Ramadan is the month of basking in the nobility of fasting, of prayer and forgiveness, and a time to display generosity of spirit through giving and sharing.
Which is why, says Azura Yunos from Malaysia, in the final hours leading up to iftar, she spent much of her childhood scurrying through the streets of her neighbourhood, knocking on neighbours' doors to hand over platters of food sent by her mother.
"In the olden days, the working day ended so much earlier during Ramadan, and my mother would come home early with plenty of time to cook plenty of delicious food for us," remembers Yunos, who is now a mother herself. "The tradition is that families would make extra of any special dish they might be cooking, in order to have plenty to exchange with their neighbours. Because Ramadan is about giving."
Exchanging platters of food with neighbours – particularly dessert dishes – is a habit found in the diverse cultures across the Muslim world. "I miss this tradition; it's not as easy to do this here when you live in a building with hundreds of apartments and you don't even know your neighbours. It was a different time back then," Yunos says.
When neighbours would knock on their door with a plate of something or other for her family to sample at iftar, Yunos’s mother would wash and hold on to it, until the day she had something special of her own to send back. “We never, ever sent back an empty plate,” Yunos says.
Homesickness for expat Muslims hits particularly hard during Ramadan, and Yunos is no exception. Abu Dhabi has now been home for five years for she and her husband, Mudzaffa Reza, and their 5-year-old daughter Mishel. Before that they lived in Kuala Lumpur, where a stop at one of the Ramadan bazaars that take over the city during the holy month was the norm in the hours before iftar. There they would pick up a special food they were craving, or a dessert to indulge in after breaking their fast.
"Sometimes you don't have time to prepare food, so you can just stop at this bazaar to pick up anything you like to eat at iftar." That's where Yunos used to pick up onde-onde for her family, a dessert made of glutinous rice balls stuffed with palm sugar and covered in shredded coconut. "I miss it a lot," she admits. To create their own traditions in Abu Dhabi, Yunos and her family members are part of a group of Malaysian friends who break the fast together on the weekends, alternating from home to home.
“It’s so that the children can get that feeling of Ramadan and we have a chance as well to be with friends and meet even more Malaysians. We all share our food and our time together,” Yunos says.
The meals feature plenty of traditional Malay dishes: all kinds of curries, rendang, porridges and roasts to sweet rice cakes. Ingredients that feature heavily are lemongrass, coconut milk, sambal with shrimp, prawns or chicken.
"We always break our fasts with dates, then there is traditionally a hot dish that combines a protein and vegetables and rice on the side. And then dessert, if we have room," Yunos says.
For a recent iftar meal, Yunos prepared a chicken rendang, slowly stewing chicken in coconut milk and spices – ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, chilli and galangal – over the space of a few hours, to reduce the sauce and let the spices permeate into the meat. As an accompaniment she served it with nasi impit, a compressed rice formed into cubes, as well as kuah kacang – a peanut sauce – for dipping.
Also on the menu was sayur lodeh, a soup of vegetables and coconut milk that is light on the stomach for those breaking their fast. To round off the meal and appease her family’s sweet tooth, Yunos made steamed pandan sponge cakes called kuih puteri ayu and a steamed layer cake known as kuih lapis, which is particularly loved during Ramadan across Malaysia. It’s a layered pastry made from thin alternating sheets mixed from tapioca starch, coconut milk, pandan leaves and sugar, coloured separately and piled on top of each other.
"This dessert really completes our iftar meal," Yunos says.
1.2kg whole chicken cut into
400ml coconut milk (1 can)
110g toasted coconut paste
Salt and sugar to taste
1 turmeric leaf, sliced
For the spice paste
8 shallots, peeled
3 garlic cloves, peeled
4 lemongrass stalks, sliced
19mm ginger, peeled
19mm fresh turmeric, peeled
25mm galangal, peeled and sliced
6 red chillies, deseeded
1½ tbsp coriander powder
1 tbsp aniseed powder
1 tsp cumin powder
2 tbsp chilli paste or 10 dried chilies
Combine the spice paste ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
Combine chicken, spice paste and coconut paste into the pot and simmer for 30 minutes or until the broth is almost gone.
Lower heat and stir in coconut paste. Season with salt and sugar. Add turmeric leaf and stir well before turning off the fire.