Eastern Orthodox Foodways

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  • Many people do not realize how big a role different foods play in the lives of Orthodox Christians. Whether Greek, Russian, Syrian, Lebonese or USA, special foods are served at special times of the year.

    Right now, with Nativity coming up, I thought I'd start this thread and put in some of the special dishes we Orthodox serve!

    Hope you enjoy this thread!

  • The Eve of the Nativity
    Orthodox Christians fast (read: abstain) from meat and dairy products for 6 weeks prior to the Feast of the Nativity. We eat vegetables, grains, shellfish, and on certain days we also eat "fish with fins." While we abstain from olive oil and wine, mild beer or kvass (a lightly fermented Russian drink) is usually "allowed." On certain days during the fast, we "celebrate" with olive oil and wine. If it is a "fish day," it is also a "wine and oil day!"

    Now that you are totally confused, I'll tell you that we "cheat" - we have calendars with indications as to what the fast permits each day! ;-)

    The Eve of Nativity is still a "fasting" day - no fish, no wine, no oil, no meat, no dairy! Yet we celebrate that night! How do we do this? By serving special dishes and decorating our tables and dining areas.

    Since I am Russian Orthodox, let me tell you about the Eve of the Nativity as celebrated in the Slavic tradition.

    Christmas Eve ends the Advent fast, and marks the beginning of the Christmas feast. The Holy Supper begins traditionally when the first star becomes visible and after the Vespers for the Eve of the Nativity is served.

    Although the menu may vary, preparation of these dishes is a ritual, and serving, another. In most homes, the prepared dishes are brought to the table and eaten one at a time only after prayers have been offered by the family ending with the Christmas troparion: Thy Nativity O Christ our God.....

    The entire family gathers for the supper at dusk. If any member of the family is absent or has died during the preceding year, a vacant chair at the table symbolizes his or her spiritual participation in this meal. The central focus of the holy supper is the blessed candle which is lighted by the mistress of the home, grandmother, mother or elder sister

    Hay or straw is placed under the table to symbolize the poverty of Christ is a humble manager, reminding us vividly of the straw that filled His manager. The table is covered with a white cloth as a symbol of the swaddling clothes of the Christ child. A loaf of bread is placed on the tables representing Christ’s presence as the bread that gives us life. The blessed candle is placed in the bread further exemplifying Christ as the Light of Life. As the table is set, an extra setting is made to receive a stranger in the spirit of Christian hospitality.

    The Christmas Eve meal itself consists of 12 dishes served in honor of the 12 Apostles. Since it is the day before the Feast of the Nativity it is a day of fasting and spiritual preparation—oil and wine usually is allowed, but no fish.

    Bread (Kracum) is served and each dips a piece in honey and eats it with a slice of raw garlic. Honey is symbolic of the sweetness of being with our Lord. Garlic is eaten raw on the bread dipped in honey—intended to keep away the evil spirits

    Kutyia, a special rice dish made with honey and fruit, symbolizes good life and prosperity

    Soup is usually served. This may be cabbage, mushroom, split pea, caraway, lima bean, sauerkraut, or borscht

    Potatoes, mashed or boiled are always served.

    Mushrooms with onions


    Piroghi filled with potatoes, sauerkraut or prunes

    Cabbage stuffed with rice or mushrooms


    Fruit, fresh or dried fruit such as prunes or apricots


    Legumes of some sort usually are served: Lima beans, Peas, Lentils

    Red wine

    Piroghi are a form of dumpling made from dough (either risen or non-risen) that is rolled out, cut into circles and folded over about a heaping coffee-spoon of another food, like cooked mashed prunes, sauerkraut, or mashed potatoes with garlic. Once formed, the edges are pressed together either by pinching or using the tines of a fork. Then the piroghi are boiled. They are "done" when they rise to the surface of the water. At this point they may be fried lightly in margarine or oil to give them a light crust, or served as they are.

    With some local variations, this is the traditional way Russians, Ukrainians, Serbians, Georgians, and Bulgarians celebrate the Eve of the Nativity.

  • Thanks, Elizabeth!

    My inlaws are Polish and Lithuanian, and sometimes they talk about the old customs, many of which sound a lot like yours. For example, the straw under the table, the pierogi, meatless meal on Christmas Eve....
  • Hey barbzy!

    We are converts, so our bloodlines go mostly into the British Isles, but we are very interested in the customs of traditionally Orthodox nations.

    I'll be posting here from time to time as special holidays come up with special traditions. Most will be from the Eastern European countries, as those are the ones I am most familiar with, but some will be from Middle Eastern traditions, too.

    Hope you find this thread enjoyable. My kids are taking some of the traditions and adding them to their home-customs. Like St. Nicholas Day on Dec 6 (Dec 19, old-style calendar).

  • Lent is Approaching!
    Now that Nativity and Theophany (Epiphany; Blessing of Water) are behind us, it is nearly time to start the Fast for Great Lent.

    Oh, this is a wonderful time of year!

    In 2004, the "fast-free" week is the first week in February. During this week we are free from the usual Wednesday and Friday fasting (abstaining from meat, dairy, and fish).

