During Ramadan, Home Cooks Shine

Amanda Saab bakes her grandmother’s syrup-soaked cake in preparation for Ramadan at her home in Huron Charter Township, Mich. (Brittany Greeson for The New York Times)

For Amanda Saab, the flavors of Ramadan are baked into sweet, tender bites of namoura. Her Lebanese grandmother used to make the cake, folding together frothy, aerated yogurt and semolina flour. Now Ms. Saab makes it the same way, soaking the cake in a floral-scented sugar syrup while it’s still warm from the oven, and cutting it into diamond-shaped pieces.

“While I’m not consuming food all day, I’m thinking about food,” said Ms. Saab, a social worker who lives near Detroit. “Not about how I’m missing out, but about how to make the best thing to fulfill everyone’s cravings after a long day of fasting.”

Ramadan begins on Friday evening in the United States, and on Saturday in other parts of the world. For 30 consecutive days, many of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world will fast, eating each evening after the sun goes down and squeezing in a predawn meal before it rises again.

“While my tummy is rumbling, it’s drawing me closer to my faith,” said Ms. Saab, 28.

Fasting may sound strenuous, and it is, but it’s also an act of devotion during a month filled with immense joy, culminating in the feasts of Eid al-Fitr. There’s an emphasis on community and charity, self-reflection and kindness. The absence of food can deepen its meaning: After pushing through long stretches of hunger and thirst, there is a heightened sense of gratitude and delight that comes with breaking the fast while surrounded by family and friends.

“When everyone’s standing around, picking from the same platter, suddenly you get a surge of energy,” said Malika Ameen, 42, a cookbook author and pastry chef. “Everyone is chatty and smiling with the anticipation of dinner.”

Ms. Ameen’s father immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in the 1960s. She grew up in Chicago, where her family hosts vibrant iftars, one of the names for the evening meal that breaks the day’s fast.

An iftar may be as elaborate as the truffle-laden platters on display in the dining room at the Four Seasons Resort in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, or as simple as chicken and rice, passed out free on paper plates at a mosque.

For home cooks, who often take turns hosting an iftar or carrying their homemade food to share at community centers and mosques, it’s time to shine.

Many will strategize for the days ahead, planning menus and cooking in bulk. Keeping a few labor-intensive dishes ready to warm through can minimize the time spent hungry, in an unreasonably fragrant kitchen, when there are hours to go before the day’s first bite.

“By about 3, you start to hit a wall and you wish you didn’t have to be around food all day,” Ms. Ameen said. “Everything starts to smell so strong.”

She stocks her freezer with homemade samosas to last the month, ready to crisp in hot oil or to pop into the oven in small batches. Ms. Saab fills hers with kibbeh, the bulgur wheat and beef shaped by hand into tiny, plump footballs, and makes big pots of lentil soup.

Of course, not everything can be done in advance. Ms. Ameen will also put together light foods she finds ideal for a fasting stomach, like fruit chaat, a tangy, savory fruit salad made from what’s ripe that day and in season, all marinated with cumin, dried mango and chiles.

“We eat a lot of watermelon,” Ms. Ameen said of one of the fruits she uses to make the chaat. “You’re so dehydrated, it’s a quick way to get liquid into your body.”

Dahi vada also makes appearances throughout the month, the lentil fritters soaked in a cool sauce of yogurt and a second of sweet-sour tamarind. It’s a dish that her family serves this time year and no other, and as it’s garnished, the perfume of toasted, crushed cumin rises.

“That smell, to me, is the smell of Ramadan,” Ms. Ameen said.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Tejal Rao

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