As though the massive, off-white marble columns of the Parthenon looming above aren’t enough, evidence that I have come to Athens quite literally is in the air. The briny-sharp aroma of feta cheese back-ended by lemon and ouzo lingers as I take a seat in the atrium-like second floor of Avissinia Café, the wall of windows before me pointing toward the hilltop ruins.

So perhaps I can be forgiven my classic tourist faux pas. I craved a Greek salad, that iconic toss of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, olives and feta dressed with olive oil and oregano. Though it’s on the menu, my order—sometimes called horiatiki (literally “rustic”) or sometimes simply salad—triggers raised eyebrows.

It is winter. Only tourists flout the seasons this way. Greeks know better, eating horiatiki no earlier than late spring, no later than early fall—a period when the produce needed for this dish is in its prime. Better, my companions and the waitstaff urge, would be the Macedonian salad. Admonished but confused, I consent.

When the dish arrives, the plate is piled high with a tangle of shredded green cabbage and carrots, wilted just barely. The mound glistens with olive oil, and I can smell the lemon juice. Though hardly unattractive, neither is it a showstopper. Frankly, it looks like a rather lackluster coleslaw. I take a low-expectations bite.

It’s another case of looks deceiving. Expecting unpleasantly raw cabbage and hunks of carrot—staples of summertime slaws in the U.S.—I instead get surprisingly tender crunch dressed in peppery olive oil and bright, tangy lemon. It is satisfying and fresh, sweet but also savory. It is so much more than the sum of its simple ingredients.

Macedonian salad, it turns out, is a catchall phrase that can refer to almost any medley of produce, from dessert-like fruit salads to simple slaw-like ensembles such as the mix of cabbage and carrot at Avissinia Café. The version I ate also goes by the name politiki salad, a dish consumed mostly during cooler months.

Over the following week, I eat many politiki salads, some that include chopped green olives or crumbled feta cheese, both lending a brininess that balances the carrots’ sweetness and the lemon’s tang. Politiki may be a winter salad in Greece, but with each bite, all I could think of was summer slaws back home—and how well politiki would pair with all-­American barbecue.

Notably, though the salads were raw, all were unexpectedly tender. Back at Milk Street, we discovered the reason. The Greeks dress the cabbage with a blend of sugar, salt and acid—either lemon juice or red wine vinegar—then let it rest briefly, essentially creating a quick pickle, drawing moisture from the cabbage.

We found that a 30-minute rest was plenty to soften the cabbage and carrots, yet leave them pleasantly crisp. Our only real departure from the salads I tasted in Athens was to add thinly sliced celery and red bell pepper after the cabbage had softened. We liked the sweet crunch they added at the end.