During Ramadan, Fast All Day and Feast All Night

This time of year might just be the best (and most unlikely) to savor the flavors of the Middle East.

Ramadan

Hussein Saddique lives in Park Slope, but he developed a love for the foods of Ramadan during childhood summers in the Levant.

“My relatives hail from a village in northern Lebanon,” says Saddique, a CNN producer, “and each family would get all excited and compete to invite people to iftar,” or the breaking of the day-long fast at sundown. Fifteen to 20 people showed up at a home each night, including random passers-by. In nearby Tripoli, a cannon sounded across the shoreline to announce sundown, and attendees broke fast with dates and jallab, a popular Ramadan drink in bilad ash-Shaam, or greater Syria (what is today Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Syria and Jordan.) Jallab is concocted from rose-water, soaked raisins, date reduction and shaved ice, then topped with pine nuts and almonds.

Thirsts quenched, Saddique’s aunts and uncles would unfurl a feast: Platters of kibbe nayyeh (raw minced goat mixed with bulgur and spices and served with mint leaves), fattoush (vegetable salad with cracked bread, olive oil, pomegranate and sumac reductions mixed with lemon), spiced rice with raisins and a vat of lentil soup were all washed down with kharroub, a chilled carob drink made especially for Ramadan.

Ramadan is foremost a time to experience hunger: Muslims around the world fast to remember the suffering of those in want. But the month also commemorates food and family, with unique dishes, drinks, and desserts revived taken at night to slack thirst, give succor, and bring people together.

This year Ramadan, which marks the revelation of the first verses of the Koran to Mohammed and falls approximately two weeks earlier each year, begins around August 1. Observant Muslims will fast from sunrise to sunset, but each night, families and communities gather for evening prayers and sumptuous spreads. At the end of the month, daylong fasting gives way to midday feasting in the annual Eid al-Fitr holiday—think Christmas, but with beryani lahim in place of Brussels sprouts, kebabs swapped in for carrots, and Turkish delight instead of turkey.
Ramadan came to Brooklyn in the late 19th-century with the arrival of peoples from greater Syria, many of whom settled in row houses abutting Atlantic Avenue. These Arab immigrants were largely Christian, with a Muslim minority. The 1965 removal of ethnic quotas from U.S. immigration policy precipitated a second wave of Muslim-Americans to the borough and the country. Today Muslim families have settled across Brooklyn: Arab-Americans in Bay Ridge, South Asian Muslims in Flatbush and African and African-American Muslims in Bed-Stuy. Each nightfall this August, these neighborhoods will be filled with people breaking their fasts with some of the oldest—and most delicious—flavors in the world.

Saddique, a single father and seasoned cook, says he can’t begin to replicate the complete sensory and spiritual experience of Ramadan on the Mediterranean. But he stocks up at the shops on Atlantic Avenue and re-creates what he can. His iftar standby is qamar al-deen—another drink traditionally used to break the fast. “You get one of these slabs of apricot paste that are sold on Atlantic Avenue—they’re essentially giant Fruit Roll-Ups,” explains Saddique “You put the apricot slab in a pitcher of water and let it soak for a couple hours. Then, you basically squeeze the slab and keep on squeezing” until you’ve got a thick nectar, says Saddique. Add orange blossom water and serve chilled: after a long, hot thirsty day, it’s a mouth oasis.

When the sun finally sets, each cuisine has its own recipes for recharging. Kamal Rachid, who hails from Morocco and was picking up jugs of El Ouazzania olive oil from the Maghreb at Fertile Crescent, a grocery located near the intersection of Atlantic, Flatbush and Fourth Avenues, ends his daily fast with harira, a soup traditional to northwest Africa that features chickpeas, lentils, tomato, cinnamon, ginger, cilantro and smen, a tangy clarified butter made from aged sheep and goat’s milk.

Still, says Rachid, for Muslims of many stripes, one dried fruit is the immediate go-to glucose. “For all the Arab world, we break fast with dates.” Eating dates at dusk is as old as Ramadan itself: Mohammed is said to have ended his own fast with the fruit, which is among the sweetest on Earth, gives your blood sugar the spike you need after fasting, and thus is a staple, enjoyed fresh or dried, depending on Ramadan’s season. (The monthlong holiday is set according to the lunar year, and shifts on the Gregorian solar calendar.)

There are over 600 varieties of dates, but two dominate the U.S. market: the caramel-like Deglet Noor (or “date of light,” named because when held to the sun, its inner core appears illuminated) and the Medjool, beloved for its chewy sweetness. The offerings here pale compared to the dazzling date displays in the souks of Damascus or Cairo, where barrels brim with scores of varieties. But during Ramadan, Brooklyn groceries stock their largest offerings of the year. While most dates come from California’s Coachella Valley, select dates can be found from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries. Dates from the Arabian Peninsula, celebrated for their succulence, are in high demand worldwide: Despite, or perhaps because of, the searing climate, the Arabian Peninsula shows archeological evidence of dates being cultivated there for over 8,000 years.

In the Muslim world, a critical mass is abstaining together, but New Yorkers can be surprised to discover a colleague is fasting. Leila Darabi, communications director for Planned Parenthood’s international division, doesn’t announce that she’s forgoing food, but her coworkers eventually notice. “I’ll inevitably be at a working lunch, and someone will refuse to allow me to pass on a sandwich,” she says. “I finally say, ‘I’m fasting for Ramadan.’ Then people tend to attribute magical powers of self-restraint, and assume all types of things about me.”

Darabi says she fasts less out of religious conviction than for Ramadan’s social justice dimension: “You’re fasting to remember the experience of those who are poor and hungry.” But Brooklynites who aren’t fasting—or even Muslim—find Ramadan nightfall a prime time to experience tastes of the Arab world without leaving the borough. You might not know in what direction Mecca lies, but you can surely find your way to one of the borough’s many Middle Eastern groceries, which stock special foods all month long.

