Greek people have a long and venerable history of entertaining. Xenia, the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, is as much a part of a tradition as it is of the Greek culture. Even today, a visitor to Greece remembers the food, the beaches, and the generous hospitality of the Greek people. Filoxenia literally means friend to a stranger.
It is a Greek value that is as strong today as in the days of ancient Greeks. In ancient times, Greeks would offer their guests beverages, meals, and accommodations. Filoxenia, however, went above and beyond just basic comforts.
If a guest had no way of traveling back home, he was offered help or a place to stay for the night. If he needed some clothing, some of the host’s own were provided. Ancient Greeks looked to Zeus, considered a protector of strangers, and embodied hospitality as a moral obligation. Going one step further, Greeks mastered the art of entertaining their guests.
The Beginning of the Greek Banquet
Symposiums were one of the preferred pastimes of Greeks.
A symposium traditionally translated means banquet, and the Greeks dedicated themselves to mastering this. Serving simple foods like meze and drinking local wines with the food, conversations, and debates would go on for hours. These symposiums became settings for much of Greece’s ancient literature and were the root of Plato’s Symposium (one of his major works). Dancers, acrobats, and musicians would entertain, and a king of the banquet was named. This king would decide how strong the wine served should be.
Although symposiums were reserved strictly for men, another gathering took place called a syssitia. Meals were mandatory at a syssitia and would be held separately by men and women. These simpler gatherings focused on food.
Greek Entertaining Today
I can’t remember a get-together that does not involve food and lots of it. Most experts claim that when planning for a large get-together, you should use the 1-pound rule. That is one pound of food per adult. The buffet should include one main entrée, two to three sides, and fillers like bread and salad. Obviously, these experts have never gone to a Greek get-together.
The Greek rule of entertaining is simple. Have more food than you will need. The table should be full of food, you should have enough for leftovers, and you should be able to send everyone home with a goodie bag. That said, the more options you have, the less of each food you will need. It’s not uncommon for a Greek buffet to include two proteins (meat, poultry, or fish), three to four sides, at least two types of salad, and a slew of meze. And that’s even before we get to the desserts.
Get Started, Greek Style
So now you are ready to plan your menu. Where do you start? Begin by deciding if you will serve meat, poultry, fish, or a combination of two. Maybe you can make some lamb chops and sausages? How about grilled fish and shrimp? Or how about some surf and turf – steak and lobster? Roasting a lamb or pig on the spit? Don’t forget to include some Greek sausages for an optional meze or dinner side.
Salads are a must in Greek entertaining. A horiatiki salad with juicy tomatoes is first, followed by a second green salad. And then we start on the sides, which are limited only by your imagination. Some favorites include roast potatoes, rice, and grilled vegetables.
Even if your guests arrive just in time for dinner, you will also have at least five meze platters as well as bread on hand (my late father-in-law would not start eating until bread was on the table). Staples of Greek meze include keftethes, olives, tsatsiki, taramosalata, feta, and other cheeses like Kefaloyaviera. If you are serving a seafood-based menu, octopus, squid, and fried smelt makes it to this list.
Of course, finish your banquet with dessert. This menu includes a fruit platter, any sweets brought to you by your guests, and the dessert of choice you have made. Throughout the day and with each part of the meal, beer and wine are on hand.
Tips for Easy Entertaining
If you are going to do a Greek version of a buffet, then plan for two to three days of preparation. Preparing ahead of time allows you to enjoy your time with your guests on the day of the get-together. First, decide on a dessert that you can make ahead of time. This allows you to make something fancy that impresses your guests. You prepare and set it aside until it is time to serve. Once that is done, get your cheese and fruit platters assembled. Cover them and refrigerate them until serving. You can also make any dips like tsatsiki ahead of time (they taste better if they have a day or two for the flavors to merge).
Potatoes can be cut the day before and stored in water in the refrigerator for roasting on the next day. Or, you can parboil them and toss them in a marinade and refrigerate them until ready for roasting (they come out crisper this way and take less time to bake). If you are making keftethes, they can be prepared and rolled the day before. Store them covered in the refrigerator and bake them the next day. Or, bake them and reheat them (they taste just as good).
By giving yourself some extra time, you can prepare your food banquet easily and serve up your version of a syssitia. Remember, the art of Greek entertaining is to value simplicity and enjoy the pleasures of eating amongst friends.