Ramadan, the holy month of Islam is upon us. The month where the majority of 1.6 billion Muslims the world over and 3.3 million Muslim Americans will fast daily from dawn to sunset refraining from sexual relations, smoking, food, and yes, even water.
Ramadan marks the month the Quran was revealed. This year, Ramadan runs from May 26th ending approximately June 24th where it will culminate in the major holiday of Eid-Al-Fitr. However, next year it won’t. The obvious question is “why not?” Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar; a lunar calendar, which begins and ends with the appearance of each new CRESCENT moon. Consequently, Ramadan moves back around ten days a year in our solar based Gregorian calendar. This ensures that Muslims the world over will experience both summer and winter day length fasts in their lifetime. Currently, we are experiencing some of the longest fasts with the inclusion of the summer solstice in Ramadan for the Northern Hemisphere. It should be noted that there are exemptions from fasting; for instance young children, the sick, elderly, pregnant, and so forth.
Now, while initially the concept of starving oneself might sound difficult, know that the arrival of Ramadan is a welcomed time of year for Muslims. By abstaining from food and water, one becomes more aware of what they have as well as more understanding of those who don’t. It is a period of increased piety, spiritual growth, and emphasizes time spent with family and friends. If you happen to interact with friends or colleagues who are fasting there is no need to apologize or feel “sorry”. While some days are undoubtedly difficult, fasting is done out of one’s own belief, never forced. And speaking personally, I am better for it.
During Ramadan, get-togethers and potlucks for Iftar, the sundown meal with which the fast is broken, are very common. Early morning meals are typically more of a family affair. Let’s be honest nobody is presentable at 4:00am so it’s better this way...
Now that you have some background on Ramadan, let’s talk about one of SASE’s favorite topics: the food! Ironically, this month of fasting is equally well known for its variety of foods. We make up for quantity with quality! Many specialty dishes are prepared during Ramadan Iftars with an emphasis on shareable finger foods. I wanted to share some different examples of Iftars including those from my own Bengali background. Note that much of this will hold true with only slight variations for the Indian subcontinent.
From Kuala Lampur to Kalamazoo. From Bahrain to Boston. From Jerusalem to Jamaica. One tradition holds true throughout the Muslim world during Iftar. All Muslims break their fasts with dates. It is not an absolute rule per say, more of an accepted tradition started by our Prophet Muhammad. Don’t worry if you happen to run out and are in a pinch. By all means, your fast still counts! Medically speaking, dates are high in natural sugar restoring low blood sugar levels after a day’s fast. As far as that oh-so-important first drink, water or milk are most common.
Fried foods. Yes, my friends, nothing quite hits the spot after a days fast like it. Typically, besan or gram flour is used to coat anything and everything eggplant, potatoes, spinach, zucchini, cauliflower, onions, car tires… okay, maybe not that last one... to create tempura fritters. Above is a typical street market in Dhaka, Bangladesh selling such fried goods. Below is a family setting more typical to which I grew up with in the States. Items such as fresh fruit, chickpeas dishes, samosas, and sweets are very common. Heavier rice and meat dishes follow.
As far as drinks, my family normally had a tall glass of milk. If we could find it, we would often add RoohAfza, a fruity syrup concentrate that is dead center in a heated debate within the Muslim community at large and the subject of memes galore. You must pick a side. There is no in between. Recently, a friend of mine sumarized it as “looking like strawberry milk but tasting and smelling of roses.” Just try it. #TeamRoohAfza
Another item I’d like to highlight here is biryani. More so a class of food than a specific dish, biriyani in its most basic form is spiced rice with the addition of a protein. This leaves the door open to many regional variations with no two family recipes being exactly the same. This is our version of a “grandma’s stuffing” scenario if you will. (Does anybody else remember that episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?!”) Some well known biryani styles include Hyderabadi biryani, Bombay biryani, and tehari.
Ramadan really offers a special atmosphere and is a wonderful time to travel the Muslim world. My own parents will soon be departing for Bangladesh to celebrate amongst family and friends as of my writing this. Many flock to the Middle East and India and Pakistan as well. Take Ramadan into account the next time you travel somewhere in the Muslim world or places with a big Muslim population!
As wonderful as the food is, at the end of the day if you ask anyone fasting what really makes Ramadan special for them it is the sense of community. The time spent breaking bread with family and friends. A chance to refocus and think about what really matters. An opportunity to reset. And this extends to non-Muslims as well! Reach out to your local Muslim community if you’d like to participate in one of the countless Iftars held at Masjids across the nation. Muslim readers! Invite over friends so they have a better understanding of your background and customs. Ideally, learning about each other more will bring us all closer together and foster a better sense of understanding and tolerance. This is especially important during this climate of harsh political and ideological divide.
Eventually, the evenings at the Masjid become routine. The early morning meals second nature. And the a.m. IHOP runs with friends a weekly staple. Then, before you know it, another Ramadan passes us by. Once concluded, we look forward to Eid-Al-Fitr, the Muslim festival marking the completion of fasting. This is when everyone breaks out their fancy outfits and celebrates while quite possibly making up all the missed meals and then some! Eid is normally a 3 day affair. But most in the States don’t have the luxury of taking off so much time. This included me throughout most of my schooling. It is my hope that more and more school systems and workplaces will begin to recognize Eid and grant holidays as many major metropolitan areas have already begun to do. Hopefully you now agree it is well earned!
It is my hope I’ve been able to further your understanding of Ramadan, that weird, super-intense, yearly cleanse your Muslim friends do…I mean not even water?! But, at the very least, the pictures were pretty hype though, right?
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