Life & Soul

Eating Japanese food on Ember Days

A Japanese Chef serves tempura to France's President Francois Hollande and Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe (PA)

During the week after the First Sunday of Lent we observe, traditionally, the Ember Days. “Ember” doesn’t have anything to do with coals or fire. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, “a circuit or revolution (from ymb, ‘around’, and rennen, ‘to run’), the annual wheel of the sun”. In Latin we call the Ember Days the Quatuor Tempora, or “four times” of the year.

Speaking of coals or fire, this Latin term gave rise to a form of fried food which I am sure you all know. In the 16th century, Jesuit missionaries from Portugal settled in Nagasaki. While remaining sensitive to the ways of the Japanese people, they tried to make culturally acceptable meatless meals for their converts for Ember Days, which were days of fasting and abstinence from flesh. They started deep-frying vegetables and shrimp, in much the same way as, back in Portugal, they made peixinhos da horta, deep-fried veggies, which in turn they might have picked up in Goa, their colony in India, where a similar fried food called pakora is found. The Japanese ran with and developed this new food to (some would say) perfection.

So, the next time you order tempura in a Japanese restaurant, remember that the name comes from the Latin: Quatuor Tempora.

Back to the Ember Days. The Fathers of the Church, such as St Leo the Great (d 461) and St Jerome (d 420), spoke of this custom, which perhaps stemmed from a Jewish practice of fasts at different times during the year. As far back as Pope Gelasius (d 496), Ember Days were auspicious for ordinations. Winter, spring, summer and autumn all have traditional Ember Days. These days of fasting and abstinence on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday fell during the weeks after the First Sunday of Lent, after Pentecost, around the time of the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14, and near the third Sunday of Advent (more or less St Lucy’s day, December 13).

There is a medieval couplet in rather degenerate Latin about the times they fell, rendered in archaic English that is just about as bad: “Fasting days and Emberings be/ Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.” Rood is Middle English for a crucifix. Whitsunday is Pentecost, from the Old English hwita sunnandæg, “white Sunday”, probably
for the colour of vestments once used for that feast.

Perhaps we should eat Japanese on Ember Friday.


This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/2/15). Also in this week’s issue: John Charmley on how to respond to those who claim Catholicism is not compatible with British values, Mary Kenny glimpses the future of the family and Freddy Gray says we must beware the wristbands that are ruining our lives

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