A 40-Day Vegan Fast, Then, At Last, A January Christmas Feast : The Salt The Ethiopian Orthodox Church observes Christmas on Jan. 7, and the 40 days prior are observed as a vegan fast. That means no dairy and no meat until the traditional dish of doro wat on Christmas Day.

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

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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.

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