Recipes for those who don’t eat


Recipes for those who don’t eat

Most people understand fasting as skipping a meal or even two. But it can also mean restricting your diet. A bitter business for someone from the Klein Karoo, indeed. But it can be a joyful way of life, writes EMILIA SMUTS.


A FOOD column on fasting, with recipes at the end? Well, I thought about it this way: Western Lent has just passed and Eid-al-Fitr is upon us; Passover is around the corner, and just a week or so later it's Eastern Orthodox Easter. And all of them are preceded by a period of fasting, even if most people in the West have abstained from little more than chocolates or coffee.

What does “fasting" mean? Most people understand it as skipping a meal or even two. But it can also mean restricting your diet. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, for example, it means that during the Great Lent preceding Easter, we eat no meat, fish, dairy or eggs. Additionally, we drink nothing during the week. A bitter business for someone from the Klein Karoo, indeed. But it can be a joyful way of life, as many Buddhists and vegans have found.

That is because the flip side of the coin is that it allows one to return to the joy of simple things, like coarse home-baked bread, a bowl of soup, baked seasonal vegetables, red lentil dhal, stewed green beans, rice and lentils. Eating slowly, attentively. And of course: coming up with ways to eat well, even if you're eating simply.

It reminds me of my great-grandmother who, shortly after the Boer War, unexpectedly received important guests on their remote farm. All she had in the house was a pumpkin. She poured the greatest love and care into that pumpkin's preparation. The guests were amazed — they had never eaten anything so delicious. Just goes to show. Hunger may also have been a good cook, but limits and boundaries can be beneficial. They challenge you to pay attention to what you have and to give it your full attention. Creativity thrives on limits and boundaries.

Initially, the food restrictions of the Great Lent stumped me. But over time, I discovered that there is a wealth of fasting dishes from the Middle East, Greece and eastern Europe that cleverly handle the seasonal, are easy to make and are packed with flavour. Here are two.

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I first encountered the first dish in Georgia. There, pkhali (pronounced pkgáli, sometimes also called mkhali) consists of any vegetable — cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, beets, spinach, squash, leeks, and so on — which are cooked (each type separately, not a mixture) then finely chopped with garlic, walnuts and herbs so that it becomes something between a vegetable pâté and a salad spread. It's colourful and fragrant and can be beautifully garnished for guests. Moreover, you can quickly put it together from almost any leftover vegetables in your fridge, because it's all chopped up anyway. No one will know unless you tell them.


For the vegetables:

  • 2 cups cooked vegetables of one type, drained, cooled and the excess water squeezed out by hand.

For the best flavour, you can roast eggplant and beetroot, and cook vegetables such as cabbage, carrots and spinach until just tender. Chop, grate or crush the vegetables. You can grind everything with an appliance, but not too fine — make sure it retains a bit of texture.

For the sauce:

  • ½ cup (50 g) walnuts, toasted (optional but nice for flavour) and chopped
  • 1 t salt
  • 1½ tbsp red wine vinegar or pomegranate juice
  • 2 t ground coriander
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • chilli flakes to taste
  • ¼ cup freshly chopped coriander
  • 2 tbsp chopped onion


Put all the ingredients in a food processor and let it spin until it forms a pulp. Add a small amount of hot water until it has the consistency of a mayonnaise.

Now combine the vegetables and the sauce and mix everything together into a mouldable paste. Taste for flavour: pkhali should have a vibrant flavour, and if in doubt, add more vinegar, salt or garlic. Form a pile on a plate and decorate in a pattern, or scoop into a bowl and garnish with walnut oil and pomegranate seeds, the rubies of the Levant.

Green corn polenta with eggplant sauce

I stole this recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi, that Israeli food wizard. It is an unbeatable flavour combination and, moreover, an ode to aubergine and green corn, which at this time of the year are at the end of their summer harvest.


Start with the eggplant sauce:

  • ½ cup olive oil — don't be picky with the oil
  • 2 medium eggplants, cut into 2cm square cubes
  • 2 t tomato paste
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • 1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
  • ⅓ cup water
  • salt and pepper
  • pinch of sugar
  • 2 tbsp freshly chopped oregano


Fry the eggplant in the heated oil for about 15 minutes, until it is nicely browned. Drain as much of the oil as possible and use it when you cook a piece of meat tomorrow, or pour it over your dog's food.

Stir the tomato paste into the aubergine and let it cook for another 2 minutes, then add the wine and let it boil. Then add the tomato and seasonings, and maybe a little water, if it's too dry for your liking. Now you cook the sauce for about 5 minutes. The eggplant should be soft but still hold its shape. Set aside and reheat when it's dinner time.

For the green corn polenta:

  • 6 green mealies
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 100 g feta, crumbed
  • salt and pepper


Cut off the kernels of the green corn against the stalk and scrape the last cobs from the stalk with the back of the knife. It helps to work in a shallow mixing bowl.

Cover the seeds with 2 cups of water in a saucepan and simmer for 12 minutes. Lift the kernels out of the saucepan with a slotted spoon and put them in a food processor. Pour the boiling water into a mug and keep the saucepan handy for the next step.

Spin the kernels in the food processor for quite a while, so that their casings become fine. Add a little of the boiling water if it gets too dry. Now pour the corn porridge back into the saucepan, add barely half of the boiling water and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes until the mixture becomes as thick as mashed potato. Add more water if you like a softer polenta.

If you're not fasting, you now stir in the butter, feta, salt and pepper and cook for a short while longer. (If you're fasting … sorry for you, then it's just salt and pepper.) Taste whether everything tastes right to you, but don't stand there and consume the whole bowl. Because remember, you still have to add the sauce then serve.


A final word about fasting: in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Passover is a bigger festival than Christmas. There are many theological reasons for this. But I strongly suspect that it actually has to do with the Passover night. Just before midnight the Passover services begin. Two services, which altogether probably last about two-and-a-half hours for us Afrikaners (the Russians go on all night). Think song and prayer, darkness and candlelight, fatigue and anticipation.

And then, in the dead of night: a long table meal with the most sinful, richest, most delicious foods you can imagine — something like a South African Babette's Feast without the turtle soup, but definitely  with a twist. There are special dishes that are made every year, good wine and lots of laughter. We eat like a bunch of hungry sheep that have been driven into an alfalfa field — we don't know where to bite and where to leave. The revelry continues until daylight. And every year I know for sure: you don't know about celebrating if you haven't fasted yet.

♦ VWB ♦

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