Charleston’s Greek community has set up its annual festival on the grounds of the Orthodox Church on Race Street this weekend, and it’s a highlight of our year in food. We’ll be heading there today for a big lunch and then we’ll stock up on Greek pastries and spanakopita to get us through the weekend. To help Greek food novices navigate the scene, I’ve put together a little guide to what’s what.
Gyro: Let’s say it together, shall we? ‘YEE-roh.’ Not ‘JIE-roh’ or ‘JEER-oh.’ ‘YEE-roh.’ It’s probably the most familiar of Greek dishes — a spiced lamb and beef mixture that’s been rotisserie cooked, shaved into a pile and wrapped in a soft, warm pita and topped with zaziki sauce (see next entry). At the Fest, they’ll have gyro plates for $7. They’ll also have a chicken version, but it’s never as good as the blamb (beef+lamb), so don’t bother.
Zaziki (also tsatsiki, tzatziki): This stuff is so delicious I could chug it. Pureed cukes mixed with strained yogurt, garlic, salt, olive oil, pepper, lemon juice, and dill. It’s the ultimate sauce for dipping a warm chunk of pita bread and it’s also the perfect dressing for that aforementioned gyro. It can also be low-fat if you use a light yogurt.
Greek spices: The spices you’ll typically find in Greek food are familiarly exotic like allspice, anise, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, and saffron, and peculiar ones like mahlab (ground cherry stones) and mastiha (mastic tears). Greek fare has the spices of the Middle East mingled with the flavors of the Mediterranean like basil, dill, parsley, and fennel.
Mezes: Greek appetizers. One popular meze is dolmades, grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat and usually drizzled with avgolemeno (egg and lemon sauce). The Mezethaki Plate at the Greek Fest has meatballs with sauce, dolmades, feta cheese, olives, Greek pepper, and a pita wedge for $8. It’s my favorite deal.
Greek salad: the most beautiful salad in all the world. Crisp lettuce tossed with a simple dressing of olive oil and sometimes herbs like oregano and basil and topped with a pile of creamy feta cheese along with tomatoes, cucumbers, kalamata olives, and pepperoncini peppers. Or, if it’s the Greek Country Salad version, you won’t get lettuce and instead of crumbled feta, you’ll get a big rectangular slice of it served alongside wedges of tomato and slices of cucumber. Either version is good enough for me. A small plate at the festival is $4 and a larger one is $6.
Kalamata olives: ripe Greek olives that are usually cured in red wine
Greek chicken or lamb: could be roasted or grilled and will most likely be seasoned with lemon, garlic, and oregano. Get a 1/4 of a chicken for $10 served with rice pilaf, Greek-style string beans, Greek salad, and bread. A plate of grilled domestic lamb is $12.
Greek-style string beans: Green beans with sauteed onions and garlic stewed with tomatoes, peppercorns, and parsley until soft.
Moussaka: The most famous of Greek casserole dishes. It layers eggplant with ground meat spiced with cloves, cinammon, and allspice and tops it with a classic bechamel (a creamy white sauce flavored with nutmeg). The Greek fest version uses beef instead of lamb and is (as is everything at the festival) made by church members. Get a plate for $5.
Pastichio (pastitsio): Kind of a cross between Italian lasagna and Southern mac and cheese. The Greek baked pasta dish uses tubular noodles and a meat and tomato sauce, topped with thick bechamel, a creamy sauce spiced with nutmeg. Plates go for $5.
Spanakopita: Spinach and feta pie! What could be more beautiful than countless layers of buttered filo (phyllo) dough interspersed with tangy feta cheese and fresh spinach and baked until shatteringly crisp. A worthy use of your caloric budget. $4 per triangle.
Filo (phyllo): Greek pastry dough (think strudel) that takes the basic flour and water mixture and adds a touch of vinegar, lemon, and olive oil to the proceedings. The result is the perfect basis for savory and sweet pastries and pies like spanakopita and baklava.
The festival also has authentic Athenian Beer ($4) along with Greek wines by the bottle ($15) or glass ($4). They’ll be offering tastings of Greek wine this afternoon and throughout the weekend. The festival runs Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. and on Sunday from noon-5 p.m.
Next post: Greek desserts, a ranking
UPDATE: Went to the Festival for lunch Friday afternoon. Enjoyed a big-ass gyro with Greek potatoes served to me by none other than Akim Anastapoulo. The potatoes were probably the highlight. Perfectly mushy and studded with tomatoes, peppers, and onions and turned over and over on the hot flat top grill. Mm. Mm. Good. Brought home a pastry sampler, but haven't dare to open it. So sticky and sweet! I'm still full from lunch.