There is an expertise to Isaam's technique as he serves Al Aqssa Sweets' kunafa that can only be gained from executing the same motion thousands of times. It's so precise that, as he carries out a seemingly never-ending stream of Ramadan orders, his work fills this Abu Dhabi establishment with its own rhythm.
It begins with the crunch, then clank, of a stub-handled spatula striking the aluminium tray as it cuts through a two-finger-thick spread of fresh kunafa. That beat is followed by a scrape as the spatula is wedged underneath the portioned slice. And then a pause as he lifts the piece skyward, stretching out stubborn strings of nabulsi cheese, before finally laying this warm delight on to a plate. This ritual happens in a matter of seconds and the theatrics seemingly go unnoticed. But for the hundreds of fasters who frequent the family business during Ramadan, gratitude is found in silence.
Ramadan is often a chance to break with the high-strung tempo of daily life, to embrace a slower, more introspective month of prayer and gathering. But for certain establishments in the capital, the holy month is their busiest of the year, and serving hungry fasters seasonal specialities to take home, often just before iftar, can be a monumental task.
In the hour leading up to the Maghreb prayer, Al Aqssa often struggles to keep up with the hundreds of customers who flock to its Tourist Club location. There’s an apian march of servers navigating metre-wide trays full of kunafa through the crowded store.
Before iftar, the line at Al Aqssa, named after the holy mosque in Jerusalem, is at its busiest, often spilling out on to the streets. The traffic hits fever pitch in the half-hour leading up to iftar, as fasters line up, to time their order perfectly.
“Kunafa needs to be served hot,” says Fawaaz Hanoon, one of the owner’s sons. “This is why there’s a pace to this line. Before iftar, as you see it; after the call to prayer, everyone disappears. At least, until they return for suhoor,” he says, laughing.
Over at Al Rayan in Khalidiya, which has been serving patrons since 1975, falafel is a year-round staple. But during Ramadan, diners delight at a special addition found at the heart of these fluffy vegetarian indulgences. Falafel mahshi, literally meaning stuffed falafel, are served almost exclusively during Ramadan at this Abu Dhabi establishment.
Orders are placed to two pairs of hands visible through a makeshift drive-through window at the four-table restaurant. Orders are rarely acknowledged, as those hands are too busy scooping the ground contents of falafel and dropping them into frying oil. Nonetheless, as uncertainty mounts as to whether the faceless individual has understood your order, which is usually just a number indicating how many falafel you want, a brown paper bag full of fried delights appears.
The process of moulding a normal falafel is similar to scooping ice cream, whereas the mahshi is a delicate balance of proportionality. It requires a specific technique, as the combination of ground green fava beans and herbs encircles a stuffing of sauteed onions and chilli paste. The challenge, the Khalidiya store manager Osama explains, is in ensuring that the falafel aren’t overstuffed and at risk of erupting in the cauldron of frying oil.
Al Rayan's Ramadan speciality dispels the age-old argument against these stuffed delights, as some insist that the stuffing dries out the ground chickpea and fava bean concoction. These nuggets somehow manage to retain everything, with a little kick in the middle.
"At least 2,000 falafel a day," says Osama of his output during the holy month. "Falafel are often associated with Ramadan, as a quick way to replenish your body. Falafel is a nice, light dish to break your fast; yes it's fried, but it's very hearty and sometimes it's what your body needs."
Ahmed, who comes to the store on a weekly basis, says the falafel, steaming in a paper bag in his car as he drives back home, are tempting. "Anyone who has ever bought falafel knows there is an almost unspoken rule – if you buy them, you get to enjoy one on the way home," he says. "So you can imagine how tempting it is during Ramadan."
Dough dropped in frying oil is nothing special, but in Lgymat and Rgag, the Ramadan magic is added after the balls emerge from the fryer. The cooks at the restaurant scoop the namesake desserts out of the oil, and quickly drench them in thick and sticky date molasses, before sprinkling the little nuggets with a heavy dosing of sesame.
"This is the trick," says store manager Mohammed, as he juggles what seems like dozens of orders coming in. "You get them while they are still hot." The establishment on Airport Road is no larger than a small Baqala, and is tucked between a row of restaurants that has popped up over the past few years. It might be difficult to believe that the dozens of cars lined up outside are all waiting for orders from this restaurant. But doubts can be dispelled by any attempt at calling the restaurant, which will invariably be met by a busy dial, and a look at the number of workers employed here, most of whom are busy shuttling orders between the kitchen and cars.
These little dough ball are a weakness for Emirati chef Khaled Al Saadi, and he admits to abandoning his ethos of eating healthily, if just for a moment, to gorge on what is his Ramadan delight. "How can you not like them?" he asks.