Sweet sustenance

Food Qamar al Din, a carotene-rich drink made with apricots, is an iftar favourite.

Qamar al Din, roughly translated as either "moon of religion" or "moon of the faithful", is a Ramadan juice made from apricot fruit leathers. A substantial yet vitamin-filled beverage, it is a hugely popular way to break the fast. The main ingredient in Qamar al Din is sun-dried apricots that have been cooked down into sticky fruit leathers. The fruit leathers are stacked and packaged into a yellow cellophane-covered brick which are sold at grocery stores throughout the Middle East during this time of year. To make the drink, home cooks and restaurants alike soak the fruit leathers in water and then cook them down with more water and sugar until it reaches the right consistency.

Though breaking the fast with dates is a long-standing tradition, drinking juices at iftar has long been popular in the Arab world, an area known for its love of and expertise with sweets. But this is no ordinary sugary treat. "Qamar al Din is a juice made from apricots, which pack a powerful punch when it comes to nutrition," says Michelle Gelok, an Abu Dhabi-based dietician. "The compound that gives apricots their orange hue is also responsible for the health benefits they impart." Gelok praises apricots for their high quotient of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant which, once converted into vitamin A in the body, helps to maintain healthy vision. Antioxidants are crucial to good health in general, adds Gelok, who notes that they help protect cells against oxidative damage and may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Sure, there are plenty of other juices to choose from at Ramadan, like tamar hind, a sweetly tart tamarind drink, karkade, made from dried hibiscus flowers, and jallab, a murky-looking concoction of rosewater, dates and raisins. But not just any juice will do. For many fasters, it must be the juice made of dried apricots, since the others are either too tangy or too out-of-the-ordinary to really enjoy in significant amounts. Apricots, on the other hand, are appealing and familiar to nearly every palate. The mere mention of Qamar al Din is likely to awaken nostalgia for Ramadans past, since the drink is strongly associated with the Islamic holy month.

Popular throughout the Arab world, Qamar al Din is perhaps best loved in Egypt and the Levant where apricots have long flourished. Some claim, however, that the drink may have an Ottoman Turkish origin. "I hear from history that they started to do it during the Turkish occupation of Arabic countries," says Basel Mounawar, the head oriental chef of the Emirates Palace's Ramadan Tent. "The Turkish started to do this and the Arabs - they followed it after that."

The word for apricot derives from the Latin "praecoquus", which means "ripe early", so-called because its fruit matures before others in the prune-peach family from which it comes. The apricot originated in Asia, but truly began thriving once planted in Armenia. From there, the fruit came to then-Mesopotamia before spreading into Europe and North Africa with the Arab conquerors of the golden age of Islam. Though Turkey has long been the largest apricot producer in the region, a Turkish colloquial saying, "The only thing better than this is an apricot from Syria", which means "it doesn't get much better than this", does seem to concede that Syria's apricots are superior. In fact, the most famous producers of Qamar al Din fruit leather is the Syrian food company al Durra, which exports it along with other regional specialities out of their Damascus headquarters.

The apricots are often picked during the early summer. "After this season, they take the apricots and dry [them] for two months in the sun," says Mounawar. "After that, they make it like marmalade - they boil it with sugar syrup." Once the consistency is right, the sticky-sweet mixture is formed into blocks, then sliced to become fruit leather worthy of the name Qamar al Din. To make the fruit leathers into a drink, the Qamar al Din sheets are broken down overnight in warm water and then boiled the next day with more water and sugar syrup. The mixture is well strained to remove any fibrous filaments, and chilled before it quenches the fasters' thirst.

Physicians as far back as Avincenna (known in Arabic as Ibn Sina) in the 11th century have praised apricots as a cure for everything from nerves to dehydration - a common complaint among fasters - making juice from apricots seem like a logical step. "Since beverages aren't consumed during the day during Ramadan, it is important to meet your fluid requirements before and after fasting in order to stay hydrated," says Gelok. "Juices, including Qamar al Din, will contribute to your total fluid intake and help to rehydrate the body after fasting."

"We serve it for iftar because it has a lot of sugar for fasters who need sugar, as well as vitamin A and C," agrees Dominique Morin, the executive chef at La Brasserie restaurant at Le Meridien Abu Dhabi. "It's highly calorific but can be absorbed easily into the body. It gets sugar into the body for rapid consumption." At his restaurant, Morin likes to stick to tradition and serve Qamar al Din exactly this way, with only water and sugar added to the dried apricots. "This constitutes the first thing they consume," says Morin. "We respect tradition here and the tradition is to serve it as a drink." However, he says that he would love to add fresh mint and ginger during the preparation for a sophisticated touch. "Just a little bit to get the scent and perfume in," Morin says.

Although it is commonly served as a beverage in the Emirates as well as other Gulf countries, Egyptians also use the versatile fruit leathers to make an apricot pudding for dessert. Turning the Qamar al Din base mixture into a pudding takes only a few more steps and hardly any extra preparation time, since it's made in much the same way as the beverage. "The pudding is different, but you do it the same way," says Mounawar. "You soak [Qamar al Din] in the water overnight; the next day you boil it and you add something else - starch. Keep it cool in the bowl and maybe add some milk, muhallabia-style [cooked ground-rice pudding with milk and almonds], and make it in two layers."

Mounawar adds that sliced raw apricots are also lovely in the pudding and bring something fresh to the dessert. Other options to incorporate into the pudding, as ingredients or decoration, include walnuts, almonds, raisins and coconut shavings.

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