For cookbook author Anissa Helou, traveling during the month of Ramadan offers a surprising entrée into Muslim culture–and hour upon hour of joyful feasting.
It was just before sunset, and the square of Al Hussein mosque in Cairo was packed. People were sitting at outdoor tables at the many restaurants and cafés lining the square, but despite the crowds, no one was talking. And although the tables were laid with small plates of bread, dates, ivory tahina (a lemony dip made with tahini), and vibrant fattoush (an herb and toasted bread salad), no one was eating. Everyone was motionless, seemingly indifferent to the food in front of them. Except, that is, for one young boy, reaching for the bread, who was tenderly held back by his veiled mother.
I was in Cairo during Ramadan, the Muslim month of sawm, or fast, when the faithful are not allowed any food or drink from sunrise to sunset. Everyone was waiting for the muezzin to announce the setting of the sun in order to begin the iftar, the meal that breaks the sawm. Though the boy was too young to fast, he was expected to respect those patiently waiting. Even I, a Christian, was expected to wait.
As the sun turned the square rosy, the haunting sound of the muezzin’s call echoed across the sand-colored stone. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, as people eased back into eating and drinking again. I dipped my bread into the silky tahina, the square came to life, and the sounds of joyful chatter mingled with the smells of grilled meat and the other substantial dishes to come.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, and almost all Muslims, even those who are not very religious, observe it as a time of reflection, piety, and charity. In the Arab world especially, life takes on a different rhythm. The days are slow and sleepy as people rest more and work less. The nights, however, are alive with festivity. Those who are well off gather with their families to feast and enjoy each other’s company, and those who are less privileged gather in mosques or in tents set up for them in public places to partake in iftars provided by wealthier patrons. In most countries, special restaurant tents are set up to serve a lavish iftar and, before dawn, suhur (the last meal before the fast starts again) for those wishing to dine out.
I grew up in Beirut, where we lived in the Muslim part of the city, with neighbors who, during Ramadan, would either invite us over for iftar or send us food—usually sweets such as date cookies, but also savory dishes such as stuffed grape leaves. But it wasn’t until I started researching my latest book, Feast: Food of the Islamic World, that I sought to visit Muslim countries specifically to explore Ramadan. For three years running, I traveled to such places as Oman and Zanzibar and Indonesia during that month, participating in iftars whenever I could.
All iftars—or futari, as the meal is known in Zanzibar, or buka puasa in Indonesia—share the same basic principles, but each country has its own traditional foods associated with the breaking of the fast. In Egypt, it’s typically tahina or fattoush. In Kuwait, people follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who is said to have broken his fast with exactly three dates. They dip theirs in tahini, an unlikely but winning combination, while in Qatar the dates are eaten with yigit, a kind of fresh curd. The iftar in both Lebanon and Syria starts with a smoothie-like apricot drink, as well as fattoush and baba ghanoush (an eggplant and tahini dip). Throughout Indonesia, people first consume sweet drinks such as cendol (made with coconut milk and jelly noodles), then rice, fish, and gado gado (a vegetable and egg salad served with shrimp crackers and peanut sauce).
I ate one of my most memorable meals in Zanzibar, where the whole of Stone Town, a former trading hub that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site, empties for the hour of futari as everyone goes home to break the fast. My guide, Ismail, brought me to his mother’s house, where I stood in the courtyard and watched her make the sesame bread that anchors the meal. She beat and lifted a very loose dough, which she then spread into an aluminum pan and placed over the wood fire. When the edges of the dough started to crisp up, she turned the pan upside down to char the top. I gasped as she did, expecting the bread to fall into the fire. But it was firmly stuck to the pan, thanks to the water she had sprinkled before spreading the dough. We ate the hot bread minutes later, sitting on colorful straw mats spread on the floor in the courtyard, a joyful conclusion to a solemn day.