Living in Athens with Dietary Restrictions
My name is Charlotte and I’m currently a Spring Media Lab intern here at CYA! I hail from New Hampshire and go to Brandeis University, which is outside of Boston. I have Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder that inhibits me from eating gluten. Ever seen that Jimmy Kimmel sketch on gluten? If you haven’t, feel free to watch it before continuing. As my diet must be strictly gluten free, I knew studying abroad would be a challenge. However, I didn’t want that to be a major factor in choosing where to live and study for four months. After deciding on CYA, I researched about gluten free in Athens; I can’t say that I was overwhelmed with information. Prior to leaving the States, I stocked up on trail mix and Luna bars and put them in my checked luggage. I went into this situation a little hesitantly, but I’m here to say that eating gluten free in Greece is completely manageable. Without further ado, here is the advice I wish I’d known beforehand.
Buying from Supermarkets
Going to the supermarket can be difficult when you can’t pronounce what it’s called. Like anyone with food restrictions know, you have to begin by erring on the side of caution. There are plenty of supermarkets in the area around CYA. My roommates and I threw ourselves into the deep end on our first evening in Athens by venturing to the local grocer, ΣΚΛΑΒΕΝΙΤΗΣ. This grocer is a favorite of local Athenians, as during the economic crisis it maintained its low prices and didn’t call for major layoffs. Of course, my roommates and I didn’t know that at the time and were quickly overwhelmed by a two-storied store with plenty of items we recognized, but in a language we didn’t understand.
Most ingredients are written in both Greek and another language, whether it be English, French, or occasionally German. One helpful tip regarding produce is that these products must be weighed and stickered prior to checking out at the register. This includes bananas. You don’t want to be the person holding up the line. Disclaimer: not all supermarkets (i.e. the larger ones) require individual weighing.
I stayed away from buying premade foods such as risottos or soups and went towards items that I knew were fresh and didn’t contain multiple ingredients, since I didn’t know the word for wheat, barley, rye, or even oats. This meant that my shopping basket filled with cheeses, yogurt, fresh vegetables like broccoli, fruit (especially bananas, a go-to for my rushed breakfasts), and Lay’s potato chips. Lay’s is pretty universal, but the colors of the bags change so be wary (the Oregano flavor has gluten!) I also located some gluten free penne pasta and was on my way.
I was able to find Schar-brand gluten free bread at the bigger supermarket, ΑΒ Βασιλόπουλος (commonly referred to as AB.) I’ve learned that a quick toast with a pat of butter, strawberries, and a Babybel cheese can satisfy a weekend brunch grumble. AB also had Schar wraps for making one’s own souvlaki and boxed pizza crusts. I picked up some gluten free fusilli pasta at an Ok! Anytime Market, which has several locations throughout the city. There is a natural food market on the other side of the National Garden called GR-EATINGS (at least, this is what it’s titled on Google Maps. When I actually went, I noticed that it was called 4seasons.) It took me a few weeks to make it out there, but I was amazed with the fresh bread from a local Athenian bakery, Gea Bakery. I also picked up pesto, capers, gluten free cereal, and some amazing feta. Still searching for some gluten free cookies, but I’ll survive one way or the other.
Going to restaurants can get tiring when you have to repeat “I can’t eat gluten” or “no bread” or “are there croutons in that?” as anyone with Celiac can attest to. This is doubly difficult as my Modern Greek is at toddler level. You have to come into the situation being aware that this isn’t America: you’re not going to have exclusive options at every location. Even a restaurant that had a “gluten free” sticker on the door didn’t hold true, as the waiter stuttered after I asked for the options and informed me that “gluten comes from cows.” However, this shouldn’t be a reason not to eat out and miss experiences with friends and locals (which include all the cats that roam the streets of Athens!) I had the best pork of my life at Black Sheep and never feel like there’s a shortage of fresh french fries. As most dishes aren’t heavily processed and state what they consist of on the menu, I haven’t gotten sick eating out simply from practicing common sense. Bread is a staple to the Greek diet just as it is in America, so I always indicate that I don’t want any ψωμί (pronounced: so-mi.) This is not a foolproof method and everyone with allergies have varying degrees of reactions.
Eating at Dikemes (College Year Athens)
The CYA lunch staff is incredibly accommodating. All weekday lunches are provided in the cafeteria. There is always a paper sign denoting what the gluten free alternative is, but an equal amount of time you will be provided a different version of the same meal. Today, I had pasta with the same meat sauce as the gluten-eating folk, though theirs was on top of fettuccine. They also have gluten free rolls on hand that can be heated up and added to any meal. The fruit and salads are always safe as well, unless there’s croutons. As for my vegan and vegetarian friends, the accommodations are equally as simple and just require informing the staff. On excursions and field trips, gluten free lunches are packed separately with the same amount of food and protein.
Gluten Free Snacks and Other Tips
- Sesame-based products are usually gluten free, including protein bars with honey and halva, which is a sweet dessert alternative made from tahini.
- There’s a Farmer’s Market every Friday morning to early afternoon on Archimidous Street. The entire street is shut down and a huge stretch of stands are set up with flowers, fresh produce, more olives than you could ever desire, and even thrifted clothes!
- Elvis (Έλβις καλαμάκια) is located on the same street as the Farmer’s Market and exclusively sells kebabs of lamb and/or chicken. For three Euro, you can get two chicken kebabs and a heaping of fries with lemon. As it’s only a five minute walk from CYA, it’s become my go-to for a quick snack or meal on weekends. Just be sure to ask for no bread!
- Souvlaki is the most popular quick meal in Athens. It’s also very cheap and filling. It consists of tzatziki (a tasty yogurt-based sauce), french fries, lettuce, tomatoes, and one’s choice of meat (give or take a few ingredients.) It normally comes wrapped in a pita, which is obviously a no-no for Celiacs. Thankfully, asking for it in a box is just as easy and gluten free. The same can be said for making it vegetarian, and occasionally falafel is an option. Here’s a list of places to get souvlaki sorted by Athens neighborhood!
- I went to Avocado for my birthday dinner and was overwhelmingly pleased with lots of gluten free pastas, soups, curries, and even a flourless chocolate cake for dessert! Not to mention the guacamole that disappeared as soon as it was placed on the table.
- Gelato is gluten free as long as you obviously don’t choose cookies and cream — and there are often coolers in various bakeries with many options!
- Here is another blog post with helpful gluten free tips, from the eyes of a quick visitor. This site also contains an option to buy a locally-translated gluten free card that explains the restriction in Greek, however, I cannot vouch for it as I haven’t used it myself.
There are not as many gluten free snacks to gorge on or quick delivery at the tip of your fingers that there are in America. However, I have been eating healthier and relying on my own cooking skills to branch out. The produce is fresh and I’ve never seen shinier strawberries in my life. I love being able to order for myself in Greek and the locals appreciate it as well. If your food restriction is holding you back or playing a large factor in where you go abroad, I’m here to tell you that it’s possible. You’re travelling to a new country to experience it in all its forms and flavors!