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Monday, 28 March 2011

Fasting for Easter (Νηστεία)

Greek food is a seasonal affair. Greek people, whether they live in Greece or abroad, generally like to enjoy meals that represent the time of year. This may be in the form of the seasonal produce grown in the area where they live. But there is another way to enjoy the food of the season, and that is to eat according to the seasonal traditions dictated by the festival calendar. These are usually based on religious festivals. Among the many examples, the most well-known are salt cod on March 25 and Palm Sunday, lamb for Easter, pig for Christmas, xerotigana for (Cretan) weddings, and shellfish on Clean Monday. No one feels obliged to eat according to past traditions, but most Greeks like to do this because it keeps them close to their customs and homeland, especially when they don't live in Greece. For instance, you may not be able to go to a Greek Orthodox church on a festival day if you live abroad: it may be a working day there, and some religious festivals like Clean Monday are immovable, while others will be celebrated on the nearest Sunday before the actual festival. But when you leave work on the feast day, you may want to eat the traditional meal for that day with other fellow Greeks. I remember this feeling well when I was growing up in New Zealand.

Bean soups and stews are very popular right throughout the year in Greece, especially during fasting periods, when beans provide the main form of protein.

We're now approaching the middle of one of the most significant fasting periods in Greece, Great Lent, the 50 days preceding the Christian Orthodox Easter. This period is traditionally associated with Greek Orthodox fasting, νηστεία (nistia), ie abstaining from meat, eggs, milk, cheese and fish products (shellfish - including snails - excluded, because they are considered to be bloodless). Such strict fasting for 50 days sounds like a long time time to go completely vegan, especially when you aren't a vegan on principle, eating only lenten foods, which are called nistisima in Greek. Forget the idea of cooking and eating shellfish on a regular basis: it's expensive, and it may not be to everyone's liking. So how do Greek people keep the fast at this time?

Clean Monday 2011: The importance of maintaining Greek food traditions cannot be underestimated. Every year on Clean Monday, my blog receives TWICE the average number of hits on any other day; this does NOT happen on any other day for my blog, not even for Easter, which has a longer period of preparation than Clean Monday. This shows the importance of the culinary aspect of the Greek identity, especially for Greeks abroad.

The simple answer is that they generally don't. Fasting isn't kept in absolute terms by all people in Greece; it never was. Fasting for Easter (and Christmas, which involves a 40-day fast in the Christian Orthodox calendar) was a useful way to help people ration food during periods of food shortages. The rule was created by a religious authority, which used to exert a greater amount of power over people's subconscious in the past. What started off as a rule for the purposes of food management is seen in a different light in modern times: fasting is good for you because it helps you to maintain a nutritional balance. This is the modern meaning of fasting, a form of detox, if you prefer.

During summer, I am inundated with zucchini, so I turn them into different kinds of food that don't resemble each other, to relieve the boredom of appearing to be eating the same food on a daily basis. This meal can be considered to be quite a filling vegan dinner (excluding the muffins, which contain eggs). From top anti-clockwise: horta, kolokithokeftedes (zucchini patties),  zucchini dip, chocolate zucchini muffins.

Greeks may not follow the strict rule of a 50-day fast* from Clean Monday until Easter Sunday, but it is highly unlikely that they won't be attempting some sort of fast during that time. There are a number of ways to do this, as attested by this list of fasting tips, which show you how to fast during Great Lent without actually fasting the whole period:
  1. By not eating meat during the entire fasting period, with no restrictions on dairy produce; this is not so hard to do, especially nowadays when eating meat isn't as fashionable as it once was for health reasons.
  2. By fasting according to the strict religious rules in the first week of Lent (ie immediately after Clean Monday), and/or the last week of Lent (ie Holy Week, the seven days preceding Easter Sunday); most people like to follow this rule.
  3. Wednesdays and Fridays are regarded as significant fasting days throughout the Orthodox calendar year, so many people fast according to the religious rules on those days alone throughout the fasting period (Wednesday in remembrance of the betrayal of Christ, and Friday in remembrance of the crucifixion), with no restrictions on other days in the fasting period; many people like to follow this rule too. Monks also fast in this way on Mondays, a day dedicated to the Angels.
What all this amounts to is that fasting is seen as important, without impeding on the getting-on with one's daily life in an ever-changing world. There are still people who will choose to fast throughout the 50-day period (eg monks, nuns, older people - women in particular, people who have 'promised' an offering to God through prayers as a way to ask for a favour by vowing to fast), but this is not the general rule. Souvlaki shops don't close down during this period, for instance; at the same time, all tavernas offer 'nistisima' meals all year round in deference to those who wish to fast, not necessarily during a religious fasting period but also for personal reasons. (It isn't always polite to ask people about their reasons for doing this.)

Greek lenten meals are so colourful and nutritionally balanced that it's highly unlikely you'll feel as though you are eating with constraints: Cretan snail stew, spanakorizo (spinach rice) and lettuce salad.

The golden rule is that, whichever way you choose to fast, never make it sound like a big deal:
«Και όταν νηστεύετε, μη γίνεστε όπως οι υποκριτές σκυθρωποί, γιατί αφήνουν άπλυτα τα πρόσωπά τους, για να φανούν στους ανθρώπους πως νηστεύουν.» (From the New Testament: Matthew, 6:18).
(And when you fast, do not become sullen like the hypocrites, because they leave their faces unwashed to appear to others that they are fasting.)

In our house, most of the weekdays in the year are meatless ones; the meals cooked are usually vegan, supplemented by a dairy product: eg horta served with boiled eggs, beans served with cheese. We don't eat much meat during the week, but with no restrictions on milk and cheese. Weekends are when we have more time to cook, and Sundays are generally regarded as the day we will enjoy a home-cooked meat dish. This is our way to achieve a nutritional balance. It may look like we are 'fasting' for half the year by doing this, but this should not come as any surprise: if you add up the number of fasting days within the Greek Orthodox church calendar, there are about 180; that's half a calendar year!

Summer vegetables (bell peppers, eggplant and zucchini flowers) stuffed with herbed rice: my favorite Greek vegan - lenten - meal.

At any rate, it's impossible not to find something nutritiously satisfying and tasty within the range of Greek cuisine; with so many vegetarian - and often vegan - options, there's something for everyone. After all, Greek cuisine is based primarily on vegetarian cuisine, a point which a Greek newspaper completely missed when it published a report on the impact of a vegetarian diet on an adopted child.

UPDATE: It's always good to have empirical data to back up whatever you say. You can ask people if they do or don't fast, but you always have to be wary of their answers (ie how truthful they are). I was amused when I was asked if I was fasting recently, just after I picked up a language teacher's handout before a 5-hour training session (where snacks were going to be served). "No," I replied, and the secretary noted it on the list of names, which consisted of 26 people (all women - it's a characteristic feature of language teachers). On the day of the training session, I found out that only 3 people had the word 'NAI' (YES) next to their name, while 2 more had ΟΧΙ ΚΡΕΑΣ (ΝΟ ΜΕΑΤ); all the others were not fasting. Demographic variables like age and sex have played a large role in predicting who fasts, but even this is now slowly waning (my 87-year-old mother-in-law surprised me this year:not even she is fasting like she used to).

* The fasting period of Great Lent is wrongly assumed to be 40 days in length, from the (misleading) Greek word σαρακοστή (sarakosti), meaning '40 days'. A lot of people, including Greeks in Greece, get confused with the number of fasting days too. It helps to have a Kira Sarakosti hanging in your kitchen (more information in this article).

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