A random shot of the famous flaming cheese called “saganaki” shot at Chicago’s Parthenon Restaurant in Greektown. The simple photo is in and of itself, a sociological study of changing times in Greek America, as well as a unique culinary heritage and history that evolved from Greek immigrants to America. Both waiters— who spoke impeccable Greek, were Mexicans— a typical reality in many of Greektown Chicago’s restaurants.
Saganaki efers to various Greek dishes prepared in a small frying pan, itself called a “saganaki,” the best-known being an appetizer of fried cheese. The word saganaki is a diminutive of sagani, a frying pan with two handles, which comes from the Turkish word sahan ‘copper dish’, itself borrowed from Arabic word (ṣaḥn).
The cheese used in cheese saganaki is usually graviera, kefalograviera, halloumi, kasseri, kefalotyri, or sheep’s milk feta cheese. Regional variations include the use of formaella cheese in Arachova and halloumi cheese in Cyprus. The cheese is melted in a small frying pan until it is bubbling and generally served with lemon juice and pepper.
In many North American Greek restaurants, after being fried, the saganaki cheese is flambéed at the table (sometimes with a shout of “opa!”), and the flames then extinguished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. This is called “flaming saganaki” and is a purely Greek American creation, having originated in 1968 at The Parthenon restaurant in Chicago’s Greektown, based on the suggestion of a customer to owner Chris Liakouras. This recipe and others, from the famed Chicago institution, are featured in the The Parthenon Cookbook: Great Mediterranean Recipes from the Heart of Chicago’s Greektown <—click the link to get the cookbook and saganaki is proudly featured on the cover of the cookbook.
Today, many of Greektown’s waiters are Mexicans, an interesting passage of the baton from one immigrant community to the next, as new waves of immigrants arrive to take over as older generation Greek immigrants move on, open their own businesses, or retire.