On Friday, followers of the Coptic Orthodox faith started their pre-Christmas fast, known as the Advent Fast or the Nativity Fast.
This is a vegetarian fast that ends on the evening of 7 January, which is Christmas Day in the Coptic calendar. Observing Copts refrain during these six weeks from all dairy products and meat, including poultry. They are, however, allowed fruits, vegetables, legumes and fish.
The fast lasts for six weeks, and is one of several fasts totalling 200 days that Copts in Egypt are expected to observe each year. The fast is not obligatory, although full observance is preferred by the Church.
In his new book Food for the Copt, writer Charles Akl offers an account of the diets and recipes of this and other fasting periods in the Coptic year. There is much information provided on the main fasts of Christmas and Easter, as well as the periods in between, all explained in the Egyptian social context.
The book, running to around 300 pages, was published several weeks ago by the Kotob Khan, and it has already aroused a great deal of interest. It adds to the small range of books providing an insight into the heart of the Coptic cuisine and its ideological nuances.
For those who have no prior knowledge of the Coptic fasting seasons and their significance, Akl’s book offers a "101 course" on the kitchen of your Coptic neighbour. It is not a kitchen centred on the excessive consumption of pork and alcohol, but rather about balancing the principle of auterity with the desire for colour and a festive taste – showing how to enjoy dishes that are designed to free the body from excessive gastronomic indulgence.
Akl does this in the course of 10 chapters, mixing anecdotes from his family and friends with a few recipes. There is also a great deal of explanatory comment, with a certain resentment of religiosity and the clergy showing through at times.
Some would argue that Akl uses his 300 pages of observations on the culinary practices of devout Copts to challenge Coptic Christian traditions, questioning the core of the creed – and for that matter the Coptic Church.
This said, the book successfully escorts the reader into the dining/living room of a typical middle-class Coptic family in Egypt, where it would be hard to say that everyone is strictly observing the fast.
In this household, there is a mother endlessly embracing the call of deprivation of pleasure through a firm commitment to a full version of the fasting routine. This same mother, however, is trying – just by virtue of being a typical Egyptian mother with a natural vulnerability to the praise of her food – to provide colour and taste to the otherwise un-amusing dish of simmered fava beans (foul medames).
Akl does not miss the chance to try and bring his readers over to the side of the less-observing family members, who favour a nice, inviting, spicy dish of foul medames over those grey-to-dull-brown beans on offer at restaurants affiliated to monasteries like Mar-Mina. Such humble establishments – to use a nice word for what the author is otherwise insinuating – offer unappetizing bean dishes at a relatively high price, says Akl.
Moving into the kitchen, Akl shows the waning interest in cooking pork, as this particular family – like many other Coptic families – seeks to be less disliked by the wider Muslim society, which aggressively disapproves of pork consumption. The same, the book suggests, is the case with the consumption of alcohol, which is increasingly considered "unbecoming" by many Coptic clergy.
The "Islamic” impact on the Coptic culinary choices is something that Akl further dwells on in his observations on the dietary behaviours of Copts during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which sometimes overlaps with one of the several Coptic fasts. In such cases, he says, a Copt would refrain from eating when not at home, only to return to very simple – and at times uninviting – food, while Muslims would return each evening to a considerable feast.
According to Akl’s book, the self-imposed deprivation and austerity that Copts observe is becoming of a religious creed that glorifies suffering as a method of salvation, and which prompts people to compensate with feasts of excessive consumption of calories, protein and fat. This over-indulgence is to avenge the many days where food is not consumed for pleasure but rather for sheer survival.
What do Copts eat on the eve of the pre-Christmas fast? Why do they eat taro to celebrate the epiphany of Jesus? Are there any pharaonic roots for some of the Coptic recipes? What is the significance of salt, fish and vinegar for an observing Copt? And how would Akl’s mother manage to make an appealing (yet fast-compatible) sayamy pizza?
These are all questions for which Akl provides answers – to the liking of some and the great disliking of others.
While the book may raise a few hackles, Akl qualifies for the job of author by virtue of being a Copt living in Egypt. He is also experienced in issues of culture, working as manager of El-Genaina Thatre and project coordinator at Culture Resource.
Food for the Copt seems to reflect Akl’s journey along the path of Coptic faith – or perhaps away from it.
But it is also a daring attempt to bring to light the increasingly constrained lives of Copts in Egypt.