Lent has begun for the Greeks, according to the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church. Lasting 7 full weeks, without a break, it is by far the longest and strictest fasting period of the Orthodox calendar.
Yet, despite the strictness of the fast, the Greeks and their Church approach Lent in a spirit of festive celebration. According to the Church, this is in keeping with Matthew’s Gospel that teaches
“[…] when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance […] anoint thine head, and wash thy face […]”[Matthew, 6, 16-18]
As a result, the first day (usually called Clean Monday, because as of this day a home must be clean of all forbidden foods) is not a day of repentance and mourning, but a day of having a good time and relishing in (rather than simply enduring) the Lenten fare.
What is forbidden
Observing Christians will not touch meat or poultry for the next 7 weeks, a total of 49 days. They will also avoid all other animal products, such as eggs or dairy (milk, butter, cheese etc). Fish will be consumed only on the holiday of the Annunciation (March 25th) and on Palm Sunday.
Even the sine-qua-non of Greek cooking, olive oil, is forbidden, along with all other vegetable oils and margarines, except on Saturdays and Sundays and the holidays above.
There are no exceptions, except for the ill and pregnant women.
What is allowed
The faithful may get their protein from legumes (beans, lentils, peas, etc) and seafood (octopus, squid, cuttlefish, mussels and clams) which are permitted. Iron and calcium are tricky issues, but tahini may cover some of the daily requirements of both. This highly nutritious paste of sesame seeds may also be used as a substitute for olive oil, although it won’t work for cooking. On olive-free days, Greeks resort to sautéing their vegetables in water instead.
All nuts and fruit (fresh or dried) are permitted, as well as all kinds of vegetables. Before the appearance of greenhouses, many vegetables were not available so early in the spring, so vegetable pickles came to hold a prominent place on the Lenten table, which they still maintain.
And what about desserts? The king of Lenten sweets is halva, a very nutritious sticky sweet made of tahini and sugar (or honey). It may be plain or contain nuts and/or cocoa. Chocoholics can only indulge in dark chocolate, obviously, as milk is forbidden. Vegan cakes with nuts and raisins are another option, but with butter and cream out of the picture, those with a sweet tooth are bound to find Lenten fare more wholesome than tasty.
Does everybody fast?
First of all, the fast involves only Orthodox Christians, and even for them it is voluntary. There is no religious police monitoring restaurants etc, as one hears of some Middle Eastern countries, so have no fear: if you visit Greece before Easter, feel free to order and consume anything you please, at any time. You will notice that most Greeks do the same: butcheries are open, gyros joints are doing brisk business while restaurants and tavernas are full of people enjoying chops and steaks with little thought of any fast.
So, is fasting a thing of the past? True, in the olden days, when people were closer to the church, it was hard to find someone who did not fast, usually someone seriously ill. Yet, even in these days of secularism, when fasting seems entirely forgotten, you’ll be surprised by how many still adhere to the Church’s teachings. The majority of them observe a moderate fast, avoiding meat, poultry and dairy but using oil when cooking (except for Wednesdays and Fridays, when the fast is stricter). There are of course those who observe all the strictures, and yet others who see Lent simply as a good excuse for a change into a healthiest way of eating.
No matter what their reason or style of fasting, their numbers are so high that even international chains have changed tack to cater to their needs, as in the example below.
No meat, eggs, oil or dairy. You call this food?
You’ll be surprised. Several centuries of fasting (not to mention countless centuries of poverty-induced frugality) have honed Greeks’ cooking skills and ingenuity to produce tasty meals with surprisingly little. The recipes available for Lenten dishes are simply innumerable. One book that sits on our kitchen shelf numbers 242 recipes of vegan main courses and another 130 or so of desserts. There are many others.
As a historian, I cannot but recognise that Lent and its special restrictions may also have played a role in preserving food items once common to the diet of hunter-gatherers but forgotten, in many places, after the adoption of agriculture. Small animals such as snails or clams, wild greens picked at roadsides and empty fields, flowers such as daisies, even weeds, like nettles, are still gathered and used to their best advantage in inventive and tasty preparations.
At the same time, legumes and cereals, the staples of the Mediterranean diet, are cooked in a multitude of ways, alone or in combination with other materials.
This seemingly inexhaustible treasure trove of healthy but tasty recipes is used by everyone, religious or not. It is especially mined by diabetics and vegetarians, but they’re not the only ones. The majority of meals enjoyed by most Greeks in the course of a typical week are often vegan – vegetable or legume dishes. Although they’re classified as Lenten food, they are cooked and consumed at other times of the year too. Greeks may love their meat, but it’s those meatless dishes that form the backbone of the Greek cuisine and make it light and healthy.
Update: See here for another post on fasting the Greek way, with data on its health benefits.