Tulsa’s oldest ethnic festival is celebrating its 59th year, as always, during the third weekend of September.

The Tulsa Greek Festival runs from Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 19-22, and will feature lots of dancing and shopping. But let’s face it, the highlight is the food, and this year, the food is on fire, literally.

This year’s festival features a new attraction — “Temple of Fire,” where visitors can try the popular dish saganaki.

Named for the small, round, two-handled frying pan in which it is made (a sagani), the dish is essentially Greek sheep’s milk cheese, usually made with kasseri (a melty cheese), kefalotyri (a saltier and firmer cheese) or halloumi (a firm, salty cheese that holds its shape when heated) that has been dredged in flour, fried in butter or olive oil, and set aflame with a dousing of ouzo or brandy. The flames are extinguished with a squeeze of lemon juice, and the cheese is served immediately.

“Saganaki has always been popular at the festival and something the crowd requests every year,” said Tonya Boone, co-chair for the 2019 Tulsa Greek Festival. “It’s unique to Greek culture and very entertaining. We are building a special saganaki structure for this year’s festival.”

The Greeks may have invented drama, but this theatrically flambéed cheese was created at The Parthenon — not the ancient temple on the Acropolis in Greece but the recently shuttered Greek restaurant in Chicago’s Greektown.

“I invented saganaki at this table in 1968,” Chris Liakouras, former owner of The Parthenon, told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1979. “I was sitting here with three lady friends. We were talking about different things we could do. When a cheese dish was mentioned, one of the ladies said, ‘Why don’t you try flaming it?’ ” Over the years, other restaurateurs claimed they started the cheese-flaming trend, which spread throughout Chicago’s Greektown and even back to Greece. Yanna Liakouras, Chris’ daughter, reminisced about walking into a restaurant in Santorini. “I was so surprised, so I walked in and asked for the owner,” she says. “I said, ‘Which restaurant in Chicago did you work at?’ He said, ‘The Parthenon.’ ”

Also returning to the festival menu this year are two popular dishes that debuted in 2018 — loukaniko, grilled sausages served on a pita with sautéed peppers and onions, and keftedes, meatballs made from beef or a combination of beef and lamb, smothered in a savory sauce.

Other food offerings include three types of gyros — classic, naked (no pita) and gyro fries (French fries topped with feta, tzatziki sauce and gyro meat) from the “Greek Street Eats” area of the festival, and main dish items such as roast lamb or souvlaki dinners with side dishes and Greek salad from “Kefi on Greek Street.”

“This year, we are streamlining the food process. We got rid of the ‘Taverna,’ ” Boone said. “Ouzo and other alcoholic beverages will be available wherever food is ordered.” Boone added that Metaxa, the Greek brandy also used in making saganaki, will be available as a beverage choice.

As always, festivalgoers are urged to save room for dessert, for the array of baked goods is impressive. Hours of baking produces tray after tray of baklava and baklava sundaes (ice cream topped with crumbled baklava), galaktoboureko (custard-filled filo dough), kouroumbiedes (buttery Greek wedding cookies dusted with powdered sugar) and many other sweet offerings.

Can’t make it to the festival? “Catered Lunch by the Greeks” brings the festival to you.

For a $100 minimum, get classic gyros, souvlaki, Greek salad and baklava delivered to your doorstep.

“Lunch delivery was very successful last year,” Boone said. “It is great for people who work in the area but can’t get away at lunchtime to attend the festival.” The limited menu is available for delivery from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 19 and 20. The menu is available at tulsagreekfestival.com. To order, email lunches@htgoctulsa.org.

Fried Greek Cheese (Saganaki)

Hellim (also known as halloumi) is a semi-hard white cheese with a layered texture similar to fresh mozzarella or firm feta and a slightly salty taste. Due to its higher melting point, hellim can be fried or grilled without melting, and develops a distinctive “squeaky” quality when it is heated. I love the Oklahoma Hellim, made in Stroud by Emre Natural Foods — available at The Farm Stand in Mother Road Market or at the Cherry Street Farmers’ Market.

3 slices hard, Greek, sheep cheese such as hellim, cut into ¼- to ½-inch thick slices

Flour for breading

Olive oil for frying

2 tablespoons ouzo or brandy

1 lemon, halved

1. Dip the cheese slices in cold water, then dredge in flour, shaking off any excess. Set aside on a plate.

2. Heat ¼-inch olive oil in a wide pan until just starting to smoke. Fry cheese slices 30 to 40 seconds on each side until golden brown. Remove and drain briefly on paper towels.

3. In a small pan, warm ouzo over a low flame. Put slices of cheese in a cast iron pan or other heat-proof serving dish, pour ouzo over the slices and, standing clear, ignite the ouzo with a lighter. Allow to burn briefly, then extinguish fire with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Serve immediately.

NOTE: If setting cheese aflame sounds too daunting, the cheese is delicious simply fried with a squeeze of lemon, so the flambé step is completely optional.

Adapted from Food Network

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Judy Allen


Twitter: @tulsafoodlady