We talk to Muslims of different cultures who share their childhood memories of iftar and their favourite family recipes that make a rare appearance during Ramadan.
As dusk falls across the region this evening, iftar tables will once again be filled to capacity as dish after dish of delectable food is uncovered. In homes, restaurants and community centres, people will come together to break fast and soak up the sights, smells, colours and flavours that are unique to this time of year.
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Given the multicultural nature of the UAE, it is hardly surprising that the type of food on offer varies from gathering to gathering, depending, for the most part, upon the background of the host. Ramadan is, after all, considered a time for commemorating family and often with food; each culture has recipes, traditions and dishes unique to it, many of which are specific to the holy month.
Sukaina Rajabali grew up in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and lived there until she was 18. When reminiscing about iftars past, she remembers drinking tea and eating east African sweets such as vitumbuas (fried rice cakes, flavoured with coconut and cardamom), mandazis (spiced doughnut-like pastries), kalimati (sweet dumplings) and vibibis (rice pancakes made with coconut). "Coconut-based dishes are common in our family during Ramadan. I think this is because the combination of coconut and rice is heavy and filling, keeping you full longer! And it is very abundant and cheap in east Africa."
Although she now lives in Dubai with her husband and young daughter, during Ramadan, Rajabali - like many other people I spoke to - cooks the food that she remembers from her childhood. "It brings back great memories of sitting at our iftar table, waiting for the athan to sound. In the past, when the athan wasn't on TV, we would open the windows and wait to hear the sound from the local mosque. Food brings back good memories."
Rajabali says that rather than specific dishes, for her it is the array of food that really makes iftar meals memorable. "Normally, we would never have so much variety on the table nor would we typically eat so many sweet things. Only in Ramadan. Also, tea is infused with cardamom and vanilla pods, which we don't do all year round and there is raab - rice flour cooked with water or coconut milk, served sweet with sugar and cardamom or salty with pepper - which people often drink before praying."
Like millions of Muslims around the world, when the sun sets, Hina Khalid and Siddique Siddiqui break their fast with dates and water. After this, they stay true to their Pakistani heritage and enjoy a spiced fruit salad. This medley of diced apples, peaches, pears, grapes, guava and bananas tossed together with sugar, lemon juice, salt and black pepper is typically followed by chickpea salads, samosas and, of course, the much-loved pakora, thought to be Pakistan's most popular iftar dish. All this will, they tell me, often be washed down with glasses of rooh-afza, a syrup-based tonic, diluted with milk or water and infused with spices and rose petals.
If rooh-afza is well loved in Pakistan, then the Middle Eastern alternatives are surely qamar el-deen (a thick, sweet drink made from dried apricot), jallab (a mixture of dates, molasses and rose water), tangy tamer hindi (tamarind syrup, infused with water and lemon) and of course, Vimto.
Despite being a professional cook with an extensive repertoire of recipes at her disposal, during Ramadan, Dima Al Sharif finds herself craving food from her native Jordan. "I tend to get homesick during this month, so I like to cook dishes that my mum prepared when we were younger. Having lived abroad for almost 11 years now, to me childhood food is comfort; it makes living away from family a little easier and brings home that much closer."
For Al Sharif and her family, this means plenty of lentil soup ("Most people don't have soup as part of their daily routine, but during Ramadan, soup is a must"), fattoush and various types of fatteh (layers of fried bread, rice and meat topped with garlic yoghurt or tahini sauce) as well as festive dishes associated with large, celebratory gatherings. She includes stuffed whole lamb, the Jordanian classic mansaf - slow-cooked marinated meat in a thick yoghurt "jameed" sauce piled atop rice - and freekeh (roasted green wheat) with chicken on this list. When it comes to dessert, according to Sharif, the choice is clear: "No Ramadan menu is complete without qatayef (Arabic-style pancakes filled with nuts or cheese). If there is anything that spells Ramadan, then qatayef is it."
When I ask Al Sharif why she thinks that certain dishes are eaten exclusively during Ramadan, she makes a valid point: "I think it's because some preparations are time consuming and require a bit of work, which is a luxury that most people don't have during the rest of the year, especially those who have full-time jobs. In Ramadan, working days are shorter, which allows more time in the kitchen.
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"During Ramadan, cooking is the best-loved pastime, as it helps us to stay occupied ... people like to entertain and break their fast together, they also like to impress with their cookery skills and offer guests impressive, delicious food, all of which makes Ramadan food special and unique."
Shaima Al Tamimi and Latifa Al Shamsi, the authors of the UAE food blog Lgeimat Junkies, are also of the belief that "if you grow up having a certain dish in a special month, you can't help but feel how special this dish is as an adult". They say that harees (boiled barley and meat, beaten together and topped with ghee), lgeimat (fried dough dumplings, often drizzled with syrup) and thareed (wafer-thin bread in vegetable or meat stew) are "very typical Emirati comfort foods", hence their increased popularity during Ramadan. Al Shamsi explains: "Harees and thareed feature a hearty combination of meat and wheat/barley, which is very comforting and fulfilling after a long day of fasting. As for lgeimat, who could resist deep-fried dumplings drizzled with syrup? It's an instant sugar-rush for a sweet-deprived body."
As well as balaleet (sweet vermicelli noodles, flavoured with cardamom, rosewater and saffron and topped with a savoury spiced omelette), khabees (a sticky, flour-based dessert, often flavoured with cardamom, rose water and saffron) and aseed (a Yemeni dish, made from fishmeal), they tell me that: "Other non-Emirati dishes that usually find themselves in Emirati homes at iftar are Indian finger foods such as pakoras and samosas and Middle Eastern desserts such as qatayef and muhallabiyah (cold creamed rice pudding, flavoured with rose water).
