Photo by Soman/WikipediaOne thing I've learned, living in Ramallah all these years: It is best to walk to a Ramadan feast. Driving before the fast breaks can be dangerous, as drivers with growling stomachs speed home in time for the meal that ends the day's long abstention from eating.
Ten minutes before the call to prayer announcing that the day is over, a welcome calm descends on the streets of the city. Traffic comes to a standstill. The only sounds that can be heard are the clinking of the cutlery and crockery as the Ramadan table is set. Blissful sounds to an empty stomach.
Not mine, however. Being a Christian, I do not observe the fast. But last year was different. Last year I did celebrate with friends of mine, and out of respect to my hosts, I had skipped lunch. So by the late afternoon, I too was beginning to feel pangs of hunger and walked with quickened steps that echoed in the empty streets.
The guests included a mix of Muslims and Christians. Many a Ramadan meal is enjoyed with Christian friends and neighbors, just as special Christian dishes and sweets are shared daily amongst members of the two religions that have lived, mostly harmoniously, in Palestine for centuries.
As is common, on this evening the fast was broken by consuming a date or two. Then a thin lentil soup was sipped and salads were eaten. All of these were delicious, but the most special part of the meal were the stuffed carrots.
Not being a meat or poultry eater, I had been promised a vegetarian meal. But I was worried this could be resented by the other guests who might prefer to eat meat. Luckily, everyone was as delighted as I was with the excellent food our generous hosts had prepared. The hostess was from Jerusalem and her husband from Nablus, a region famous for its sweets. They had divided the cooking between them: She had prepared the main meal, he did the dessert. A perfect division, I thought.
This was not the first time I had eaten stuffed carrots (called mahshi) but I never remembered it being so tasty. These carrots are not the thin orange variety that Bugs Bunny chomps in cartoons but rather reddish brown, short, odd-shaped roots. They were peeled, then hollowed out using the tip of a knife. This is not a simple task: One of the guests described how his mother used to send him to the carpenter to use a drill to hollow the carrots out. The cook then fills them with a mixture of rice, tomatoes, olive oil, cinnamon, and crushed walnuts (and, sometimes meat). But these had such a tangy sweet and sour taste. I was told the secret was dried mint and tamarind paste, called tamar hindi, which had been added to the sauce. The sweet flavor of the carrot mixed with the tangy tamarind, a Persian import, and produced the closest example of a sweet-and-sour dish available in Palestinian cuisine. As I savored the delicious taste of the stuffed carrots swimming in the gleaming crimson sauce peppered with mint, I marveled at the mix of influences from around the Middle East that produced this special dish.
I thought the dessert, knafa, could only be had in sweets shops, but my host produced the delicious dessert in no time. He placed the sweet white Nablus cheese on a thin layer of phyllolike pastry and cooked it over a light fire. It was served soaked in a lemony syrup enhanced with a touch of rosewater.
When I left my hosts after this superb meal, the streets were coming back to life. There were cars on the roads again, but now they drove slowly. The sidewalks were filled with pedestrians, mainly satisfied young men, their cigarette tips glowing in the dark. They seemed to relish both the evening breeze and the fact that they could smoke out in the open again without offending those observing the fast. Many were on their way to the various street cafes now open or to attend one of the different festive events in celebration of this most joyful and holy of all the months of the year. There were more sweets to be bought from the many peddlers lining the street. At one stall I found salty barazek, the thin crackers filled with sesame seeds, a specialty of Jerusalem during Ramadan, and I consumed those with great relish as I ambled down the busy streets.
Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and author. His latest book is Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape (Scribner), which won the Orwell Prize for 2008.
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