Tonight marks the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. You can be cool and greet your friends who are observing this festival with Ramadan Mubarak (Have a Blessed Ramadan) or Ramadan Kareem (Have a Generous Ramadan).
So here’s the thing, I LOVE breaking a fast. And I kind of enjoy fasting in the ways that many Jews do, the one 25 hour fast—once a year on Yom Kippur. I think it’s a time to reflect on the past year and consider the year to come. Occasionally, I even have moments of transcendence. Sometimes they are in the synagogue but more often they are in the kitchen. And yes, you really aren’t supposed to cook on Yom Kippur, but I host a Break Fast every year (and have since I started fasting) and the Man and I get really into it. I also enjoy the challenge of cooking without tasting—it makes me feel a bit like a Hare Krishna. But I guess it’s also the daily challenge during the month of Ramadan.
Ramadan, as many know, is a month of mandatory fasting from dawn until sunset for Muslims around the world. This fasting period commemorates the first revelations of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. Fasting during Ramadan (sawm) is one of the five pillars of Islam and in this case includes abstention from food, drink, and sex during daylight hours. It’s not just about the “not eating” however. Muslims also practice restraint from generally sinful speech and behavior; for many, this month is seen as a spiritual jumpstart. No matter your behavior in the previous year, many Muslims choose to rededicate themselves to the tenets of their religion, increasing their attention to prayer and acts of charity. This month is seen as an opportunity to atone for previous sins, gain approval from Allah, and develop empathy for the suffering of others.
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
The ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, Ramadan can fall at any point in the Gregorian calendar year. And that means that the day of fasting can be shorter or longer depending on the season. The upside for the summer is that younger people are less likely to be in school, and don’t have to worry about the distraction of hunger pains. The downside is that the day is LONG.
Muslims who are fasting wake up early to have a hearty pre-dawn meal called suhoor. This meal needs to have a certain amount of fiber and protein in order to get you through the day (sawm is not meant to make practitioners suffer). Also, things you might not think about (at least at first): hydration. You need to hydrate. Buzzfeed has a great list of energy-releasing foods to eat for suhoor.
But for many Muslims who reminisce about Ramadans past, iftar (the breaking of the fast) is where it’s at.
There are certain foods that are typical for Ramadan, although there are also favorites that are determined by the timing of the festival. Certain dishes are preferred in the winter over the summer, for example. But usually the fast is broken simply, with a date, and followed up by feasting with friends. The mood is celebratory, more like Christmas than Lent or Yom Kippur. Because the reason for the fasting is to celebrate the revealed word of Allah.
One of our favorite soups is harira, a bean soup that is a traditional iftar meal in Morocco. It can be made with or without meat. Our favorite version is vegetarian and we eat it all year long. Somehow, the lack of meat seems to make it more suitable for a summer Ramadan. Honestly, this soup is so good and hearty, you could easily eat it for suhoor as well!
(Adapted from Kitty Morse’s North Africa: The Vegetarian Table)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, sliced
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
20 sprigs cilantro
20 sprigs flat-leaf Italian parsley
8 threads Spanish saffron, lightly crushed
8 cups water
1 cup lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 15-ounce can chickpeas (with their liquid)
1 15-ounce can foul madammas (with their liquid)*
1 teaspoon salt
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup broken dried egg noodles or orzo
1 egg, lightly beaten
Juice of 2 lemons (optional)
Heat oil in large soup pot over medium-high heat. Cook onions, stirring occasionally, until golden, 6-8 minutes. Meanwhile, puree tomatoes, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cilantro, parsley, saffron, salt and pepper in a blender or food processor (you might have to do this in batches). Add to the onions and bring to boiling. Add the water and lentils, cover tightly and lower heat to a simmer. Cook until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. Add the chickpeas and foul mudammas and bring back up to a low boil. Add the pasta and cook until tender, 6-7 minutes. Drop the egg in the soup and stir so it forms strands in the soup. Ladle harira into individual bowls and serve with lemon wedges and crusty bread.
*Foul madammas are canned fava beans. You can find them in some supermarkets in the Middle Eastern section, as well as in ethnic groceries and specialty food stores.
Other Savory Treats for Ramadan
I think I may have to agree. Here's to fried food and peace in our time. Ramadan Kareem, my friends.