Let’s head to Greece for one of the most spectacular recipes of 196 flavors: cheese saganaki or τυρί σαγανάκι.
What is the origin of the saganaki flaming?
I am playing with fire today. Who hasn’t heard of this famous fried cheese appetizer that is set on fire at Greek restaurants with an accompanying “Opaaa” ?
The interesting thing is that the tradition of flaming the cheese did not originate in Greece but was started in the United States about 50 years ago!
Yes, we all know that cuisine evolves and recipes change over time, especially when the diaspora of a country has to adapt the recipes of their home country to the traditions of their adopted country.
Take Greek salad for example. You will never find lettuce in a Greek salad in Greece, but… even the most traditional Greek restaurants in the United States will serve you tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions on a bed of lettuce as people are now accustomed to it and request it.
Same story with California roll, which was invented at the end of the 60s by Japanese chefs in California. Now, there is not one sushi restaurant, even the most traditional, that doesn’t serve this “Japanese-influenced” staple!
Opened in 1968, The Parthenon restaurant has become a Greektown pillar and a flagship of Greek cuisine in Chicago. The restaurant, opened by brothers Chris and Bill Liakouras serves lamb, seafood, roast chicken, moussaka and salads.
The idea of setting the cheese on fire in front of customers actually started at The Parthenon when a customer suggested the idea to Chris. Since its invention in 1968, the saganaki flaming show spread across North American Greek restaurants.
What is the origin of the word saganaki?
The word saganaki actually means “little frying pan.” It all started with the sahn, which is a copper pan in Arabic. That word became sahan in Turkish, and sagan in Greek. A Greek sagan is a big frying pan with two handles. The suffix iki or aki is used as a diminutive that means “small”. Saganaki therefore defines the small frying pan that the dish is fried in.
There are several recipes that use this traditional frying pan, including shrimp saganaki and mussels saganaki. That is the reason why the full name of cheese saganaki is the proper way to call today’s recipe.
If you cannot find saganaki frying pans, you can use a cast iron skillet or thick-bottom skillet and either serve your cheese in it, or carefully transfer it to a cast iron or stainless steel serving tray.
How to make cheese saganaki
Making cheese saganaki is rather easy. The cheese is lightly dusted with flour, then fried in hot olive oil, on both sides. It is then carried out tableside, where a splash of brandy is dropped on the sizzling metal plate or skillet and lit ablaze to the shout of “Opa!”
Cheese saganaki is typically made with traditional Greek cheeses, which tend to be both very aromatic and salty. Most restaurants use kasseri cheese, but traditional Greek restaurants will tell you that kefalotyri and kefalograviera are the best.
Feta is now known all over the world as the quintessential Greek cheese. However, Greece is known for a variety of other cheeses. Unfortunately, a majority of them cannot be found outside of Greece. Although the French are known to be the biggest consumers of cheese in the world, the Greeks are not very far behind and depending on the sources, they are often considered the #2 consumers globally. Yes, the Mediterranean diet is rich in lactose and good fat.
What cheese to use for saganaki
Among the most famous Greek cheeses, all of the following can be used for saganaki:
Graviera: it can be made with cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, or a mixture of the different milks. It is off-white to light yellow in color. It is not too salty and is even slightly sweet with a delicate aroma. There are two main versions of graviera : from Crete and from Naxos. Both of them are similar to gruyere.
Kefalotyri: it is a very salty cheese. It is made with sheep’s milk. It has a rather sharp and tangy taste. It is an ancient cheese, dating back to the Byzantine Empire.
Kefalograviera: this mix of kefalotiri and graviera is also a sheep’s milk cheese that is saltier than graviera but not as salty as kefalotyri.
Kasseri: it is made from a mix of sheep’s milk and goat’s milk, with the goat’s milk not to exceed 20 percent. It is often found on Greek tables as a snack during dinner. Like mozzarella and provolone, kaseri is what is called a pasta filata or pulled curd cheese. It has a rich, buttery taste and therefore not very salty.
Halloumi: it is a cheese from Cyprus that I used in my makaronia tou fournou and that can also definitely be used to make saganaki. It is primarily made of sheep’s milk. Some halloumi brands pack haloumi in a brine with some dry mint.
Whatever the cheese you choose for the saganaki, the most important thing is to cut your cheese to about ½ inch thick.
Whether you decide to flame the cheese or not, do not forget to squeeze lemon before savoring this delicacy. You can eat it with pita bread, but if you want to eat saganaki like a true Greek, you should have it with crusty bread.
I moved to the United States in 1999 and I have mostly lived in Los Angeles. However, I lived in Chicago between 2003 and 2008. I had the opportunity to go to The Parthenon several times during my stay in the “Windy City”, although I had no idea the flaming of saganaki had been invented there at the time!
Try this delicious and spectacular recipe to impress your friends. Opa!
- 1 slab Greek saganaki cheese (about ½ inch thick)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ cup all-purpose flour (for dredging)
- ½ shot glass brandy
- 1 lemon
Pre-heat a heavy-bottomed skillet or a cast-iron pan to medium-high heat.
Place the slab of cheese under running tap water, then dredge in all-purpose flour. Shake off any excess flour.
Add olive oil to the skillet. When the oil is hot, add the cheese to the skillet and sear for a couple of minutes. Carefully flip the cheese with a spatula and sear for a couple more minutes on the other side.
Turn off the heat source. Pour the brandy over the cheese and ignite with a lighter.
Squeeze the lemon over the cheese. Serve immediately with crusty bread.