What Is a Greek BBQ?

Eugene P.

A Greek BBQ is an outdoor event that can be shared by a single family or an entire community. Though much of it resembles a traditional barbecue, the centerpiece of the event is usually a large set of skewers set over a bed of coals and loaded with meat. These spits are rotated by hand for hours until the meat is done. Other dishes — such as roasted feta or moussaka — are made and served, but the meat on the spit is the real centerpiece of the meal.

Souvlaki, or skewered meat, might be served at a Greek barbeque.
Souvlaki, or skewered meat, might be served at a Greek barbeque.

Much of the Greek BBQ tradition comes from the island of Cyprus. The cuisine of the island is unique largely because of strong Turkish influences. Although there is grilling done all over Greece, the terminology and practices on Cyprus are unique to the island.

Greek salad may be served at a Greek BBQ.
Greek salad may be served at a Greek BBQ.

The large spit that is at the center of a Greek BBQ is called a souvla. In some areas, it is just a spit; in other areas — like Cyprus — it has three long skewers spaced separately but able to be turned all at once. Although compact, elevated, commercial versions are available, the traditional long metal poles are still used during large gatherings.

The souvla is placed over a bed of coals. The bed is usually about the same length as the spit, which can be 6 feet (about 2 meters) or more. The coals are intentionally very, very hot but are not supposed to be hot enough to cause a fire. During the cooking process, bottles of vinegar are kept around to put out any flare ups.

The most frequently cooked meat on a souvla during a Greek BBQ is lamb. There are two preparations. The first is to roast the lamb whole. This involves cleaning the lamb, filling it with salt, pepper and lemon and then driving the spit through it. A whole lamb can take a very long time — in excess of six hours — to cook all the way through.

The second common preparation is to cook a lamb shoulder with the bone still attached. Each piece of lamb is pressed onto the spit and sprinkled with salt, pepper and lemon. The fat is left on the lamb in both cases, because it will slowly melt away and hit the coals, creating smoke that will flavor the meat.

The innards of the lamb are made into a dish called kokoretsi. This involves stuffing the innards and offal of the lamb into the intestines like a long sausage. It is skewered and cooked over the coals along with the lamb.

There are no solid rules about a Greek BBQ. Anything can be served during one, including salads or souvlaki. Even the souvla can be used to roast vegetables instead of meat. A Greek BBQ, in all its forms, is intended to be an event that brings the community together around food.

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