Taste of Ramadan from the Heartland
Ramadan, although primarily about fasting, is also about food and most importantly - family. It is a time when people visit family members or friends and break bread after a long day of fasting.
Some families that invited us to their iftars revealed that while the essence of praying, fasting and family gatherings is common across the world, there are some cultural elements that immigrants and expatriate residents bring with them from their ‘heartlands’ .
Food is usually one way to remember the heartland and that is how multitudes of expatriates end their fast in Oman - with a prayerful spirit and native delicacies that help them stay in touch with their culture.
Iranian citizen Shiva Mallal talks about the bazaars of Tehran that buzz with activity just an hour before iftar. Food vendors and sweetshops are filled with people who then rush home to break the fast with their families.
A fond memory of iftar in Iran that Shiva recollects is the one of her father coming home with sweets and a pot of haleem or some ash reshteh - a thick vegetable and noodle soup. “We break our fasts with simple, light foods such as fresh cheese, vegetables and sweet dishes like fereni,” says Shiva and adds that “dinners are grand”.
“One part of Ramadan is of course, your family and your mother’s cooking.” And that is a key element of Ramadan that she misses in Muscat.
At her sister-in-law’s home where a typical Iranian iftar table has been set up, Shiva introduces the ash reshteh along with other Iranian delicacies such as the fereni (Persian milk pudding), sweetmeats and Iranian tea complete with sticks of saffron sugar.
Kidney beans 1/2 cup
Chickpeas 1/2 cup
Navy beans 1/2 cup
Chopped parsley 1 cup
Chopped spinach 1 cup
Chopped coriander 1 cup
Chopped dill 1 cup
Linguine (Persian noodles) 500g
Large onions 2
Flour 2 tbsp
Vegetable oil 3 tbsp
Chopped mint, fresh or dry 2 tbsp
Kashk (whey) or sour cream 1 cup
Turmeric 1 tbsp
Salt 1 tbsp
Black pepper 1 tsp
1. Put the kidney beans, navy beans and chickpeas in a large pot, add water and let cook until tender and set aside.
2. Boil 6 cups of water in a large pot and add parsley, spinach, dill and coriander to it. Let cook for 20 minutes.
3. Break up the noodles into strands of a couple of inches in length and add to the mixture and let simmer until they are cooked. Then add the flour to it.
4. Slice the onions and saute them in a pan with vegetable oil until the colour turns golden.
5. Add salt, turmeric, pepper and mint to onions. stir and add to the pot with noodles and vegetables.
6. Add cooked legumes (kidney beans, navy beans and chickpeas) to the pot. Place the lid on and let it cook for 30 minutes over low heat.
7. Place ash reshteh in a large serving bowl and top with sauteed onion and whey.
For Sami Muctar, Ramadan in Addis Ababa is business as usual. “There is no change in timings nor shortened working hours,” and that is one thing that he is thankful for in Oman. In Addis Ababa, there are no visible changes in the societal environment to indicate that it’s Ramadan.
But there is a rise in charitable works and religious teachings. People visit each other, break their fast with family and neighbours. “This is a time when there are lots of house visits and also guests.”
With his family back in Ethiopia, Muctar misses traditional dishes like hulbat marakh, a fenugreek-laden meat and vegetable stew. “It’s a very traditional dish back in Ethiopia, which takes a long time to make as it is slow-cooked to perfection, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s mostly the older women in the family who make it.”
It is usually eaten with injera - a spongy flatbread.
As for the name of the dish, simply translated, it means fenugreek broth.
Aya Ahmed is a Sudanese- Canadian, currently living in Muscat. Although she has never lived in Sudan, she says that Sudanese food has been a connecting point to her ancestral culture. In Canada, Ramadan fasting for Aya was usually a ‘long-lasting’ affair. “We had longer hours of fasting back in Canada but the heat was hardly a bother there,” she says in comparison to the Muscat summer.
Speaking of the Sudanese food culture during Ramadan, she says, “In Sudan it’s about the meal itself, where you sit with your family and enjoy breaking the fast.” This is one element that she values the most from her culture. “In a lot of countries the importance of the meal itself is lost with the busy pace of life.”
Sudanese food is heavy and the iftar is not a light affair either. “We eat a proper meal with carbs and meat when we break our fast,” says Aya.
One of the Sudanese dishes that she relishes is the asida which is a staple food made from grains, commonly sorghum, red millet or corn. It is eaten with almost every meal, be it meats, stews, fish or vegetables. Refined white wheat flour is not appropriate for making asida as the high gluten content can make the asida too sticky.