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A 40-Day Vegan Fast, Then At Last, A January Christmas Feast

Abebe, the owner of Abyssinia, a popular Ethiopian eatery in Nairobi, with some of the seasonal vegan fasting foods. Orthodox Ethiopians typically eat just one vegan meal per day for 40 days before the Christmas feast on Jan. 7
Gregory Warner NPR
Abebe, the owner of Abyssinia, a popular Ethiopian eatery in Nairobi, with some of the seasonal vegan fasting foods. Orthodox Ethiopians typically eat just one vegan meal per day for 40 days before the Christmas feast on Jan. 7

Doro wat, the traditional dish eaten in Ethiopia on Christmas Day, served with injera bread.
John Elk Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image
Doro wat, the traditional dish eaten in Ethiopia on Christmas Day, served with injera bread.

A 40-Day Vegan Fast, Then At Last, A January Christmas Feast

An Ethiopian kitchen can be a place of both succulence and self-denial.

As I stand in the restaurant kitchen of Abyssinia, a popular Ethiopian eatery in Nairobi, the owner, Abebe, shows me how his cook prepares the dish called kitfo. It's raw minced beef whipped together with cardamom and chili and a spicy butter with a texture and taste closer to delicate cheese than to steak tartar.

Kitfo is actually Abebe's favorite food, but it's one he's not allowed to eat this month. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the world's oldest, observes Christmas on Jan. 7, following a calendar similar to the Coptic. The 40 days prior to Christmas (including Dec. 25) are observed with a vegan fast.

That usually means just one meal per day, in the afternoon or evening.

This 40-day Nativity Fast — also observed by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Eastern Catholic and Coptic Church, among others — typically prohibits meat, dairy, eggs, oil and wine. (Some traditions are ambiguous around the restriction of fish.)

The church considers refraining from some meals and some foods to be a form of purification and spiritual preparation. While the term "vegan" was coined only 70 years ago, prohibitions against eating meat and dairy for extended periods have been around for millennia. But no church has as many fasting days as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Abebe says that at a time of year when others are gorging, there's something gratifying in self-denial, Abebe says. "In fact that gives a psychological edge to those of us who are fasting." And the hungrier he gets, the closer he says he feels to God.

Abebe, who like many Ethiopians goes by only his first name, has a lot of practice serving food he's forbidden to touch. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has 250 fasting days, 180 of which are obligatory for laypeople, not just monks and priests.

During the 40-day advent fast, only one vegan meal is allowed per day in the afternoon or evening. Abebe says that he's come to enjoy that feeling of apartness. "It enables me to deal with this world. Because this world is full of challenges," he says.

It also makes the Christmas feast, when it finally arrives, that much more of a party. The traditional dish for Ethiopians on Christmas Day is doro wat, which features pieces of meat swimming in a rich red sauce.

Unlike the doro wat eaten the rest of the year, the Christmas dish is prepared with a slaughtered rooster rather than a hen, and carved into exactly 12 pieces, representing the 12 disciples, says Abebe's wife, Shitaye. (Each wing is divided into two pieces. Those four pieces plus the breasts, thighs, drumsticks, neck and back make 12.)

Then come the 12 hard-boiled eggs, which some say symbolize eternity. But eternity is what it can feels like to make the sauce, which requires simmering down 9 pounds of chopped onion for every one rooster, with a chili called berbere. It's a process that normally takes 5 hours.

I ask Shitaye if the specialness of this dish is perhaps lost on her many Kenyan and expatriate customers, for whom doro wat is just another dinner option, instead of a long-awaited reward for asceticism.

"Yeah, if you [eat] it every day it's true," she says. Catching herself, she adds: "But our guests are very special for us!"

There are some traditions that the Ethiopian diaspora in Kenya have to miss out on this holiday season. Kenya has outlawed the sale of homebrew, so there will be no honey wine, called tej, or barley beer, called talla. Likewise, there will be no sound of children playing the traditional Christmas game of Ethiopian field hockey, or genna. Legend has it that this is what the shepherds played when they heard of the birth of Jesus. (Abebe says he used to play a mean right wing, or skipper.)

Today, however, as every day this month, they will be eating just like their relatives in Ethiopia. At 2:45 p.m., when the day's fast can be broken, Abebe emerges with a woven basket on which is laid the spongy sour flatbread called injera, with a generous dollop of a chickpea-and-white bean dish called shiro (11 ingredients, nine of which are spices). It's accompanied by scoops of lentils, kale and other greens.

We dig in, using more of the injera as knife and fork. Unlike the white injera you often find in the U.S. is made of corn flour, this one is brownish, made from an ancient grain called tef specially imported from Ethiopia.

With fasting food this delicious, you could say asceticism has its perks.

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