Contributing writer: Camille CESBRON
« Ash Monday » marks the beginning of Lent for the Eastern Christians worshipers, 40 days characterized by penance, sharing and prayers. On that day, many will cook and eat Mujaddara and Mudardara, a combination of lentils, rice and caramelized onions. Considered as different variations of a same dish, Mujaddara and Mudardara are two popular vegetarian dishes commonly cooked during Lent in Christian families in the Middle East region. The difference relies on the proportion of lentils and rice of each, and their consistency: whilst Mujaddara is a purée like dish Mudardara has a whole-grain aspect. These dishes are also eaten throughout the year by all the religious communities in Lebanon and usually served with cabbage salad (salatit malfouf).
Lentil, the main ingredient, is one of the earliest domesticated plants in the Middle East: it grows easily in our region, it’s inexpensive, and is the main source of protein in the Mediterranean diet. In fact, when cooked, the lentil develops even more proteins and suppresses its toxins. In Lebanon, after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross or Eid el Salib on the 14th of September, villagers gather to prepare Mouneh. Lentils are sorted, scrubbed with salt and olive oil, to prevent any contamination, then stored for a day to absorb the salt. Finally, people spread them out in the sun for few days, before storing it. Traditionally, women of the village gather in the morning for “Sob7iyé”, where they drink coffee together and sit around the stainless-steel plate to sort out the lentils. Often cited in the Bible, lentils represent the tears of Virgin Mary under the cross] for some and the tears of the Christ for others.
As Lent commemorates the Christ’ 40 days fast in the desert, the food cooked and shared during this period is replete with meanings. The avoidance of commodities like meat or sometimes dairy, represents true sacrifice and tacit obedience to God. For the Anthropologist Aïda Kanafi-Zahar, an indication of this abstinence from meat, eggs and dairy products among the Maronites is found in the text of the synod of 1736, which prohibits meat, eggs and laban. Other vegetarian dishes are traditionally produced such as Mehsheh Selek, or the lentil salad Adas mutabbal seasoned with olive oil and vinegar. The use of this last condiment commemorates the Christ suffering. On Good Friday, cooked wheat and a vegetarian kebbe made from pumpkin and bulgur, called “sad dumplings” (kubba ḥazîna) or “Marie dumplings”, are eaten.
As French philosopher Olivier Assouly say “by associating nature with
the rite, the product with the preparation, we offer the religious a new
opportunity to resurface. Intimately intertwining nature and taste, the order
of the world and pleasure, the sacred and the profane, is finally to embrace
all the fullness of divine foods.” (p. 245, 2002, Les nourritures divines)
Aïda KANAFI-ZAHAR, Mune : La conservation alimentaire au Liban, Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1994, 266p.
Carlo PETRINI, Ben WATSON (ed.), Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on Taste, Tradition and the Honest Pleasures, Slow Food Edition, 2001, 287p.
Olivier ASSOULY, Les nourritures divines : essai sur les interdits alimentaires, Actes Sud, 2002, 300p.
Paul FIELDHOUSE, Food and Nutrition: Customs and culture, Chapman & Hall, 1995, 253p.