Indulging in gourmet meals and heavy desserts especially prepared for Ramadan may be ironic during this sacred month, which is about foregoing worldly pleasures and commemorating the struggles of the needy.
The fact that the day-long fasting usually ends with a vast assortment of delicacies for many, makes it no surprise that most Muslims around the world welcome this month with an air of anticipation, the kind that naturally develops ahead of experiencing a mind-blowing gastronomic wonder.
Following are some of the treats that are prepared specially for iftar, the Arabic word for the meal consumed at sunset during Ramadan to break the fast.
This fried delicacy has become a regular guest on iftar menus. The thin dough is usually filled with minced meat or chicken; or for those going down the veggie-route, it is prepared with a fancier spinach and feta stuffing. These triangular calorie-dense delights might as well be the dark forces of the Illuminati given their ubiquity and near-addictive nature.
In India and Pakistan, samosas are eaten as a snack on a daily basis. But come Ramadan, it is the only time where you will experience a different type of samosa altogether: the kind your mother prepares by hand (cue angels singing) not the ones picked from street vendors or a supermarket freezer.
The freshly prepared minced meat at home with the perfect dash of spices folded up into a triangular heaven is a work of art, compared to the street-toughened everyday aloo samosa (filled with spiced potatoes). Found at South Asian roadside stalls, they have nothing on the elegant, fresh essence of the home-made samosa. You will smell it three floors down in the elevator as you arrive home from work. That, dear foodies, is the true delight of a home-made samosa.
In the Arab world, including the Gulf and Levantine cuisines, the samosa or samboosek – as it is referred to—has a prominent role with various fillings. My Persian neighbors prepare them with cream cheese filling, fried to golden brown perfection and dipped in honey. In Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Chinese Uighur-majority Xinjiang region, samosas are known as samsas and are a slightly healthier baked version, compared to their South Asian cousin. In Indonesia, the samosas are known as pastel and often come with an egg filling.
Whatever way you choose to consume these calorific monsters, one thing is for sure: You will not be able to limit yourself to just one.
If there is one thing synonymous with Ramadan, particularly in the UAE, Oman and other Arab Gulf countries, it is harees. The slow-cooked meat and wheat porridge has been a long kept tradition in this region that dates back more than 1400 years. It is said to have been frequently enjoyed by Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). The harees has even been documented in the earliest known Arabic cookbook of dishes compiled by Ibn Sayyar Al Warraq in the 10th century. During Ramadan, rulers’ palaces in the UAE and various public kitchens gave out buckets full of this meat-based wheat porridge. The practice is most likely carried forward from the past, where it was only the affluent families who prepared the dish during festivities and Ramadan. It was customary, however, for this to be shared with their poorer neighbors.
Harees has a spicier cousin in South Asia, known as haleem. It is a popular dish that is cooked overnight for special occasions, such as weddings and Eid. Harees was introduced to Hyderabad by the Chauch people (Arab diaspora) during the rule of the sixth Nizam, Mahbub Ali Khan, and later became an integral part of Hyderabadi cuisine during the rule of the seventh Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan through Sultan Saif Nawaz Jung Bahadur, an Arab chief from Al Mukalla, Hadhramaut in Yemen. Today, the Arabic harees is still available in the Arab quarter of Hyderabad in an area called Barkas. It was later modified to suit the palate of the people of the city by adding more spices: Today, haleem is served with fried onions, coriander leaves, ginger flakes and a squeeze of lemon.
There is perhaps little else more universal than soups and stews. Different forms of shorba, the Arabic word for soup, are featured widely across North African, Balkan, Central Asian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern cuisines. It is a common practice to begin one’s iftar with a soup as it is light on the stomach and helps replenish the lost nutrients throughout the day during Ramadan. The Turkish çorba is usually a light lentil soup cooked in chicken broth, followed by a heavier meal of meat, rice and bread.
In Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the national soup Okroshka is commonly consumed for iftar, if Ramadan falls in the summer season. The classic soup is a mix of mostly raw vegetables, eggs, cooked meat with kvass—a non-alcoholic beverage made from fermented black or rye bread. Okroshka is usually garnished with sour cream and is served cold, sometimes with ice cubes for the hot weather.
In North Africa, particularly Morocco, the harira, a tomato-based soup, is served and consists of lamb, chickpeas, lentils and pasta.
Non-alcoholic, refreshing drinks meant to rehydrate the body are an essential part of iftar. In South Asia, Rooh Afza advertisements begin to bombard the airwaves once Ramadan starts. Rooh Afza is a concentrated syrup that first came to existence in 1906. The sugary drink is a refreshing end to the spicy, fried foods in South Asian iftars.
It is also common in Arab culture to break the fast with milk and dates, a practice observed by Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Qamar El Deen is another popular drink across the Levant, made from soaked dried apricot. It contains digestive aids, metabolism regulators, vitamins, and other useful properties that make it the ideal drink after a long day of fasting. Sobia is a very popular Ramadan drink in Saudi Arabia, and is made by lightly fermenting brown bread, barley, spices and sugar. Sobia can be white or dyed red, and is often sold in plastic bags by street vendors during the holy month.
Yogurt-based drinks are also common during Ramadan, as it is said they keep the body cool and quench the thirst for long hours.
Maya Angelou once said, “When you invite someone to eat at your table and you want to cook for them, you’ve inviting a person into your life.” Food unites people and gives them a shared experience. In Muslim traditions feeding another person is an act of worship.