If you ever happen to be walking around a Greek town or village and it seems that there are BBQ smells everywhere chances are it’s probably Tsiknopempti. (It could also be Easter Sunday but in that case the smell is the roasting lamb on a spit so you’ll know quite quickly which is which).
Tsiknopempti comes from the words tsikna (the characteristic bbq meat smell) and Pempti (Thursday). It comes about once a year, about two weeks before Lent starts.
Actually, here’s an interesting piece of food info: The two weeks before Lent in the Greek Orthodox tradition are called “week of meat” and “week of cheese”. I suspect they are dedicated to meat and cheese because the Greek Orthodox fast during Lent dictates that you are not allowed to eat any animal products. Curiously, seafood is excluded. Nowadays this type of fast seems to be making a comeback among younger Greeks as a type of detox period of 40 days before the meat galore of Easter.
Tsiknopempti however might have been quite an older custom and I haven’t managed to find its source. Fact remains it’s a day when if your clothes don’t smell tsikna you haven’t really had a good time.
More often than not it’s an excuse for a small party, particularly since it’s during the Greek equivalent of Halloween, our Apokries. It is said that Apokries is an old Dionysian tradition and nowadays people dress up, go to watch or be in dress up parades and take part in all sorts of old traditions. There’s a lot of merriment, dancing, singing, drinking and eating copious amounts of good old Greek food – meat being the main thing
Put together Apokries, Tsiknopempti, meat and drink and what you get is an allmighty party.
Usually a group of friends will just make arrangements for dinner over the phone. The host will make sure the coals are ready on time and each guest will declare what they will be bringing. Type of meat, salad, wine or dessert. There shouldn’t be any other cooking going on that day really. Salads are freshly made but the main thing is the meat. Even if vegetables need to be cooked they will be barbecued. The whole point is that the party should be going on around the BBQ, with the characteristic smell burrowing in every single fibre of your clothing. More often than not there’s music, dancing and a lot of “Opa”.
Even though us Greek women have a fearsome reputation as the cooks of the family, Tsiknopempti is one of those days that we only do preparation and it’s up to the guys to deal with the cooking. I know it’s horribly stereotypical but it really does happen. The guys stay outside feeling all important in front of the BBQ, they satisfy their “I-am-man-I-bring-meat” instinct (sometimes beating their chests) and we get to catch up, gossip and tell them exactly what they’re doing wrong. See how it all works out?
There aren’t a lot of occasions that come close to the macho attitude and amazing food of Tsiknopempti. Only exceptions I can think of is the almighty South African braai and the Brazilian barbecues I’ve been to in London.
Tsiknopempti is a great time to be invited by Greek friends. So here’s some things to keep in mind.
- Meat is king. There’s can be no discussion on this point.
- You might see intestines on the BBQ, more often than not wrapped around meat. I’ve eaten them, I’m still alive. Try ‘em.
- You can bring your own meat. Actually it’s good practice to bring some marinated meat that you like and give it to the psistis (the person that cooks on the BBQ)
- Wine on Tsiknopempti tends to be good hearty red from plastic bottles. More often than not it’s surprisingly good.
- The best thing to ask for from the psistis is some potato, wrapped in tin foil and placed in the burning coals. This is proper jacket potato in its purest form
- Eat a lot. It’s a Greek thing
Check out some great recipes for Tsiknopempti
- Lamb Souvlaki by kalofagas.ca
- Perfect Barbecued Lamb Chops by Dug on food.com
- Onions stuffed with cheese by Dimitris right here on Digital Scullery. They’d be great as a side, expecially if they’re done amongst the burning coals
- Tyrokafteri on The Greek Food – an amazing dip that works amazingly well with meat