If you’re walking around the streets of downtown Athens or wandering through the local tavernas on a Greek island, and you smell smoke everywhere, don’t be alarmed! You are almost certainly experiencing the best of Tsiknopempti, a Greek holiday whose name tells you everything you need to know: tsikna means “the smell of roasting meat,” and pempti is Thursday; you’ll often find this day referred to as Charred Thursday or Smoky Thursday. It’s a day when friends and family gather on rooftops, at beaches, in yards, and even in parking lots to start up the grill and enjoy everything over charcoal and fire. It speaks tomes, too, for the place of meat in a traditional Mediterranean diet, and the ensuing abstention as Lent approaches.
Tsiknopempti falls on a Thursday, 11 days before Clean Monday, or the beginning of Lent, and it is traditionally the last day one should eat meat before the Great Easter Lent. The idea is that one slowly weans oneself animal products before the start of the 40-day fast. Practically speaking, Tsiknopempti is the perfect way to start a fast – after indulging in so much meat, you’ll likely want a little protein detox! Tsiknopempti is part of Greece’s Carnival celebrations, featuring 3 food-themed weeks. The first is Prophoni or Preannouncement Week, then Kreatini, or meat week (hello, Tsiknopempti!), and finally, Tirini, or Cheese week – stay tuned for more on that!
While the roots of this holiday are almost impossible to trace, it could have grown from Ancient Greece’s Bacchic feasts, and there are plenty of regional variations on this tradition. In the Peloponnese, this is the time to slaughter pigs to preserve for the rest of the year. Serres’ tradition revolves around jumping over the fires following the grilling, while on the island of Ios, the eve of Tsiknopempti is spent singing traditional carnival songs and wearing traditional carnival costumes and sheep bells.
Want to get in on this celebration? I have plenty of Mediterranean recipes with plenty of Mediterranean diet ingredients that fit the bill for a sizzling Thursday at home. For the cheese lovers, my Grilled Pork Chops Stuffed with Feta are a perfect choice – although if your chops preference skews a little more traditional, I’ve got something for that too, with grilled lamb chops you’ll want to make every year. Lamb kebabs bring a spicy take, and if chicken is more to your liking, try these grilled chicken legs – you’ll want to add this tomato olive barbecue sauce to everything!
Even on a day that celebrates carnivorous pleasures, the traditions of the Mediterranean diet and its Greek iterations are in full view. All the grilled meats on any given table will always be accompanied by seasonal Greek salads and other vegetables, always dressed or cooked with extra virgin olive oil. This delicious food holiday, despite its carnivorous indulgences, is yet another reminder that the key to embracing a Mediterranean mindset is balance.