    Then there is Meatfare week, which is a "regular" week, but we are very aware that we need to eat up all the meat in the house! Following this there is Maslenitza, or Cheesefare Week. In this week we abstain from meat, but eat dairy and fish. On Cheesefare Sunday, at the end of that week, we celebrate by eating pancakes, butter, cheese, and fish. In the Russian tradition we make blini (thin pancakes) and dip them in butter or spread them with sour cream. We add slices of fish (pickled herring, sardines, smoked salmon) and shredded cheese and chopped eggs.

    In the evening of Cheesefare Sunday, we have the traditional "Forgiveness Vespers." During this Vespers, are a number of long prayers said while kneeling, then the priest turns to the congregation and asks their forgiveness. Each person then goes up to the priest and asks and receives forgiveness, then a line is formed and each person kneels before each other person at the service and asks their forgiveness, saying, "Forgive me, my brother/sister." In this way we remember that our actions, even if committed in secret, in one way or another affects the others in our community and in our society. We "pull ourselve up by the napes of our necks" so to speak, and try to return to the kind of attitudes and behaviors that are more in line with the Perfect Will of God. We then stand and kiss each other and respond by saying, "God forgives." Then we go to the next person. The service then ends with a prayer and the usual dismissal after the last person has finished going through the line.

    I'll post some Blini recipes in a few days.

  • Elizabeth, I have to ask, since your fast customs are much stricter than our Roman Catholic ones (no meat/meat products on Fridays in Lent, and only 2 days of fasting)--is it difficult to get all the membership to follow the fast? I am not trying to belittle what you do; on the contrary, I think it is a wonderful discipline. But I know that more Catholics spend the fast/abstinence from meat days grumbling about what they CAN'T have and I'm sure many "break the rules." How does your church motivate its members to participate in the fasts, and in the correct spirit?
  • Well, I'm only about 7 months late answering this one! Sorry!

    No, there is no problem with "getting members to participate." It is simply expected and all do it - especially in the smaller missions and parishes.

    We attend Confession prior to each reception of the Holy Gifts - and if we receive each week, we go to Confession each week. We talk about our fasting, and if the priest understands that someone has not made the effort, reception of the gifts is not permitted that week. But this is not an "excommunication," just a recognition that the individual has not prepared appropriately.

    Obviously there are people who do not prepare and who do not receive frequently.

    The Orthodox emphasize the mystical and spiritual aspects of the Faith, and with this emphasis members strive to achieve that level of spirtuality that will best prepare them for the next world.

    If you are interested, I can refer you to some websites... ;-)

  • Quote:
    Originally posted by ewriggs
    If you are interested, I can refer you to some websites.

    I don't know about barbszy, but I sure am interested!
  • Sts Peter and Paul and the Dormition
    We recently completed the Fast for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. This is a variable length fast - depending on how early or late Pascha (Easter) falls. This year it was 5 weeks long, and ended for those on the Old Calendar on July 12th.

    Now coming up will be the 2 week Fast in preparation for the Dormition (Falling Asleep in the Lord) of the Theotokos (Mother of God). On the Old Calendar, we begin this on the 14th of August and continue through the 28th of August.

    Then, no more fasting (except the usual Wednesdays and Fridays) until the Nativity Fast begins!

    On August 19th we celebrate the Holy Transfiguration, and bring first fruits to Church - literally - fruits are brought to Church to be Blessed!

    September 11th we celebrate the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. On this day many will avoid eating "round" foods and eating off of "round" plates/platters in remembrance of the beheading and presentation of his head to Salome by Herod Antipas on a platter. No matter which day of the week this falls on, we observe a "strict" fast - no fish, no wine, no oil, in addition to no meat and no dairy.

    One of my favorite Feasts is the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Celebrated on March 9 / 22) - we traditionally make 40 bird-shaped lenten bread ("larks") in memory of these martyrs.

  • Here are the websites I promised several months ago (before DH had his heart attack):

    St Nicholas Orthodox Church, Dallas TX
    Lots of information if you surf the site

    A mega site

    Ikons: Windows Into Heaven
    A site devoted to Orthodox Iconography, it's history, meaning.

    Orthodox Information Center
    An incredibly complete site - nearly every question is either answered directly or through reference to exceptional external websites.

    Russian Orthodox Liturgical Chants (in Church Slavonic)
    These are beautiful chants, and well enunciated.

    St. John of Kronstadt Press
    In particular, search through the "Collected Lives of Saints" section.

    Christian Orthodox Publications, Booklets, articles - Bishop Alexander Mileant
    Check out the English publications - all on line. Many classics of Orthodoxy. The booklets / brochures / articles, whatever you want to call them are available in HTML and as ZIP files for download - free.

    The Law of God, Part I by Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy
    This is a major classic of Russian Orthodox Catechesis. Bishop Alexander pulled off a real coup by getting this online! The only thing missing is the pictures - and they are very good, but the text is very informative about the Church even without them.

    The Law of God, Part II by Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy

    The Law of God, Part III by Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy

    My Orthodox Church website
    This has most of my favorite links to Orthodox places on the web, and pages about my favorite Orthodox saints.

    If you want even more, after you have exhausted these, let me know!

    Love in Christ,