Photo: Thinkstock; Photo Illustration: Sarah Barton
No matter where you live or what religion you practice, faith can feel like food for the soul. And while that time spent on bended knee can nourish even the hungriest of believers, everyone needs real food at some point. Luckily, food is a focal point for many religions’ rituals and holy days around the world —and you can find them throughout the Richmond area. You don’t even have to be practicing to enjoy a taste.
For thousands of years, devout Jews have based eating on the dietary laws of kashrut, avoiding certain foods (like pork) and combinations of foods (like meat and dairy products) in the name of keeping kosher. But while certain foods are off-limits, the Jewish diet is far from bland. If you’re looking for a tasty staple that appears on practitioners’ tables year-round, it’s challah. This braided, yeast-risen egg bread is a key part of Sabbath and holiday rituals, with two loaves being placed on the table to represent the double portion of manna God gave to the Israelites after their escape from Egypt. The double portion meant that they’d not only have food for that day, but they wouldn’t be forced to forage on the Sabbath. Traditionally, a blessing is recited before the bread is broken, and then the bread is salted, a nod to Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat.”
Try It: Perly’s Restaurant & Delicatessen, 111 E. Grace St., serves an array of Jewish staples, from knish and schnitzel to sweets like rugelach and mandelbrot. Challah is one of several bread options for the deli’s sandwiches. Montana Gold Bread Co., 3543 W. Cary St., also sells challah by the loaf.
Death is an inevitable part of life, and anyone who’s attended a Greek Orthodox funeral or memorial service has likely had a taste of kollyva. Traditionally, the sweet, boiled wheat dish is prepared by a close family member on the nine-day, 40-day and one-year anniversaries of a person’s death. Made with wheat berries, cinnamon, cloves, nuts and raisins, it’s brought to church and blessed by a priest during a ceremony, then shared with fellow mourners. The ritual’s roots are unclear — some trace kollyva back to polysporia, the ancient Greek practice of offering grains to the gods.
Try It: Nick’s International Foods, 400 W. Broad St., sells a number of food products used in Greek Orthodox ceremonies, including most of the ingredients needed to prepare traditional kollyva.
Catholicism (Latin America)
You may not realize it, but many of your favorite south-of-the-border foods play a big part in Latin American religious celebrations. Tamales, empanadas and meats with mole sauce are often eaten on holy days and at religious feasts. A Day of the Dead celebration isn’t complete without a taste of pan de muertos, a sweet bread with a little plastic skeleton baked inside. And during Semana Santa (Holy Week, Lent and Easter), torrejas are often served with homemade syrup. This French-toast-like dish is typically made with thick slices of Salvadoran bread called torta de yema.
Try It: La Sabrosita Bakery, 7730 Midlothian Turnpike, sells torta de yema year-round, so you can pick up a loaf and make your own torrejas at home. It also makes Latin American specialties such as Mexican cookies and tres leches cake, as well as North American favorites like brownies and croissants.
Ramadan may be a month of fasting and prayer for practicing Muslims, but that doesn’t mean there’s no food involved. In fact, the fasting only takes place from dawn until dusk, while the early morning and evening hours are often filled with elaborate feasts. The meal eaten before sunrise is known as suhoor, and iftar is the meal eaten after sunset. And when Ramadan ends, the faithful celebrate with a three-day festival called Eid al-Fitr. The foods consumed during non-fasting times vary by culture — remember that Islam is the second largest religion in the world — but traditionally a date is eaten to break the fast, followed by a combination of Middle Eastern sweet and savory foods.
Try It: Mediterranean Bakery & Deli, 9004 Quioccasin Road, serves a number of dishes that are typically eaten during Ramadan feasts, including mujadara (a rice and lentils dish), tabbouleh (a salad made with bulgur wheat, tomatoes, parsley and garlic), lavash (a thin, crisp bread) and namoura (a sweet cake coated in syrup).
Food is so central to the Hindu faith that it’s been called “the Kitchen Religion.” The simple act of preparing and eating food is seen as a form of devotional meditation, and most religious ceremonies aren’t complete without prasada, a specially prepared food offering to God. Most meats are considered “tamasic” — heavy or unfit for consumption — as are alcohol, onions, garlic, peppers and fermented foods. Despite the restrictions, even strict Hindu practitioners enjoy plenty of delicious fare, particularly during festivals such as Diwali and Onam. Held in mid-January, Pongal is a major harvest festival that lasts four days in Southeast India. Besides being the name of the festival, pongal is a rice-based dish that’s central to the celebration. Although there are many different preparations, traditional pongal is cooked in a clay pot with cashew nuts, raisins and ghee, then offered to the Sun God on sugarcane sticks or banana leaves.
Try It: Indian Pastry House, 3409 Old Parham Road, includes pongal on its “tiffin” (lunch) menu, along with other Indian specialties like dosa and idli.