Lagana, halvas, and taramas, otherwise known as “the Koulouma,” are the official foods of the first day of Lent in Greece, a day known as “Clean Monday.”
Having the same meaning as Ash Wednesday for Catholics, the Greek Orthodox Day marking the beginning of Lent is connected to different ancient customs across the nation.
The most important customs are the flying of kites, going on outdoor excursions and the consumption of these particular delicacies. All the Greek “Clean Monday” customs date back to ancient times.
But why do we eat these particular foods on this day? Do we really know what these foods stand for? And why is it that we eat only this type of bread, called Lagana, on Clean Monday?
Clean Monday is the first day of the Forty Days of Lent, celebrated by the Orthodox Church. It marks the beginning of the Great Fast, the preparatory period for believers before the great feast of Easter.
Thus, the first week of the forty days is called “Clean Week.” This seven-day period gives the believer time to purify himself and get ready for Easter, or “Pascha,” the most important holiday in Christianity.
The Lagana is a a special kind of “azyme” (unleavened) bread, which is baked only on that day, and symbolizes the manna offered by God to the people of Israel while He led them away from Egypt to the promised land.
The semolina-based halvas (sold as “Halvah” in the US) is a common food found in the Balkan countries, Turkey and Israel, and is usually homemade. It is a very plain and densely-grained confection made of ground sesame, sugar, water and oil.
The ground sesame seed is sweetened either with honey or “petimezi,” the syrup made from the must of grapes, and is then given a round shape and baked as a loaf.
Halvas is one of the major Lenten desserts for the Greek people. Its recipe can be altered with the addition of tahini, or sesame paste, and it can be baked in either a square or cylindrical shape.
This type of halvas, called “Macedonian Halvas,” can have many different flavorings. The Greeks eat halvas with a glass of retsina with cinnamon.
“Taramas” is the word Greeks use to describe the small salty beads of the red caviar (fish roe) of cod or carp. The culinary appreciation of fish roe dates back to the Byzantine ages. Just like black caviar and botargo (avgotaracho), tarama is considered to be one of the finest kinds of the delicacy.
Taramas is widely known for its use in taramosalata, a mix of roe with either breadcrumbs or mashed potato, and lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil.
It is usually eaten as a dip, with bread or raw vegetables. The color can vary from creamy beige to pink, depending on the type of roe used. Commercially-produced taramosalata is often a bright pink due to the addition of food coloring. The taramasalata which is white in color is considered to be of the highest quality.