Clean Monday, known as Kathara Deftera in Greece, is the emblematic start to Great Lent, a long period of fasting that mirrors Christ’s 40 days in the desert. A movable feast like Easter, Clean Monday falls 48 days before Orthodox Easter each year, symbolizing purification after the revelry of Halloween and Carnival.
However, the austerity of fasting during this time doesn’t mean a lack of culinary richness. Nor does it mean that the majority of Greeks will actually fast for the next 48 days. Modern practices see less strict adherence to religious fasting, except during Holy Week, when meat is noticeably absent even from souvlaki and gyro joints.
Clean Monday in Greece is traditionally celebrated outdoors, where families gather to participate in the age-old tradition of kite flying. The origins of this Greek custom, which is intertwined with the Chinese kite, are shrouded in mystery, yet it carries profound symbolism. The soaring kite is seen as an allegory for the ascent of the human soul to the divine, with the belief that the higher the kite flies, the closer one’s prayers are to being answered.
Savoring the Flavors of Lent
The celebration culminates in a lavish country feast or a cozy gathering in local taverns. These social gatherings are imbued with a sense of communal celebration, where the act of flying kites symbolizes a collective soaring of spirits and hopes. The laughter of children chasing kites mingles with the chatter of adults, creating a lively atmosphere that’s infectious and heartwarming.
The day’s culinary highlights include an array of fasting-friendly yet sumptuous dishes: the savory taramosalata, available in red or white taramas; hearty fava, chickpea or tomato meatballs; a variety of seafood and shellfish; fresh vegetable salads; and the indispensable lagana bread, perfectly paired with the indulgent halvah.
Traditional Dishes of Clean Monday in Greece
Fasolada – The quintessence of Greek comfort food
Fasolada, often hailed as the Greek national dish, takes center stage during Clean Monday. Filled with beans, celery, onions, bay leaf and a rich tomato base, this hearty soup is an example of simplicity and flavor. Its wholesome goodness provides not only nourishment, but also a deep connection to Greek culinary traditions.
Cuttlefish and Spinach Casserole – A Seafood Delight
Seafood, which is permitted during Lent, is beautifully showcased in dishes like Cuttlefish and Spinach Casserole. This dish combines the tender, subtly flavored cuttlefish with the earthy tones of spinach, creating a balanced and nutritious meal that’s both satisfying and in keeping with the principles of fasting.
Taramosalata – An Unexpectedly Delicious Dip
Taramοsalata, a creamy and savory dip, challenges and delights the palate. Made from mashed potatoes and fish eggs, it may sound unusual, but its rich, umami-rich flavor makes it a popular staple. It’s typically eaten with lagana bread and adds a touch of luxury to the Lenten table.
Lagana – More than just bread
Lagana, an exceptional type of flatbread, is synonymous with the Clean Monday. This bread is similar to Italian focaccia and is often topped with sesame seeds. Lagana is soft, chewy and perfect for dipping into the various sauces and dips that adorn the Clean Monday table. Its presence is not only culinary, but also symbolic, marking the beginning of the fast.
The name “lagana” comes from the ancient Greek “laganon”, which was a flat dough made of flour and water. The tradition of consuming this bread on Clean Monday is likely connected to the consumption of unleavened bread by the Israelites during their exit from Egypt.
Halva – A Decadent Finish
The feast ends with halva, a dense, sweet dessert made from tahini. Its rich combination of fat and sugar makes it an indulgent treat so satisfying that it might even make you forget about chocolate brownies. Halva represents the balance of Lenten cuisine – abstinence from meat and dairy, but not from indulgence.
Fried Squid – A Crispy Seafood Delight
Fried squid, a popular Clean Monday choice, adds a delightful crunch to the Lenten feast. Squid rings, lightly battered and deep fried to golden perfection, offer a textural contrast to the softer dishes of the day. Served with a squeeze of fresh lemon, this dish brings a taste of the sea to the Lenten table, satisfying the craving for something crunchy and flavorful.
Grilled Octopus – A Testament to Greek Seafood Mastery
Grilled octopus is another Clean Monday culinary star that showcases Greece’s mastery of seafood. Tender, smoky, and charred to just the right degree, it captures the essence of traditional Greek cuisine. Often drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with oregano, grilled octopus is a simple yet sophisticated dish that perfectly captures the spirit of Greek cuisine during Lent.
Seafood Spaghetti – A Lenten Favorite
One such specialty is seafood spaghetti, a dish that combines the best of the sea with the comfort of pasta. Loaded with a variety of seafood, including shrimp, mussels, and calamari, and tossed in a light, savory sauce, this dish is both filling and Lenten. It’s a perfect example of how Greek cuisine adapts to maintain flavor and variety during periods of dietary restriction.
Clean Monday, a Celebration of Life, Community, and Culinary Heritage
Clean Monday embodies a celebration of life, community, and culinary heritage. The day showcases the deep connection between food, family, and faith in Greek society and reflects the Greek ethos of embracing joy and meaning even in times of simplicity. For all who participate, Clean Monday promises to be an unforgettable experience, rich in tradition and community spirit.