For meat-lovers there's no better day to be in Greece than during the celebration of Tsiknopempti. The holiday is a part of the Greek Carnival celebrations (aka Greek Mardi Gras) and signals the start of the last weekend that observant Greek Orthodox Church members are permitted to eat meat before fasting for Lent. This year it takes place on February 20, 2020, which follows the tradition of occurring 11 days before the start of Greek Orthodox Lent, Clean Monday.
Meaning of Tsiknopempti
In English, Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday" and so Tsiknopempti is sometimes also called "Fat Thursday."
In Greek letters, Tsiknopempti is Τσικνοπέμπτι. In Greek, Thursday is Pempti (Πέμπτη), meaning the fifth day of the week as Greeks count Sunday as the first day. The word tsikna (Τσικνο) refers to the smell of cooked meat—however, "Smelly Thursday" has not caught on as a translation. It is pronounced Tsik-no-pem-ptee, with the "p" softly sounded, nearly like a "b" or even a "v".
Naturally, everyone rushes to prepare and enjoy their favorite meat dishes for Tsiknopempti, which gives it one of its other common names: Burnt Thursday. It's a popular day for going out to eat and enjoying as many different meats as possible. As a joke, it is sometimes called the "Feast of the Carnivores."
This is definitely not the day for sensitive vegetarians to visit the the "restaurant rows" of Greece. They say that Greeks try to consume enough meat on this day to carry them through the entire 40 days of Lent. So there's plenty of smoky air, redolent of the aromas of cooking meat, everywhere.
This is one of the few times of year it's a good idea to make a reservation, even at the most casual taverna, as families come out in force to consume vast quantities of grilled meats and every restaurant will be packed. If you are a vegetarian or a vegan planning your Greek vacation, why not put it off a few weeks and plan to travel during Lent. Almost all the tavernas, cafes and restaurants will be adding particularly appealing vegetarian dishes to their already veggie-rich cuisine for the month of abstinence.
Typical Tsiknopempti Dishes
Some hotels and virtually every taverna will put on special menus for Tsiknopempti. By far, the most common item will be some variation of souvlaki, meat on a stick. These will be available everywhere along the streets in the taverna areas; be sure to walk carefully to avoid banging into an unexpected grill in the already narrow streets and walkways. Souvlaki skewers in the hands of the inexperienced can also be causes of mild injury.
Since eating is the main activity in Athens on Tsiknopempti, it can actually be a good time to visit the museums and monuments, which will be quiet even by the standards of the off-season, especially later in the day.
Tsiknopempti Outside of Greece
You don't have to travel too far from home to join in on the meat fest! Greek communities around the world celebrate Tsiknopempti, and Greek Orthodox church groups may arrange special events. Greek restaurants catering to local Greeks will also add on specials for the day or weekend.