An Ethiopian kitchen can be a place of both succulence and self-denial.
In the kitchen of Abyssinia, a popular Ethiopian eatery in Nairobi, the owner, Abebe, demonstrates 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 hasn't been allowed to eat for the past month. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the world's oldest, observes Christmas on Jan. 7, following a calendar similar to the Coptic Church. 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 about whether fish may be eaten.)
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.
"In fact, that gives a psychological edge to those of us who are fasting," he says, adding that the hungrier he gets, the closer he feels to God.
Abebe, who, like many Ethiopians, goes by only his first name, has had 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 he has come to enjoy that feeling of apartness.
"It enables me to deal with this world," he says, "because this world is full of challenge."
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, carved into exactly 12 pieces, representing the 12 disciples, says Abebe's wife, Shitaye. (Each wing is divided into two pieces; those four plus the breasts, thighs, drumsticks, neck and back make 12 pieces.)
Then come the 12 hard-boiled eggs, which some say symbolize eternity. And eternity is what it can feel like to make the sauce, which requires simmering 9 pounds of chopped onion for every one rooster, with a chili called berbere. It's a process that normally takes four to five hours.
For the restaurant's many Kenyan and expatriate customers, doro wat is just another dinner option, instead of a long-awaited reward for asceticism. Isn't the specialness of eating it lost on them?
"Yeah, if you do it every day, it is true," Shitaye says. Catching herself, she adds: "But our guests are very special for us!"
There are some other 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 on 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, which serves both as the platter on which other food is served and, by tearing bits off, as utensils.
This is topped 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.
Unlike the white injera often found in the U.S., which is made of corn flour, this one is brownish: Adebe's is made from an ancient grain called tef specially imported from Ethiopia.
With fasting food this delicious, you could say asceticism has its perks.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Christmas is still to come for many people all over the world. For those following the Coptic calendar, it's next week - January 7. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church observes Christmas on that day, as well. But on the 40 days before, they fast. It's a vegan fast - no dairy, no meat. As part of our series on Christmas food around the world, NPR's Gregory Warner looks at what Ethiopians are not eating right now, but will eat later.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: An Ethiopian kitchen can be a place of both succulence and self-denial. Standing in the kitchen of Abyssinia, an Ethiopian restaurant in Nairobi, with the the owner, Abebe - we're watching a cook prepare what is Abebe's favorite food, kitfo - raw beef whipped up with cardamom and chili and a spicy butter to taste more like delicate cheese than steak tartare.
Do you get hungry for it? Do you wish you were eating meat right now or no?
ABEBE: In fact, that gives a psychological edge to those of us who are fasting because I'm weakening my physical strength.
WARNER: The hungrier you are, the more you feel...
ABEBE: The closer to God you are.
WARNER: The hungrier you are, the closer you are to God, he says. Especially at a time of year when others are gorging, he adds, there's something gratifying in self-denial. The advent fast traditionally allows just one vegan meal a day in the afternoon or evening. Abebe has grown accustomed to serving foods with meat or dairy to his guests that he himself is forbidden to touch. He enjoys that sense of apartness.
ABEBE: To me, it enables me to deal with this world because this world is full of challenge.
WARNER: Does it make the Christmas better?
ABEBE: Yeah. I'm telling you, after two months of fasting, people eat. People drink.
WARNER: Now, what they eat and drink when the Ethiopian Christmas finally arrives on January 7 is traditionally doro wat - poultry pieces drowned in rich red sauce. Abebe's wife, Shitaye, explains that the Christmas doro wat is bit different. You have to slaughter a rooster - not a hen - and carve it into exactly 12 pieces representing the 12 disciples.
SHITAYE: Yeah. The drumstick and the thigh, the breasts, the wings...
WARNER: The wings are each cut in two, plus the neck and the back make 12. Add 12 hard-boiled eggs - some say that that symbolizes eternity - no beginning or end. But eternity is what it can feel like to make the sauce. You have to simmer down nine pounds of chopped onion with a chili called berbere.
SHITAYE: To prepare that onion - I mean, to make it ready, to make it tender, it takes, like, four to five hours.
WARNER: But it's funny because all these people coming into the restaurant - they say, OK, I'll have one doro wat, and you make it. But it's such a special food for you.
SHITAYE: It is very special for us.
WARNER: But that special specialness is lost on the people.
SHITAYE: Yeah. If you do it every day, it is true. But our guests are very special for us.
WARNER: Nice save, Shitaye. Nice save. Now, at precisely 2:45 p.m., when the break fast can begin, Abebe reemerges with a plate of spongy sour flatbread called injera. There's a generous dollop of shiro, a chickpea and white bean dish with 11 ingredients, nine of which are spices. And there are other scoops of lentils, kale and other greens.
ABEBE: OK, can we bite?
WARNER: Let's bite.
ABEBE: Yes, please. We are through now.
WARNER: It is, I can say, the most delicious fasting food I've ever consumed. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.