If you ever head to the grocery store a few hours before the call to prayer during Ramadan, you will understand and appreciate the community and spirituality that defines the holy month.
Ramadan happens to be one of my favorite times. I enjoy watching the hustle and bustle of families as they gather in the aisles with their grocery lists, piling their carts with ingredients for the evening’s Iftar. You can tell that creating the meal in Ramadan is just as important and cherished as breaking the fast. Indeed, there are specific dishes, desserts and drinks that are typically prepared during Ramadan using recipes that have been handed down with great pride from mother to daughter through the generations. This means that the same food can be differently experienced from household to household. Here I’ve compiled my list of delicious and traditional dishes that people who fast wait all year to enjoy.
The Three Important Essentials: Dates, Laban Up and Vimto
The healthy way to break your fast is with a few fresh or dried dates. This is often followed by the salty yogurt drink or sometimes by Vimto, a carbonated black-currant drink, which is very popular in the region. For some it is considered the No. 1 choice of drink during Ramadan because its high sugar levels, and sweet fruity taste provide a much needed energy boost during Iftar. With roots firmly entrenched in the Gulf, you’d think Vimto was a local product. But in fact it originated in the North West of England.
The Ubiquitous Sambousek
These addictive little pastries are usually eaten in bunches of two’s or three’s and are made out of a simple flour dough or sometimes from pastry sheets. The tiny pastries are then fried or baked for a healthier take. Because the preparation of the dough can be a little time consuming some families prepare the pastries a month before Ramadan. In many homes they have to make an appearance on the table every evening for the entire month. The samousek can be shaped as crescents or triangles depending on the filling. Usually the crescents are filled with a cheese-herb mix or spicy minced beef and the triangular ones are filled with cheese, meat or vegetables.
Lentil Soup Every Day
A friend of mine was telling me the only time her family makes lentil soup is during Ramadan, as it’s a great source of iron, protein and fiber. Some homes have it every day of the month and don’t tire of it. Lentil soup is usually made from the flat, orange variety of lentil seeds, which are sautéed with onions and cumin to help prevent bloating, and then blended into a satisfyingly wholesome porridge-like soup garnished with fried pita bread points. Soups are not only a great way to rehydrate the body after fasting, but they also prepare the digestive system for your incoming meals, and control the amounts you eat. Some homes replace lentil soup with porridge, made of wheat or oats, and often cooked with meat chunks.
Ramadan wouldn’t be the same without this sweet, sumptuous delicacy. It’s made of light yeast risen pancakes, cooked on one side with the other side left for stuffing. The stuffing can be cream (‘Ashta’ in Arabic), unsalted cheese or walnuts, with a touch of rose water. After the stuffing is placed, the sides are delicately pulled and pinched together to form a half moon shape. My favorite qatayef would have to be the cheese based. They are fried, then baptized in a rose water, sugary syrup made of pure heaven.