popular dish is soufiko, a vegetable stew unique to Ikaria and served either hot or cold.  The medley of potatoes, minced onion, green and red peppers, eggplant, tomato, and garlic is brought to a boil in a pan, in its own juices, and then simmered slowly with red wine and olive oil.  This simple Greek pasta salad offers a nice variation that is easily prepared. 

Tomato salad often features the local Kathoura cheese, similar to mozzarella but made with goat milk, and olive oil saturates most Ikarian recipes.  Halloumi is another, more well-known and widely available Greek cheese that can be made with any combination of sheep, goat, and cow’s milk — it’s typically served grilled, as in this recipe, topping an orzo salad.  

Ikarians do not exercise the way most westerners do.  But they have an active lifestyle — walking the rugged roads and paths, dancing at festivals, gardening — and it’s accompanied by a healthy amount of sleep, both at night and during an afternoon nap.  They also do not obsess over time — mindfulness of place and living each moment in fullness takes priority. 

From a distance, Ikaria might appear to be an isolated place to live. But the islanders have one more trick up their sleeve that Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones of Happiness,” says is key to their long lives: They are relentlessly social, gathering for leisurely lunches, for gossip under an old oak tree.  

With such interest in each other’s well-being and well-eating, Ikarians have fostered a social structure that continually reinforces their relaxed, unhurried, and healthy way of life.

David Swanson’s writing and photography has been featured in the pages of National Geographic Traveler, American Way, and the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years.  He served as President of the Society of American Travel Writers in 2018-19.

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