“During Ramadan, it’s kind of a party atmosphere around here,” says Charlie Sahadi, the owner of the landmark Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue. “All heck breaks loose!” Though Sahadi hails from a Christian Arab family (evidently complete with cuss-free customs), his shop is the anchor of the Middle Eastern retailers along Atlantic Avenue that put out special displays for Ramadan shoppers.

Nearby, Damascus Bakery has been baking their peerless pitas for 80 years, and though, like Sahadi, its proprietors are Christian, they’ve been preparing food for Ramadan since the shop first opened in 1930. For years, during the holy month Damascus’s co-owner Ghassan Matli has made spiced ground lamb samboosa—akin to the Indian samosa, and sharing the same etymology. “We only made them for Ramadan. But they’re very popular, so now it’s for everybody all the time. Why not?” DIYers can get a little help here, as well. “People like to make their samboosas at home, too, so during Ramadan we sell samboosa dough,” says Matli. “They can stuff them with lentils, lamb, beef, and spiced however they like.”

Damascus Bakery also modifies year-round standards during Ramadan. “We always have baklava,” says Malti, “but during Ramadan we add layers of pudding to make it special.” Brooklynites from different regions celebrate with their own cuisines and traditions, and Hamed Nabawy, the Egyptian-American owner of Fertile Crescent, caters to them all. “The Africans come in for vats of yogurt, the Lebanese for hummus, and Egpytians stock up on fava beans in order to make foul [pronounced ‘fool’],” says Nabawy. He adds that foul, a thick, nourishing dip of fava beans, tomatoes and tahini, is the most traditional dish to eat before dawn, going all the way back to Islam’s origins. Then he leans in to speak sotto voce. “Plus, it stays in your stomach for a very long time.” But some American Muslims favor Western fare. “I like beef bacon with bagels and cream cheese,” says Claire Hamed, Nabawy’s wife and a convert to Islam, describing her predawn meal of choice. (Ramadan isn’t just about eating after sunset. Just as important is Suhoor, the repast one takes before sunrise in preparation for the daylong fast). “We usually eat the things other Americans have for breakfast—even though we’re not breaking fast. We’re beginning the fast.”

Customs here have evolved in other ways. In the Arab world, extended families gather at home. But in Brooklyn, where individuals may live a continent away from kin, many Muslim communities have taken to renting out banquet halls and meeting up with friends and other families. “It’s a new tradition,” says Hamed, who is studying Islamic history at Rutgers. “People want to break the fast with their friends in big festive gatherings.”

Sam Widdi of the Widdi banquet hall in Bay Ridge will typically host iftar dinners three nights a week throughout Ramadan. “Sometimes families have a potluck, sometimes we prepare the food, sometimes a host family will make all the food,” he says.

Widdi hall also brings a lost village from 5,000 miles away together during Ramadan. “My family is from Lifta,” says Palestinian-American Danyah Jaber, a student at Hunter College who dons a Michael Kors purse and a silk head-cover. Lifta is a Palestinian village whose land was annexed by Jerusalem. “There are Lifta families all over Brooklyn, and every Ramadan we have a banquet iftar at Widdi’s,” says Jaber. We’re not all related, but we want a chance to reconnect.”

The traditional dates and drinks would be delectable on their own, but fasting takes it to another level. A popular Ramadan fable explains that when you’re hungry, neither flute, nor harp, nor violin sounds as beautiful as a serving spoon hitting a plate. As the proverb concludes, “the most delicious meal is the meal you eat when you are famished.”

The real feasting begins when Ramadan ends. For the three-day celebration Eid al-Fitr, which concludes the holy month, families host spectacular banquets, exchange gifts and feast on everything from samboosa and tabbouleh to rice pudding and pistachio cakes.

But the classic dish is lamb. If Hussein Saddique is hosting an Eid holiday party, he’ll buy 20 pounds from Fertile Crescent, half cut into kebab, half as kifta, or ground meat, all cut and seasoned to order.

“For kebab, they’ll cut a morsel and say, ‘Is this OK?’ and I’ll say, ‘No, I want it a little smaller.’ ‘Tayyib,’ or ‘fine,’ the butcher’ll say, and make it how I like it. For the ground lamb, the butcher’ll ask, ‘Did you bring your own parsley and spices? Give them to me.’ I always bring my own mix, but they have a mix there if you want. I like fresh chili peppers, onions and parsley, plus cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg.”

Eid’s culinary crown jewel is kharouf mahshee: stuffed lamb. For $395 Fertile Crescent offers a whole lamb—including all requested organs—stuffed with rice, raisins, beef, pine nuts and perfumed with spices. When asked what spices, Nabawy demurs: “Secret of the chef.”

But even if you don’t land an invitation to a lamb repast, you can experience another world on stretches of city sidewalk. In Bay Ridge, near Fifth Avenue and 70th Street, Ramadan is marked as much by evening festivities as by daylong fasting. “The stores are open into the night, and people stay up late,” says Palestinian-American Maha Attieh, health program coordinator at the Arab-American Family Support Center in Cobble Hill. “You go to the shops and buy gifts for each other, sample sweets at the pastry shop, visit friends, go to the mosque for prayer and then get foods for the morning meal. It’s just like back home.”

Party like it’s 999. Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr—think Christmas dinner, but with beryani lahim in place of Brussels sprouts, kebabs swapped in for carrots, and Turkish delight instead of turkey.

Muslims around the world take no food or drink from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, the annual month of contemplative fasting. But come nightfall, across the borough and around the globe, they’ll dine on some of the oldest—and most delicious—flavors in the world.

Photo credit:  Joshua Kristal.

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