It’s only natural to do lots of nice, pleasant things before the start of Lent, a period of abstinence and fasting. The Carnival tradition is common to many countries of the world, but in the Lebanon the habit is not so much to parade in the streets as to celebrate at the table with all the good foods that are subsequently ‘prohibited’ for 40 days. Our ‘foodie’ Carnival is called marfa’ah and it lasts a week., the last week before Lent, which, according to the Middle-eastern tradition, starts on the Monday, and not on the Wednesday as in the Latin tradition. Meals during the week of marfa’ahare highly given over to meat dishes in particular.
Most meat today is imported and bought in supermarkets, but some people still raise their own livestock the traditional way, fattening sheep with grain and herbs for weeks, then slaughtering them to feed the whole family in the course of the week.
Nothing is wasted. The fillet is diced and eaten raw and accompanied by slivers of .lyieh (the tail), the liver and sometimes the kidneys. Less tender parts are mashed in a stone mortar and mixed with burghol (pre-cooked, crushed grain) to make kebbeh. In Lebanon, kebbeh is either eaten raw or shaped into patties, stuffed with onion and pine kernels and fried in oil.
The larger cuts of the animal are then grilled. Raw and grilled meat mark the start of the celebrations of which they are the emblem, . boiler meat only appearing a few days later.
Family banquets are washed down with arack, the national aniseed-flavored drink, another symbol of the feast. The drinking of arack comes to a climax on the Thursday, known as khamiss el sakarah (Drunkards’ Thursday)nad it takes a hell of a lot of the stuff to get so many people tipsy! The feasts not to be missed during the week of marfa’ah are the Thursday of sakarah lunch and the subsequent Sundaydinner.
On the Thursday evening meat is served in every shape and form imaginable while the gammeh, or offal – carefully cleaned stomachs and intestines – are stuffed with rice, onion, chickpeas and spices and cooked in stock.
The star dish on the Sunday is chicken stuffed with rice and spices and cooked in stock. A great time is had by all as this is the last day of marfa’ah, prior to the Monday morning rahebb which marls the beginning of Lent.
On the Monday evening, the family gets together again for a frugal supper to set the example for the period ahead. The meal consists of boiled wild herbs and chickpeas, or white beans flavored with tahin (sesame cream), vine leaves in oil without meat, taro root (colocasia antiquorum) with lentils and, last but not least, fried eels – on second thoughts, the meal isn’t so frugal after all! The eels are usually preserved in salt and rinsed before being fried in oil; the dish is eaten solely and exclusively for a few days in this period of the year.
Traditionally, the week of marfa’ah is also one of weddings, after which .no one gets married until Easter Week. Hence, on marfa’ah Sunday, car horns can be heard honking all over the place! An ethnographical study by Aïda Kanafani-Zahar highlights the connection between meat eating and marriage. To eat meat in company is to forge an alliance, whereas abstaining from its consumption implies a lull in social exchange. Then Easter Sunday heralds the resurrection of Christ, the end of Lent and the resumption of wedding celebrations … All pleasures are permitted again.
Kamal Mouzawak lives in Beirut and is an editor and photographer for Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, the most important Lebanese monthly food and wine magazine.
Adapted by John Irving