A historically Catholic tradition, Mardi Gras celebrates the final weeks of indulgence culminating in Shrove Tuesday before the beginning of Lent, a period of religious penance. While the meaning of Mardi Gras has evolved over the centuries and around the world alongside the cultures that celebrate it, one element has remained constant – it’s almost always synonymous with a big party and festive foods.
In New Orleans, Louisiana, Mardi Gras is marked by a series of colourful parades and masquerade balls, and truckloads of multi-coloured King Cake; in Australia, where Mardi Gras is the pride and joy of Sydney’s LGBTQI+ community, rainbow cocktails abound.
Here, we explore the rich culinary traditions underpinning Mardi Gras carnivals around the world, so that no matter what you’re celebrating, you’ll be well-fed for the party.
Carnival of Binche, Belgium: oysters and champagne
Every Shrove Tuesday at dawn, the residents in the City of Binche gather in the streets to don wax masks, exuberant ostrich feather hats and chase away the winter. The custom is part of the Carnival of Binche, and it’s one of the most important days of the year in Belgium – so much so that it’s been granted the title of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
But that’s not even the best part. Before marching through the town, the masked, hatted Gilles (named after the composer Gilles Binchois) are treated to a breakfast of champagne and oysters. The Gilles are said to save money all year, just to splurge on this breakfast fit for kings. Is it really a party without champagne, anyway?
Rio de Janeiro Carnival, Brazil: cachaça-laced cocktails, pasteles, aracaje, and feijoada
In between partying characteristically hard at the largest carnival in the world (featuring street parties, floats, and an abundance of sequins), it’s customary to hoe into the meat, meat and more meat. This tradition is rooted in a time when more people gave up meat for Lent, but even non-observers are still encouraged to enjoy plates of feijoada, which is considered Brazil’s national dish. A sort of stew, feijoada is usually made with beef, pork and beans; come, Mardi Gras, the dish is open to interpretation, and can corned beef, pork sausage and even pigs' tails and feet.
Feijoada is normally eaten once the sun goes down, but the revelry rarely breaks for daylight hours. During the day, partiers chow down on traditional savoury pastries called pastels and acaraje, black bean fritters. To wash it all down, knock back a drink made with Cachaça, the most popular distilled spirit (made from fermented sugarcane juice) in Brazil.
Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana: traditional King Cake
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is all about loud music, boozy punch and good eatin’. A rich bevvy of gumbo, jambalaya, fried chicken and po’boys is usually on offer every year, but the real star of the show Is the traditional King Cake. Around 750,000 are consumed annually during the festive period.
King cakes are round, cinnamon-sugar filled pastries topped with multi-coloured icing sugar – green, purple and yellow, the colours of the festival. Similar to the French Epiphany cake, the King cake contains a ‘charm’ in the form of a plastic baby. Whoever’s lucky enough to score the baby in their piece is king for the day, and is tasked with bringing the cake to the next party.
Carnival of Madeira, Madeira: malasadas, balls of fried yeast dough rolled in sugar
The last day of the Carnival of Madeira (an autonomous Portuguese archipelago of the northwest coast of Africa) is spent eating malasada – small balls of fried yeast dough rolled in sugar. Once again, the tradition derives from preparing for Lent. Bakers made malasadas as a latch ditch attempt to get rid of all the sugar and fat in their houses before diving headfirst into #cleaneating for 40 days. Perhaps this is the reason the last day or Carnival (Shrove Tuesday) is also known as Fat Tuesday in certain parts of the world or Terça-feira Gorda in Portuguese.
Mardi Gras, Sweden: semla
The Swedes tend to go easy on the floats and parades during Mardi Gras season, but that doesn’t mean they’re not up for a few semlor, iconic pre-Lent sweet treats. Semlor, also known as fastlagsbulle are cream buns made with yeast dough and filled with almost taste and topped with whipped cream – we hear they’re the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee.
Semlor season in Sweden is a big deal – around 6 million are consumed on Fat Tuesday in Sweden – but the bun is finding life outside of Mardi Gras season, too. They’re popping up in Ikea kitchens and bakeries everywhere, from Seoul to Los Angeles.
Carnevale di Venezia, Venice: Frittelle, galani
There’s an old adage that says revellers wearing masks during Carnevale di Venezia can act with apparent impunity, on account of not being identifiable. We take this to mean that devouring frittelle (fried dough balls with a sweet or savoury filling) and galani (fried, rectangular pastry) by the hundreds is totally acceptable. These are just two examples of the desserts eaten during one of the most flamboyant events in the Venetian calendar; others include Venetian-style fried custard, sweet ravioli with ricotta, and chiacchiere, or fritters in English.
Sprengidagur, Iceland: split peas, salted meats, bolluvöndur
Sprengidagur translates literally to “bursting day” in English. While the holiday is in keeping with the Lenten tradition of eating everything in sight before a period of self-control kicks in, most Icelandics aren’t actually Catholic, so this holiday is more about feasting than fasting.
Children spend the day making bolluvöndur or cream buns, while adults generally enjoy a menu of salted, boiled meats (often horse meat) and split peas in various forms. Happy feasting!
Maslenitsa, Russia: blini
Also known as ‘butter week’, Maslenitsa is a Russian Orthodox, a pre-Lent festival celebrated rich with foods like blini – mini pancakes topped with caviar, soaked fish, sour cream, cheese or (you guessed right) butter. The church prohibits these fatty foods once lent begins so the idea is to get in while the going is good.
The event was canned during Soviet rule and only really came back into full swing in 2001 when St Basil’s Cathedral began hosting the week-long party complete with food stalls, games, live music and plenty of medovukha, a Slavic honey-based spirit.
Carneval Masopust, Czech Republic: drinking
Translating to English as ‘farewell to meat’, Masopust presents an opportunity for drinking in the streets and slaughtering and cooking a whole pig, all in an attempt to give winter the send-off it deserves. The best Masopust experiences are found in the Hlinecko region, 150km east of Prague where the celebrations have garnered the attention of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Quebec Winter Carnival, Canada: Beavertails and Caribou
Before you lose too much time pondering over the flavour of a beaver’s tail, know that it’s not that type of beaver. Instead, revellers at Quebec’s largest winter event will find a sweet treat of dough stretched into a beavertail shape, fried and rolled in cinnamon and sugar.
Caribou too is a misnomer – it’s not a dish of caribou at all, but rather the name for a dangerous cocktail made with port, sherry, brandy and vodka. You’ll also find warming cheese fondue and maple toffee pulls, a lollipop made with Canada’s famous maple syrup.
Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Australia: anything rainbow
Last but not least, when taking part in the most glitter-drenched festival of the year in Australia, it’s customary to indulge in all things rainbow to resemble the colours of the LGBTQI+ movement. Whether you’re marching in the parade or cheering from the sidelines, try this classic rainbow cake, or these fun rainbow pinwheel cookies, to show your support – and be sure to add a little extra sparkle.
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Australia have nothing to do with Lent or restrictions of any kind. Rather, they’re about celebrating pride, colour, and community to excess. If there was ever a time to have one more slice of rainbow cake, it’s Mardi Gras weekend.
Don't miss our special event coverage of the Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras 2020: Live Stream will be available to watch here from Saturday, 29th February 2020 at 7:35pm or catch-up via SBS On Demand after the program airs.