As a multicultural community, Amsterdam Mamas encourages our members to share their culture's holidays. Tasneem Hatimbhai explains Ramadan - Islam's holy month - and its practices, aspirations and rewards.
What is Ramadan?
Shehre Ramazan or Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic year. It is the month when the Quran Sharif (the Koran, Islam’s holy book) was revealed to Prophet Mohammed. To honour and celebrate this month, Muslims the world over refrain from eating and drinking anything from sunrise to sunset. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam, and all adults are expected to fast during this holy period unless unwell, pregnant, travelling and a few more exceptions.
There are several reasons for fasting: physical, mental, and spiritual cleansing; self-discipline; developing greater empathy for the less fortunate; creating a time to slow down and look inwards. For me, the first few days and the last few days of fasting are hardest. The first because of caffeine withdrawal and because my system has to get used to not being indulged several times a day. The last few days are the final lap and tend to drag on. However, somehow it ends up not being that hard to fast, I get used to it and actually look forward to it. In this article, I hope to share the joys this month brings, the traditions it holds that are different for every family, and the irreplicable childhood memories it triggers each year about fasting, breaking the fast, and Eid-ul-Fitr.
The Islamic calendar follows a lunar cycle, so Ramadan moves backwards by 11 days each year. Muslims, the world over, fast for 30 days from sunrise to sundown, without food or water. But as the months shift, so do dawn and dusk, and naturally these vary in different parts of the world. I recall breaking my fast at 4:30pm when I was in college in Chicago one winter as well breaking my fasts in an Amsterdam summer, 3 years ago, at 10pm! That year we all looked especially forward to Eid-ul-Fitr - the big celebration when the month of fasting concludes! This day of revelry, perhaps owing to the large quantities of sweets consumed, is called Suiker Feest in the Netherlands.
While Ramadan is foremost a month of prayer and introspection, it is also a month of wonderful family time, a part of which includes the preparation and languid consumption of special treats at sundown. Like almost all traditions, every home, community and country has special customs that they follow during Ramadan, yet the basic practices of the roza - our fast - are the same.
The family wakes up well before sunrise to eat breakfast – this is called Sihrori in Arabic. In our home we sometimes eat cereal, eggs, toast, fruit, and try to drink plenty of tea and water. However, as the month wanes and energy/enthusiasm for the 4am wake-up fades, the morning meal gets shorter and more simple. Sihori is followed by morning prayers, and then back to bed for a quick snooze before the day begins. Often, and when possible, our days in Ramadan begin to include a nap, which mostly helps pass the time but also imbues us with a shot of energy needed for the preparation of the evening meal.
Finally, when the sky begins to turn orange and the sun goes down, we pray evening Namaz and ‘break our fast’ with a date, water or milk and in my household, the golden drink - chai. A date is an important fruit in Islam and mentioned several times in the Koran. In fact, The Prophet Mohamed also broke his fast with a date. Dates also have plenty of natural sugar, magnesium and other essentials, which offer an energy boost after a day of fasting.
The meal eaten after fasting is called an Iftaar. It should be nourishing, and wholesome but mostly, it is a fabulous treat.
In my home, growing up, we always made two special drinks for Iftaari:
- Gud ka paani, which translates to jaggery water, and is simply made by soaking a piece of jaggery in water for the whole day until it entirely dissolves to give you a mellow golden liquid, filtering it through a muslin cloth, and finally serving it chilled with chia seeds and lime juice; it is prepared because it is especially ‘cooling’ during the fasting period.
- Harira is a delicious preparation of milk and nuts. It is made by first roasting almonds and pistachios in a little bit of ghee once the nuts are fragrant, top up with milk and a bit of sugar and slowly simmer until the speckled liquid sublimely thickens. Harira is served warm, hopefully with a modest layer of nutty milk cream floating on top, which is the mark of a good preparation. Full of good fat, harira helps us to keep up with fasting.
This is followed by fruit, chai, and then then a variety of savoury delicacies ranging from deep fried mince samosas, mince cutlets, bhajjiyas (pakoda/bhajis) of onions or potatoes, different bakes, kebabs and other favourite foods of the family. Often, the Iftaar also serves as dinner but sometimes you might reach for a post-iftaar snack or meal before bed.
While growing up, Iftaar was a family affair, but when I was in my 20s it became quite fashionable to have ‘Iftaar parties’. We’d call friends over and make a gastronomic event out of fast breaking – we used to prepare food at home but also recruit caterers for larger quantities and bigger crowds. We had parties at home, on the roof terrace or in the garden. In Bombay, there is a 'Khaw Galli' - Eating Street which is infamous for Ramadan indulgence and Ramadan isn’t quite complete without at least one visit to Khaw Galli. I know this tradition of Ramzan street food delights is also common in Dubai, Cario and Kuala Lumpur where street food vendors are open all night during Ramadan.