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Foods and festivals of Ramadan around the world

On 17 June, the new moon signaled the start of Ramadan (or Ramzan as it’s called throughout South Asia), the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar in which observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex during daylight hours. Increased religious devotion sets the tone for the month as Muslims gather for special prayers, acts of charity, and Qur’anic recitations in gratitude and devotion to God. Long hours of fasting are difficult, but Ramadan is a joyous celebration, and the foods and festivities that follow the fast are as diverse as the global Muslim population.

Muslims awake before dawn for sahur, an early morning meal. The sounds of musaharati beating a drum in the streets of Lebanon or canons firing in Mecca awaken Muslims to eat. Tuning in to Ramadan TV, many listen to Qur’anic recitations to focus on the spiritual reasons of fasting. More popular shows are also available, including slapstick comedy programs in Indonesia and a live question-and-answer show in Turkey. These varied traditions rouse Muslims from sleep and prepare them for a day of resilience and austerity.

Fasting cultivates virtues of self-control, compassion, and gratitude. It fosters empathy, reminding people of those who suffer from hunger and poverty on a daily basis. Seeking to show compassion, Muslims give zakat (or zakah), donate food for tables of mercy and volunteer to serve the community. In gratitude and service to God, Muslims show others the generosity that God has shown them.

Traditionally, Muslims break their fast around dusk by eating dates and drinking a few sips of water, a tradition dating back to the Prophet Muhammad. After performing evening prayers, families and friends join together for iftar, the breaking of the fast. Soups and stews are common fare, from India, where Muslims dine on Hyderabadi haleem, a meat, lentil, and cracked wheat stew, to China, where Muslims enjoy pao mo, a lamb/mutton and bread soup from the Shaanxi province, to Ethiopia, where Muslims dine on doro wett, a chicken stew. Other specialty iftar dishes include beguni, batter-fried eggplant popular in Bangladesh; moi-moi, a steamed bean pudding favored in Nigeria; shami, a split pea and meat patty served in Iran; and bolani, flat bread fried and stuffed with vegetables eaten in Afghanistan.

"Kuih Lapis in green and white layers" by Nithyasrm. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Kuih Lapis in green and white layers” by Nithyasrm. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

No iftar is complete without desserts. In addition to fruits, favorite delights include the Palestinian treat konafa (also known as knafe), shredded philo dough layered with raisins, nuts, cheese, or cream and sweetened with syrup served throughout the Middle East; kahk, a cookie stuffed with dates, nuts or Turkish candy and topped with powdered sugar popular in Egypt; kolak pisang ubi, a sweet potato banana compote savored in Indonesia; and kuih lapis, a layered cake enjoyed in Malaysia. Sweet drinks are also popular, like qamar al-deen, a thick apricot juice; jellab, a grape, raisin, rose water, and sugar concoction topped with pine nuts; and lassi, a yogurt-based refreshment sweetened with rosewater and fruit.

Festivities accompany food. In Egypt, children carry colorful fanus and sing songs in the streets. In areas of Indonesia, Muslims bathe in holy wells and springs to welcome Ramadan with physical and spiritual purity. Ramadan tents offering buffets and live entertainment pop up throughout the UAE. Laylat al-Qadr, the “Night of Power,” is a particularly celebratory night, as Muslims perform extra prayers, ask God for forgiveness, and recite the Qur’an in commemoration of the first revelations received by the Prophet. Muslims in Morocco supplement these festivities with a special celebration to notice children who begin fasting.

No Ramadan festival is more important than Eid al-Fitr. A family holiday, many Muslims travel long hours to celebrate Eid with loved ones. In mosques and homes, prayers of thanksgiving are uttered as people express gratitude to God for the strength to fast and rejoice over the blessings bestowed upon them. Those who can afford it purchase new clothing, send Eid cards, donate to charities, and gift money to children.

Although each region has diverse foods and local traditions to celebrate, Muslims around the world understand Ramadan as a sacred time set aside in obedience to God. Distinct foods and festivities serve to bind the community together, reminding Muslims of their dependence upon God and each other.

Image Credit: “Shami Kabab.” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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