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Time to eat! Lowell Folk Festival features variety of fresh ethnic foods

LOWELL — With 18 different vendors offering dishes from all over the world, Lowell Folk Festival attendees will have lots of food choices to indulge their palates.

Besides customers, the most important ingredient to all the fresh dishes being served during the three-day event, which runs from Friday night through Sunday, are the volunteers.

All the food stands are operated by local nonprofit local groups showcasing their traditional cuisine. Proceeds from the weekend will “feed” yearlong programming and services for their community.

And all the ethnic food vendors are hoping for big crowds after the two-year pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re hoping we have a successful weekend,” Jane Duffley said from her Lowell home. “It’s a big fundraiser for our Lowell Polish Cultural Committee, and we’ve missed it for the last two years. We’ve been there for 35 years, and we’re ready to get back into it.”

On Wednesday, members of that committee were at St. Casimir’s Parish, a Polish National Catholic Church on Lakeview Avenue in Lowell’s Centralville neighborhood. Five stations were set up in the fellowship hall where two-people teams were hovering over 400-degree skillets making hundreds of rosettes.

“Because it’s the first festival in two years, we planned on only making 400 rosettes, which is a Polish version of fried dough,” Dottie Naruszewicz Flanagan, a St. Casimir parishioner and Dracut resident, said. “But we decided to just go for it, and made 600. Actually 604,” she said with a laugh.

The cookie-like fritters are made with vats of hot oil, batter, iron molds and lots and lots of newspapers and paper towels. The secret to the concoction is a splash of rum in the batter, Flanagan confided.

“Now, you won’t get drunk on it, that’s for sure,” Flanagan said. “But it adds that little bit of flavor.”

In addition to the popular rosettes, the committee will sell pierogi, a ravioli-like dumpling filled with cheese or cabbage; kapusta, which is a cabbage dish made with pork; and the well-known kielbasa sandwiches at their Market Street location on Saturday and Sunday.

Then there are the behind-the-scenes prep people who shop for the ingredients ranging from meat to napkins and coffee filters, to the volunteers who slice and dice, bake, cook, marinate and shuck.

“During this festival, our church volunteers will chop 12 cases of tomatoes for all the wraps, chicken kabobs, fattoush and falafel,” Dunstable resident Lisa Ansara said by phone from the kitchen at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church of Lowell, where crews were washing all the vegetables.

Its Boarding House Park location will offer Middle Eastern food, and it has been a fixture at the festival since its start 35 years ago. Their food tent opens at 5:30 pm Friday.

“We have dedicated vegetable cutters,” Ansara said. “We have tables in the back of the tent, and they just sit there and cut vegetables all day. It’s fresh because it’s a mess if you cut tomatoes ahead of time.”

The Iskwelahang Pilipino, a nonprofit Filipino cultural school in Bedford, will also open Friday night at Boarding House Park. The school brings together families from the Greater Boston area who share a connection to the Philippines.

Executive Director Myra Liwanag, of Sharon, says that for many families, the festival is the best expression of the concept of communal unity. Elementary school through college students staff the booth as a form of community service.

“There is a concept in Filipino culture called Bayanihan, the idea that everyone in the community comes together to achieve something together that’s bigger than what we could do on our own,” she said, while giving directions to someone offsite to purchase more water and soda.

“We sell the food, but the food is a way for us to share our culture,” she said.

One of the many items on their menu will be turon, a fried banana with rice rolled in sugar and wrapped in an eggroll. “It’s heavenly,” Liwanag said. Other popular offerings include inihaw na baboy (barbecue pork) and lumpia (egg rolls).

FEALMA, a spiritualist society in Chelmsford, joined the festival in 2016. Its tent will be in JFK Plaza behind City Hall on Friday night.

Joao Lopes, of Lowell, said the all-beef perro-quente, a Brazilian-style hot dog, is their most popular item, closely followed by pastel de queijo (fried dough with cheese) and carne de porco desfiada (pulled pork sandwich) .

“The only thing we prepare ahead of time is the chicken. We marinate it. And a Portuguese bakery makes our rice pudding and flan desserts, but everything else is made the day of,” he said.

The Wat Buddhabhavana on Market Street opens on Saturday, selling their famous Lao papaya salad called thum makhoung.

Janis Malisewski, the ethnic food committee chair for the festival, said a 2019 survey asked people what they liked best about the weekend, and 54% said the food, handily beating the musical programming.

And, of course, at the end of the day, there’s the volunteer cleanup crew.

“I’ve been doing the festival maybe seven or eight years,” Rob Hunt, from Lowell’s Highlands neighborhood, said. “On Sunday, I’ll work at the booth, then help transport everything back until we do this again next year.”

For a full listing of food vendors and festival information, visit lowellfolkfestival.org.

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