Ramadan and Food

February 21, 2011

There are very few things in my life that I consider to be a living nightmare. Among them are eight hour transits at Dubai airport, running out of cooking gas just before your guests arrive, and inching through traffic on pay day.

However, at the very top of my nightmare list is going to any supermarket in Salalah the week before Ram-adan.

Before I start my spiel about supermarkets and food, I'd like to highlight the fact that, in addition to focusing on religion, one of the main purposes of fasting is to teach Muslims about patience, humility, and empathy for those who are less fortunate.

We are supposed to 'feel' hunger and count our blessings, thus becoming more charitable and willing to give to the poor. Many Omanis, on the other hand, seem to be doing the complete opposite.

Yes, we survive without food or water from sunrise to sunset, but then too much emphasis is placed on the preparation and consumption of the food with which we break the fast. In fact, most of my acquaintances end up gaining weight in Ramadan despite fasting for most of the day!

I needed to pick up a couple of urgent food items at one of Salalah's major supermarkets a couple of days before Ramadan started last week. It was just after three o'clock in the afternoon, and I thought I'd be able to run in quickly before the Ramadan shoppers arrived.

No such luck! It took me twenty minutes to find a parking space, and then I had to fight my way in through a sea of frantic shoppers at the entrance, only to find that there were no shopping carts or baskets left.

The huge Ramadan displays at the front of the supermarket would baffle any person unfamiliar with our Ramadan cuisine. All you see are pyramids of tins of Captain Oats, creme caramel mixes, dumpling mixes, and of course the largest collection of Vimto bottles you have ever seen.

Everywhere I looked, people were crammed together in the impenetrable aisles with their enormous shopping carts overflowing with the exact same items for their predictable Ramadan menus.

I started feeling slightly claustrophobic. By the time I made it to the front of the store with my sad little collection of items and took one look at the cashier queues, I had had enough. I dumped my items on the nearest mountain of creme caramel and left. I haven't been into a supermarket since, and have been avoiding them at all costs.

Why the obsession with food, you may wonder? Most families in Dhofar send their women into the kitchen four or five hours before sunset to start preparing for iftar, the sunset meal.

I'm inclined to say that 90 per cent of households in Dhofar serve the exact same dishes every day for the entire month of Ramadan. The basics are sweet dumplings (luqaymat), greasy samosas, oat soup, thareed (local dry bread soaked in a meat sauce), Arabic coffee, dates, jugs of Vimto, creme caramel, jello, watermelon, and anything deep fried.

All this food is laid out on a long plastic mat across the family living room or majlis, and when the call to prayer is heard, everyone dives into the display of 15 or more dishes.

They spend the next hour or so eating non-stop, only taking a few minutes out for the sunset prayer. Imagine what mixing samosas, spicy soup, meat, sweets, coffee and watermelon every day can do to your stomach.

By the time everyone is finished eating, they've only consumed half of what was on display. What happens to the rest of the food? Many people keep leftovers for the sunrise meal, known as suhoor; however, most of it gets thrown out (for the benefit of stray neighbourhood cats).

It's a complete waste and completely defies the purpose of fasting. I read a report somewhere saying Arabs spend more money on food during Ramadan than at any other time of the year. If that's true, then there's something very wrong with our understanding of Ramadan.

Perhaps as people in Oman become more health conscious (and money conscious), these terrible eating habits will slowly be replaced by more sensible Ramadan menus.