According to Nawai Zioui from Casablanca, at nightfall during Ramadan there is no greater smell than that of harira warming on the stove. The spiced lentil and chickpea soup, which originates from north-west Africa, is, she says, the perfect thing for rejuvenating tired bodies, placating empty stomachs and even soothing aching hearts.
"Just the smell of it reminds me of the Moroccan Ramadan atmosphere. I had a hard time adjusting to the food here in Ramadan, unfortunately I'm not very good at cooking, but I made a point to learn how to make the dishes I enjoy the most. So every Ramadan with my friends I prepare my favourite soup: harira."
Zioui explains that as well as harira, shebakia ("a honey cake, which is essentially pretzel-shaped pieces of dough deep fried and dipped into honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds") and sellou ("a sweet which consists of mainly almonds and honey together with other dried nuts and grains/seeds") are both associated with Ramadan and other special occasions, such as weddings or baptisms.
"The reason for this is these dishes are very rich in sugar, vitamins and energy. After fasting, the body needs something nourishing. I strongly believe these dishes have most of the things a body needs at iftar."
Lgeimat by Shaima Al Tamini and Latifa Al Shamsi (Emirati dish)
1 tsp instant yeast
1 tbsp sugar
300ml warm water
½ tsp (pinch) saffron threads
65g all-purpose flour
180g whole-wheat flour
2 tbsp cornstarch
½ tsp salt
½ small pot plain yoghurt (at room
oil, for deep-frying
To serve: date/honey/sugar syrup
Add the yeast and sugar to the warm water and stir until dissolved. Sprinkle over the saffron threads and set aside until bubbles rise to the surface.
Mix the remaining dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Add the yoghurt and the yeast mixture and stir well. Leave the dough to rest in a warm place for one hour.
Half fill a deep, thick-based saucepan or deep-fat fryer with vegetable oil. Roll the dough into small balls and drop them into the hot oil. It takes a bit of practice to get the shape right; you could use a lgeimat dough-dropper for this, or fill a large sandwich bag with the dough, snip off the end of the bag, squeeze the dough on to a tablespoon that has been dipped in salted water and drop the balls into the oil.
Fry the dough for three minutes or until golden, turning frequently to ensure that they brown evenly. Drain the fritters on paper towels to absorb the excess oil, before topping with the date/honey/sugar syrup.
Fattet Fool Akhdar (Green bean fatteh) by Dima Al Sharif (Jordanian dish)
2 packets frozen broad beans, thawed and washed
480ml chicken or beef broth
3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
500g minced lamb or veal
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 bunches coriander, washed and finely chopped
salt and black pepper
For the yoghurt sauce:
1 kg fresh yoghurt (you can use low fat)
1 garlic clove, crushed
4 small pita breads, cut into bite-size squares and deep fried
1 bunch parsley, washed and finely chopped
150g pine nuts and almonds, toasted or fried
Tip the broad beans into a saucepan, pour over the chicken or beef broth, season with salt and black pepper (if needed) and add a dash of olive oil. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan, add the onion and cook for 3-4 minutes, until softened but not coloured. Add the minced lamb or veal, season and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is browned and any liquid that is released has evaporated.
In a separate pan, sauté the sliced garlic and finely chopped coriander in a tablespoon of olive oil until the coriander wilts (approximately 5 minutes). Add this to the pan containing the meat, along with a couple of ladlefuls of the broth. Stir well and bring the mixture to the boil, then remove the pan from the heat. Add the meat to the pan containing the broad beans and bring to a gentle simmer.
Prepare the yoghurt sauce by mixing the yoghurt and garlic together and seasoning with salt and black pepper.
To assemble, place the fried bread along the bottom of a large serving dish (traditionally a see through glass dish). Top with an even layer of the broad bean and meat mixture, then pour over the yoghurt sauce. Garnish with the toasted/fried nuts and the chopped parsley.
Vibibis (rice and coconut pancakes) by Sukaina Rajabali (Tanzanian dish)
110g basmati rice
100g Jasmine or Egyptian rice
240ml thick coconut milk (if the coconut milk is too runny, use 1/2 coconut milk and 1/2 coconut cream)
1 tsp yeast
180ml warm milk
90g desiccated coconut
1 tsp cardamom powder
vegetable oil, for frying
Rinse both types of rice and leave to soak overnight in water. Drain well and tip the rice into a blender, along with the coconut milk. Blend until smooth, add the sugar and yeast and blend again for 5 minutes.
Add 60ml of warm milk and the desiccated coconut and blend until the batter is completely smooth. Pour the mixture into a bowl, cover and leave to rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.
Stir in the rest of the warm milk and the cardamom powder. The mixture should have the consistency of pancake batter – if it is too thick, add a little more warm milk.
Heat a few drops of oil in a non-stick frying pan over a medium-low heat. Pour a small amount of batter into the pan (approximately half a measuring cup) and immediately cover with a glass lid.
Leave for a minute or so, until small holes appear all over the pancake. At this point, the pancake is ready-the top will be cooked by the steam. Repeat with the remaining mixture; if the batter becomes too thick, add more warm milk.
Place the pancakes in a hot pot until they are ready to be served. Stack the first one with the brown side down and the second one with the white side down. Continue to layer the pancakes in this way. Best served warm.
Sukaina Rajabali writes the blog Sips and Spoonfuls (www.sipsandspoonfuls.com). Shaima Al Tamimi and Latifa Al Shamsi write the blog Lgeimat Junkies (blog.lgeimatjunkies.com). Dima Al Sharif writes the blog Dima's Kitchen (www.dimaskitchen.blogspot.com)