STIMETABLE DAYS, long nights, freezing temperatures, Christmas a rapidly fading memory and the distant prospect of spring – “the cruellest month” is not April, as TS Eliot wrote, but January. The garden harvest of kale and collard greens, and perhaps beets, carrots and parsnips, is rare but often delicious. January is the season of looking in the mirror and taking stock, regret, determination and abstinence. It’s Dry January, Veganuary, renewed gym memberships, vows to cycle everywhere and spend less time in the pub. In other words, it is the season of fasting.
These profane rituals have deep religious roots and ancient corollaries, intended to provoke thought by curbing appetites. For Muslims during the day of Ramadan, or Jews on Yom Kippur, fasting means completely abstaining from food and drink as a way to draw closer to God. But not all religious fasts are all or nothing. Christians often give up meat during Lent. Many Buddhists periodically shun it to instill compassion, promote progress toward enlightenment, and improve their chances of favorable rebirth. Some Buddhist monks and nuns systematically eat nothing after lunch.
Few, if any, faiths require fasting as often as Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Priests and nuns must abstain from animal products, oil and wine for 250 days a year, the lay faithful for 180. During the 40 days of Advent, which precedes the Orthodox Christmas of 7 January, worshipers eat only one vegan meal a day. But in an example for ascetics around the world, this meal need not be boring just because it is available.
In Ethiopian cuisine, even austere dishes are richly flavored. Shiro, for example, is a stew made from chickpea flour, mixed with hot water and seasoned with Berber-a characteristic Ethiopian mixture usually containing ground dried chillies, black peppercorns and spices such as cinnamon, ginger and cumin. As it simmers, it fills the house with an earthy remix of Christmas aromas. Combined, as usual, with braised spicy cabbage and injera, a tangy Ethiopian bread made from fermented teff flour, its velvety texture and warm kick leaves you feeling full but not stuffed.
And since it contains no animal products or oils, it makes an acceptable fasting dish. Eaten in this context, Shiro and dishes like this encourage people to think about larger questions about their diet and their bodies. How much meat, if any, do they really need to eat? Can less food, nibbled on consciously, be more satisfying than more eaten quickly but automatically? Are they happiest when driven by their appetites or controlling them?
Giving up alcohol or hamburgers for a month can raise similar questions among lay people. It may not bring them closer to the divine, but it can bring them closer to understanding their own urges. A temporary waiver is just that: January teetotalers and vegans will be mostly drinkers and carnivores again by February. But they may appreciate that martini or that steak more for giving them up. Fasting is not just mortification or denial; it’s a reminder of the value and joy of food. ■
This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline “The Art of Fasting”