Ikaria's gastronomy is woven into the history of the island and has remained a fundamental element of both the island's unique heritage and culture. Here, the local cuisine combines taste with nutrition, resulting in its enjoyment as well as the health and longevity which the islanders are known for, the world over.
The secret to Ikaria's local dishes are the high-quality products cultivated from its fertile earth, most importantly in the form of herbs.
Other noteworthy dietary staples include olive oil, cheese, locally-raised goat, strong red wine as well as the highly-held tradition of sharing a meal among family and friends. Visitors to the island can easily sample the large variety of Ikarian dishes, such as “soufiko”, a mixture a various cooked vegetables, cheese pies made with kathoura cheese, fried zucchini, tomato and garbanzo bean croquettes, as well as a variety of baked pies featuring zucchini or a mixture of locally-grown greens. Another traditional dish is “gamopilafo”, a rice dish served at weddings. Finally, another island favourite happens to be locally-raised goat stuffed with rice and herbs.
Kathoura or Kathouritsa, is the island's most well-known cheese. This white, goat's cheese has been around since the 17th century. It's made of the milk from locally-raised, free range goats and is typically mild, though saltier and spicier versions do exist.
Otherwise known as the “Artichoke of Jerusalem”, this rare plant is only found in Ikaria. Kolokasi (as its locally known, goes by other names as well, such as: sunroot, sunchoke, earth apple or topinambur. The edible part of the plant is a bulb, resembling that of the celeriac plant. It's conical in shape and is covered in a thick brown or purple skin. The inner part is white and tough, though it softens from cooking, which produces a sweet flavour. It's leaves are also edible when cooked. The plant flourishes in warm, moist climates and takes roughly fourteen months to be come into season and is available from October to March. In Ikaria, it is usually found growing close to rivers and is found extensively within the regions of Raches, particularly the areas of Magganitis and Varkades.
Historically, Kolokasi is believed to have helped the islanders stave off hunger during the second world war. Full of nutritional value and rich in vitamins such as magnesium, phosphorus and potassium, it is also an excellent source of iron and protein. It also contains probiotic fibres and insulin. High in fructose, it makes an excellent alternative to sugar for diabetics. Overall, its extremely beneficial to one's health and easily digested.
This plant requires special care, cleaning and cutting, as it is not possible to clean externally. Once the skin has been removed, the internal parts of the plant are cut and washed. In Ikarian cuisine, it is typically served as a salad and paired with garlic puree and of course, Ikarian wine. It can also be cooked with beans or made into a soup, as well as being roasted or boiled along with meat. Despite its great nutritional value, it is never to be eaten raw, as it contains toxic substances which are only removed through cooking.
Kaisia is a type of apricot that is eaten own to and including its pit, which is known worldwide for its anti-carcigenic properties. It thrives chiefly during spring and summer, reaching a height of nearly three metres. Until the second world war, Ikaria cultivated and exported great quantities of Kaisia. Today, production is minimal and the fruit is mainly consumed as a spoon sweet.
Locally referred to as “anama”, Ikaria produces some of the finest honey in Greece. The bees which produce it, collect pollen from a bush known as reiki. This gives it a thick texture in comparison with other types of honey. It's become world-famous for its beneficial qualities which are believed to attribute to the longevity enjoyed by the islanders. Other varieties are also produced on Ikaria such as pine, thyme, and various wild flower types. Honey produced on the island is widely used as a cooking product, as well as an important ingredient in local desserts. Ikarian honey is even used as a beauty product.
Known both for their intoxicating scent and taste, Ikaria's wide variety of herbs can be found from its mountain tips to its plains and gardens. Oregano, thyme, sage, chamomile, pennyroyal, heather, rosemary, mint, fennel, peppermint and wort grow in abundance throughout Ikaria, and the islanders use them both medicinally and within their cuisine. It goes without saying that herbs are held in great esteem here, being attributed to the long, healthy lives enjoyed be the islanders.
The wold goats of Ikaria or “Raska” as they are also known, are white or black and of medium height. They graze the highlands of the island freely, and their meat is delicious, with little fat. As the most popular food during festivals on Ikaria, the meat is eaten either boiled or cooked. Goat was a food which contributed to the survival of the islanders during the difficult times when pirate raids were all too common. Several years earlier, Ikarians made what is known as “Kariotiko Pastourma”, a kind of goat meat jerky that was hung up during the month of August to become preserved.
Ikarian olive oil is a unique product of the island and its people. It's used in virtually all the dishes of local cuisine, and its high purity makes it extremely healthy. The amount produced is sufficient to meet the needs of the entire island.
The sea surrounding Ikaria is extremely clean and rich in every type of fish. Every day, fishing boats make their rounds near the neighboring islands of Fournoi and Samos, as well as every corner of the island, and their “catch” is plenty to supply the households and taverns with fresh fish and seafood, such as scorpion fish, sea bream, smelt fish, parrot fish, octopus, and squid. All the delicacies of the Ikarian Sea can be enjoyed next to the water, with a variety of appetizers accompanied by ouzo, or local grappa known as “tsipouro”.
Spoon sweets have their own special place in Ikarian cuisine. Every household fixes their own from local fruit, such as Kaisia, oranges, cherries, fruit of Pergamont and even rose petals. Today, local producers and women's agricultural co-ops package their sweets and sell them both locally and outside the island.