"Food is a big part of Ramadan," writes author and cooking teacher May S. Bsisu in her book The Arab Table. "Every evening of the holy month is likely to present several calls for delicious food -- and plenty of it." Growing up in Kuwait and Lebanon, Bsisu remembers breaking the daily sunup-to-sundown fasts with "memorable meals": plump dates and cool fruit juice, warming soup, succulent roast lamb, and numerous other treats. Drawn from these memories, her travels, and the dishes she now prepares for her own family in Ohio, Bsisu's recipes for Ramadan (see below) reflect the breadth of the Arab world. She sat down with Epicurious to share tips on celebrating this special holiday.
Recipes For Every Occasion
Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from both food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Once the sun sets and the fast ends, a series of beloved culinary traditions stretch through the night:
A Slow Start: The fast is traditionally broken slowly, with dates and a glass of water, followed by hydrating juices and soup. The dates hark back to a belief that the Prophet Mohammed used this fruit to break his fast. The juices often include jallab, a sweet, refreshing beverage made from berries and garnished with pine nuts. To break the fast, Bsisu shared an Orange Lentil Soup that's a common Ramadan dish in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Treats for the Little Ones: In some Muslim countries, the setting of the sun is marked by a tradition similar to the American Halloween. Groups of children walk through the streets, carrying lanterns and visiting the homes of family and friends, who give them candy and sweets at each stop.
The Main Event: After the initial dates and soup, many people pause and say the magrib (evening prayers). Then a bountiful meal, iftar, is served. Iftar is a nightly feast, with meat dishes accompanied by numerous salads, side dishes, and flatbread. Bsisu shared a recipe for a Stuffed Leg of Lamb with a fragrant spice rub and piquant sauce.
Sweet Snacks: After dinner and throughout the evening, a glorious selection of sweets is served. "Arabs don't often eat pastries," says Bsisu. "We generally have fruit for dessert. But at Ramadan, we do a lot of baking." Ramadan evenings are a social time. "Even if you're too busy to see some people the rest of the year, you make sure you see them at Ramadan," says Bsisu. "On the first day of the holiday, our phone never stops ringing." Nearly every night, guests are invited for dinner, and people visit with friends and neighbors until the early morning. The hours are spent playing cards, eating sweets, drinking tea, and smoking an argila, or hookah, filled with "tobacco" made from fruit. For late-night snacking, Bsisu shared recipes for Semolina Pistachio Layer Cake and Sage Tea.
Before Sunrise: Either late at night or just before dawn, a final meal, called suhur, is eaten before the start of the next fast. It usually consists of light but nourishing foods to carry fasters through the day, plus more sweets. For suhur, Bsisu shared Pull-Away Cheese Rolls, a recipe of her own invention that features a fluffy dough with an herbed filling.
The Great Feast: Ramadan ends with a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr, which will begin this year on October 24. After a month of fasting during daylight hours, celebrants luxuriate at an enormous midday banquet. The meal traditionally features a roasted whole baby lamb, but Bsisu's Stuffed Leg of Lamb -- more manageable and equally delicious -- works just as well for this occasion as it does for iftar.
Eid "is a time of universal good cheer, like Christmas," says Bsisu. Presents and well-wishes are exchanged and a joyous atmosphere prevails. Homemade treats and fruit are also given throughout the month, in particular prized Medjool dates, considered a perfect hostess gift. "Look for the Oasis brand from California," says Bsisu. "They're so big and juicy -- the ultimate delicacy."
Pan-Arabic Ramadan RecipesSarah Kagan has been with Epicurious.com for more than five years and has been the site's food editor for the past two years. She has worked as an editor at culinary publications for a total of nearly ten years. She has written for the Zagat guides and Food Arts magazine, among others, and has appeared as a television cooking expert on MSNBC and NY1.
Photo by Anna Williams
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