Christians around the world celebrate Ash Wednesday on February 6, the first day of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and reflection that leads up to Easter. (Some Eastern churches may begin and end earlier.)
For many, Lent entails forgoing meat. Some Orthodox faiths also abstain from dairy, seafood, oil and wine.
Despite those sacrifices, wherever it’s easy to keep your menu lively by using this time to explore the Lenten foods of cultures around the globe. Here’s a sampling:
The islands of Malta, which are south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, have a sophisticated Lenten food culture, says Mathew Schmalz, a religious studies professor at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass.
A special almond cake, called “kwarezimal,” is a highlight. Recipes for these dense, sweet bars vary, but generally call for ground almonds, flour, cirtrus zest and honey.
A Lenten bread, called “sfineg,” is a flat, round loaf coated with honey and fried in oil. The bread often is folded like a burrito and filled with spinach before it is fried.
During Lent, Russian Orthodox Christians omit meat of any kind (including fish and fowl), as well as animal products, including dairy and eggs. Weekdays, the strictest days of Lent, they also give up oil and wine.
“It’s sort of a gradient of strictness,” says the Rev. Seraphim Holland, of the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Dallas. “We’re not fasting to be miserable, we’re fasting to not focus on food.”
“We’re focusing on prayer,” he says. “We’re focusing on bettering ourselves.”
Meals during Lent are simple, such as cabbage soup, called “shchi,” and borscht, which is shchi plus beets. Boiled potatoes, beans, lentils, rice, onions and bread also are common.
Traditionally, Russian Orthodox Christians ate buckwheat porridge, called “kasha,” during Lent. Today, any type of oatmeal or other hot cereal is referred to as kasha and eaten during this season.
Ukrainian Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent (and are encouraged to do so the rest of the year, as well). They then break this fast on Easter with a rich breakfast of sausages, ham, egg and cheese.
A typical fasting food in the Ukraine is cabbage stuffed with rice or barley, sometimes with a mushroom sauce. Ukrainians also eat a meatless borscht.
Since fish is allowed, and herring plentiful, Ukrainians also eat a lot of pickled herring.
The potato dumpling, called “varenyky,” is another Lenten staple. They are boiled and served with butter and onions. Sometimes the varenyky has sauerkraut or cheese inside, or sweet cabbage or prunes, if it’s a dessert.
Greek Orthodox Christians give up all meat and animal products during Lent.
“The idea here, theologically, is we’re reverting back to the Edenic diet,” says the Rev. Apostolos Hill, of the Assumption Cathedral in Denver, referencing the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible.
But with healthy, vibrant Mediterranean cuisine to draw from, Greek Lenten food hardly seems a sacrifice.
There are numerous bean dishes, tomatoes and pasta, including orzo (a rice-shaped pasta that cooks quickly).
There also is tabouleh, falafel and hummus, as well as fresh fruit, olives and pita bread. There are sweets, too. Cookie and cake recipes are adjusted to omit the dairy, such as butter.
The Greek break Lent with an enormous Easter feast that can last well into the morning. Lamb often is the central dish, served with bean salads, vegetables, rice, seafood and a lemony soup called “magiritsa.”