For Muslims around the world, fasting, self-reflection and working towards a closer bond with God are of primary importance during the holy month.
But as any hungry worshipper will tell you, food also plays a vital role. When the fast is broken at sunset, the iftar meal is often a festive affair, shared with family and friends, and shaped by the different cultures, traditions and recipes of the varied nationalities that make up the Muslim population.
Nedina Mehmedovic from Bosnia, who lives in Dubai with her Syrian husband and their two children, 7-year-old Ammar and 6-year-old Laila, and who is also the founder of the Kids Zone play areas in Dubai, makes a point of upholding the traditions of her home country when preparing the iftar meal. Still, there are particular Ramadan foods that are not easily accessible in the UAE, and that she misses at this time of year.
What's on the menu
"We have a special bread, it's called lepinja or somun in Bosnia, and it is so soft and airy, and smells amazing, topped with black seeds and cumin. Everybody buys this bread at Ramadan. In Bosnia, you will see long queues in front of all the bakeries just before iftar time and at suhoor time. Every household wants to have a fresh batch of this bread, and I really miss it," she says.
Chorba, a form of soup, is a staple on the family's dinner table during iftar, and is usually the start of the meal. "It consists of potatoes and mixed vegetables, and sometimes we add lamb. It gives you energy, and it is light on the stomach, so we always start with that," says Mehmedovic.
Then comes the pièce de résistance – the pies, known as pitas in Bosnian. Each type of filling gives the pita a different name, such as burek or sirnica. Mehmedovic makes her pitas with three types of fillings – cheese, spinach and a minced meat mixture, all baked from scratch. Considered the appetisers, these pies are essentials during Ramadan.
The main dish will often feature potatoes of some sort. "Potatoes feature heavily in our cuisine," says Mehmedovic. "I make potatoes and chicken roasted in the oven, or peppers stuffed with a meat and rice mixture, cooked with sliced potatoes, or a meat and potato dish that my children love."
For dessert, tufahije is a family favourite, and consists of whole apples stewed in water and sugar, and stuffed with walnuts and raisins, then topped with whipped cream. The smell, says Mehmedovic, is divine, and the soft and juicy dessert is often served during Eid as well.
Mixing Islamic values and Bosnian traditions
The aroma of irresistible food can be as bittersweet as it is welcome, and for Azmina Rahic, the smell of her mother's recipes cooking on the stove triggers excitement about the advent of Ramadan. The sticky-sweet smell of halva wafting through the Rahic home in London, Ontario, tickling the senses and drawing Azmina and her siblings from all corners of the house to the kitchen, has always been the family's way of celebrating the start of the holy month.
Although she was born and raised in Canada, Rahic is a proud Bosnian, raised by parents who were adamant about passing on the traditions of their culture and religion to their children.
"Our Islamic values and our Bosnian traditions have always been really important to us, and kept strong in our household," says Rahic, who is a teacher in Abu Dhabi. "During Ramadan, I miss my family and my mother's cooking the most. I miss gathering around the sofra – the table spread – with the family. I miss the smells associated with the month. It's a very special time for us at home."
Like Mehmedovic’s family, Rahic’s family also make sure their iftar includes soup – they are partial to begova corba or bey’s soup, a classic Bosnian chicken and okra soup, simmered for a time and then thickened, served with pitas on the side and yogurt to drink.
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"My parents really like making their own yoghurt, we always have it for iftar to quench our thirst," says Rahic. Her mother also often makes a rice pudding known as sutlijach. "My siblings and I love the sweet version, garnished with almonds and cinnamon as a dessert after iftar or to eat for suhoor, but my father would always ask for a more savoury version," she says.
This Ramadan, as an ode to her family in Canada, Rahic will be making her version of mantije for friends, using squares of filo pastry. Similar to burek, mantije is the mini version, stuffed with minced meat, potatoes and onions, and glazed with sour cream.
It is her way of sharing her culture, despite the lack of halva to serve with the obligatory cup of Bosnian coffee at the end of iftar. “I’d do anything for a piece of my mother’s halva,” she says.
Bosnian iftar recipes
1 block unsalted butter (450g)
6 cups boiled water
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
Melt the butter in pot.
Add flour and stir continuously until the butter takes on a warm caramel colour.
Add the sugar and then immediately add the water. Stir until everything sticks together and attains a crumbly texture.
Use a tablespoon to scoop and mould the mixture into oval shapes. Sprinkle grounded walnuts on top.
Serve hot or cold.
Shared by Azemina Rahic
4 medium apples (a bit under ripe for best results), peeled and cored
2 cups sugar
3 cups water
Juice from ½ lemon
½ cup walnuts
1 tablespoon raisins
Whipped cream to serve
In a pan large enough for four apples, add enough sugar and water to cover the apples (start with the given amounts and then add more, if necessary, based on the size and shape of your pan). Bring to a boil, and simmer for a few minutes, stirring to dissolve all the sugar. Add the lemon juice.
Add the apples to the simmering syrup and leave to stew until they are just soft enough to poke with a fork (about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on their size and ripeness). Make sure not to overcook.
Remove the apples from the syrup and allow the apples and the syrup to cool. The syrup can be stored in the same container as the apples after it is chilled, or it can be kept separately.
Coarsely chop the walnuts and raisins, and stuff the apples with this mixture once they are cool enough to handle. Chill until ready to serve.
Serve the apples in individual bowls, with some of syrup, and top with whipped cream.
Shared by Nedina Mehmedovic