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palikaria cretan epiphany salad

In Greece, Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 (some eastern Orthodox churches celebrate it on January 19). To say it’s significant is an understatement: For eastern Christians like the Greeks, the day commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, seen as his manifestation as the son of God. For western Christians, the celebration came to commemorate the visit of the Magi; as a result, the day is also called Three Kings’ Day, often shortened to Kings’ Day.

Called Theofania (theos=god + faino=reveal) or commonly Ton Foton (Των Φώτων, which literally translates “Of the Lights”), the celebration revolves around the blessing of waters. The process begins on the day prior, January 5, which is called protagiasi or fotisi. In small villages, it was tradition for priests to visit each house holding a cross and a basil stem that had been dipped in “blessed” water, which he would then sprinkle in every room. This same blessed water was also sprinkled in fields and fountains.

The most typical (and perhaps widely known) custom of Theofania involves the priest throwing a cross in a body of water, which swimmers then race to retrieve. It’s a large, often exciting event in places close to the sea, a lake or a river, even outside of Greece (such as in Istanbul and some areas in the United States and Australia where there are large Greek communities). Not only does the act of the priest throwing the cross into the water further enhance its blessing, but the person who reaches the cross first and returns it to the priest is believed to be particularly fortunate in the new year.

Similar to other Greek festivities, many of the traditions connected with this celebration are rooted in ancient practices and pagan customs. For instance, on Epiphany people in Greece traditionally carry their agricultural tools as well as the icons of saints they keep at home to the sea, if they live close enough, to “wash” them in the blessed waters. The act of blessing the water and then washing (i.e. purifying) items in it is a pre-Christian custom that can be traced back to the ancient celebration of Plenteria, an annual event during which Athenians would carry the statue of the goddess Athena in a procession to the southern coast of Phaliron, where they would wash it and rid the statue of a year’s worth of “spiritual pollution.” Later, in the Byzantine period, it was common for women to wash icons in the blessed waters.

Likewise, a very important tradition calls for boiling polysporia (poly=many + sporia=seeds), which was consumed by all of the family members and animals in a household on January 5. The custom is a continuation of the ancient custom of panspermia (“all seeds”), which has been preserved over the centuries and is connected with many other religious celebrations as well as rituals to commemorate the dead (in which it’s referred to as kolyva). The ancient Greeks would often prepare a mix of grains, seeds and pulses to offer to the gods or the dead. A similar dish was also prepared when asking for a good harvest year. In many parts of Greece it’s often a sweet mix, but there are certain exceptions, especially when pulses are involved.

One of these exceptions is palikaria (also known as psarokolyva, ospriada, fotopapouda and mageria), a type of salad or soup (thickened with flour and flavored with a bit of lemon juice) prepared on Crete. Grains like wheat or corn are mixed with different pulses, boiled and then served either as a soup or a salad; the latter is usually mixed with chopped onion and herbs like dill or parsley, and then dressed with olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice. Everyone in the house – including the animals – eats palikaria, and some is even scattered on the rooftop terrace or in the fields as an offering to the birds. The same dish is also often served during Sarakosti (the 40 days of Lent before Easter).

I often make various versions of palikaria at home, since it’s very nutritious and tastes delicious. In Greece you can easily find ready-mixed packages with different pulses and often wheat berries or other grains. I purchased my mix, which includes brown and black lentils, whole green peas, chickpeas, four different kinds of beans (white, cranberry, black and red), black eyed peas, yellow split peas and whole buckwheat grains, from To Mitato tou Psiloriti, my go-to Cretan deli. I made the salad more complex by adding pistachios and sesame seeds as well as pomegranate seeds, which are in season (and were often included in ancient panspermia recipes). I also put in some pink grapefruit for the acidity and the fact that vitamin C helps you absorb the iron in pulses like lentils. You can replace the grapefruit with any other citrus fruit of your choice.

You can make this recipe either by using different dried pulses (you need to soak them overnight, preferably separately) or with canned beans mixed with boiled lentils (which don’t require soaking), corn and peas (which can be canned or even frozen and boiled).

Cretan Palikaria with a Twist

For a large salad

400 gr mixed pulses and grains of your choice, boiled (boiling time depends on what you use)
2-3 spring onions, chopped
½ fennel bulb, diced
2-3 red radishes, diced
1 small green bell pepper, diced
1 pink grapefruit, diced
2-3 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
½ cup chopped dill
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 bunch red arugula (or any arugula), coarsely chopped
1 Lebanese cucumber, diced

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste

If you are using dried pulses like beans or chickpeas and a grain like wheat berries you will need to soak them overnight. I recommend boiling them separately, as it will be easier to control their consistency. Lentils and wheat berries usually require about 20-30 minutes, while beans and chickpeas will need longer, between 40-60 minutes, depending on their freshness. I boil pulses in fresh water with salt and a bay leaf. You may also use bulgur just like you would in a tabouleh salad (I do not boil it at all in that case, I just soak it in water) or for a gluten-free version you can use a grain like quinoa, millet or amaranth. Once ready, drain them thoroughly and mix all together in a bowl.

In a small bowl prepare the dressing by mixing the olive oil with the vinegar, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Prepare the rest of the salad ingredients and mix them in a large bowl. Add in the pulses and grains you are using, followed by the dressing. Toss and serve.

To convert metric measurements to US and British kitchen units, click here.

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