The Economist says January is the season of looking in the mirror and taking stock, of regret, determination and abstinence. It is Dry January, Veganuary, renewed gym memberships, vows to cycle everywhere and spend less time in the pub. In other words, it is fasting season.
These secular rituals have deep religious roots and ancient corollaries, meant to prompt reflection by bringing appetites to heel. For Muslims during the daylight hours of Ramadan, or Jews on Yom Kippur, fasting means abstaining completely from food and drink as a way to draw closer to God. But not every religious fast is all or nothing. Christians often give up meat during Lent. Many Buddhists eschew it periodically to instil compassion, foster progress towards enlightenment and improve their chances of a favourable rebirth. Some Buddhist monks and nuns routinely eat nothing after the noon meal.
Few if any denominations require fasting as often as Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Priests and nuns must abstain from animal products, oil and wine for 250 days each year, lay worshippers for 180. For the 40 days of Advent, leading up to Orthodox Christmas on January 7th, the faithful eat just one vegan meal per day. But in an example to ascetics everywhere, that meal need not be dreary just because it is spare.
In Ethiopian cuisine, even austere dishes are richly flavoured. Shiro, for instance, is a stew made from chickpea flour, stirred into hot water and seasoned with berbere—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 it usually is, with braised spiced cabbage and injera, a tangy Ethiopian bread made from fermented teff flour, its velvety texture and warm kick leave you full but not stuffed.
Shiro and dishes like it encourage people to ponder broader questions about their diets and bodies. How much meat, if any, do they really need to eat? Can less food, munched mindfully, be more satisfying than more of it eaten quickly but automatically? Are they happier when driven by their appetites or in control of them?