As Easter is the most important observance in the Greek Orthodox calendar, Easter foods are long awaited in any Greek household. Followers of the Greek Orthodox faith wait patiently to indulge in the Easter feast, food that is served just once a year in some cases.
Preparing for the Easter feast begins one week before. And the cruellest thing any Greek mother can inflict on her children isn’t the pressure of producing grandchildren, it’s the baking of the tsoureki. The scent permeates through the whole house, yet it’s not allowed to be eaten until Easter Sunday. Easter foods are consumed in two main Easter sittings – the midnight feast and Easter Sunday lunch.
Red dyed eggs are the most symbolic food associated with Greek Orthodox Easter – and provide the most fun. Eggs are boiled and dyed red to symbolise the blood Christ shed for Christians while on the cross, but also represents rebirth. Other colours are now being used but traditionally, eggs are coloured red and are prepared on Holy Thursday.
You need to know how many eggs you are going to dye in one sitting to work out how much dye you should use. Commercial dyes are readily available and can be found in most commercial supermarkets and definitely in all continental delis. They will have instructions on the exact measurements needed. After the eggs have been boiled in dye, let them rest on kitchen towelling to remove excess dye and polish each egg with olive oil to get a soft sheen on the shell. The custom is to crack eggs – head to head and nose to nose. Whoever has the last remaining egg intact supposedly has good luck for the following year.
This tradition comes all the way from the village. When preparing the lamb for Easter Sunday lunch, the family would make sure none of the lamb went to waste and so began the making of the soup with offal. The soup’s main purpose is to break the fast of Easter and is consumed immediately after midnight mass. The soup itself is thick and filling – the ideal meal after a 40-day fast.
The soup is flavoured with a stock made from the bones and head of the lamb. The offal is thoroughly cleaned and chopped and added to the soup with dill and other vegetables. When the soup is nearly ready, rice is added and the stock is thickened using an avgolemono sauce. Today it is common that the soup is made solely using the heart and liver due to the difficulty in finding the other offal. It is also because our palates today are not as open-minded as they once were.
Tsoureki is also prepared on Holy Thursday. Depending on the family recipe you have, each tsoureki varies in shape, size and flavour. Some are round, some are braided and some have a red egg placed perfectly in the middle. Tsoureki is a sweet Easter bread – similar to a brioche – and best served toasted with a cup of tea.
Traditionally, however, tsoureki is eaten after midnight mass on Easter Saturday, as the bread symbolises the resurrection of Christ. It’s a laborious task making all these Easter foods, so tsoureki is now widely available in shops for those who can’t make it or don’t have the time.
Koulourakia are sweet Easter biscuits that can be enjoyed long after Easter is over. They are also made on Easter Thursday and are used to fill Easter baskets. Along with the red eggs, Easter baskets are made by a family to take to another’s house when visiting on Easter Sunday.
Koulourakia can represent a whole range of Greek biscuits but the Easter koulourakia are distinctly different. They are made using a sweet pastry and tying braids in the biscuits or other shapes but are always finished with an egg glaze to give them a shine.
Lamb on the spit
The best way to break a fast is with lamb on a spit. Many Greek families in Australia and in Greece, gather around the spit in the backyard and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. The lamb on the spit needs to be prepared quite early to make sure it’s ready by lunchtime. Generally, the lamb is marinated with oil that has been mixed with garlic, lemon juice, oregano and lots of salt and pepper. The lamb is continually basted in this mixture to keep it moist and to make sure the skin doesn’t dry out.
When it’s ready, the men normally take over the duty of carving up the lamb and cleaning the spit while the women work on preparing the salads and the Easter table. Kokoretsi can also sometimes be found on a spit around Easter time.
Kokoretsi is a dish made purely from lamb’s offal and intestines. This dish was created when Greeks would use a whole lamb for Easter lunches not letting anything go to waste. The intestines are cleaned thoroughly and are used to wrap the offal – heart, livers, lungs, kidneys – and are seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice and oregano. Kokoretsi can be found cooking at the same time as the lamb as an extra meat dish for Easter.