The Spirit of Iftar
I know this is way past Ramadan and this is an unpardonably late article. But unfortunately yours truly was bed ridden with a slip disc limiting my travel and documentation process. But, as I witnessed another Eid-ul-Fitr passing by, a gamut of memories engulfed my mind. I tried recalling many of them; especially those from my childhood. I remember Prof. Nurul Hassan – a friend of my Late father and a renowned educationist of his time, would invite us to his residence in Delhi for iftar meals.
It was not just the food and the warmth of the family that are embedded in my mind. It was the sheer persona of this 6’4” tall I am guessing, 120 kg heavy man that made these occasions unforgettable. Nurul uncle was a kebab man. He would relish his kebabs irrespective of which part of the world they are from. The iftari at his place would be large spreads of sweets, dry fruits, meats and breads. For a long time as a kid I thought it was an average dinner in a Muslim family and wished I was born in one!
As I grew older, my passion for food grew even more. I started inviting friends for iftar at my own house. During my days in Assam, my Eid would be spent at a dear friend Abzar Hazarika (Abzar da, as I would fondly call him)’s house. The iftari at their place would also have a strong Assamese influence. The mutton they would make would be unlike any korma you usually get – one with potatoes. And the biryani would remind me of the typical biryani that one finds in Kolkata. The most distinguishing feature of Calcutta Biryani (sorry can’t call it Kolkata Biryani, just doesn’t seem, right!) is the usage of potatoes. This type of Biryani is an evolution of the Lucknow Biryani and has a unique flavor. When the Nawab of Awadh was exiled to Bengal, his entourage of cooks travelled along with him. The impact of all of that is pretty evident in the cuisine of Bengal that was till then predominantly fish based.
My post today however, is not about biryani. I have already written the charm of Aas Mohammad’s biryani and the spiritual experience in that small shack in Sikandarabad in an earlier post. This time it is about another form of spirituality – the spirit of rituals and festivals and why we still as a species believe in customs – it is definitely not instantaneous human behavior? I would like to believe that the reason is an unputdownable bribe; festival cuisine. My post today is dedicated to the spirit of iftar cuisine. What is afterall iftar or iftari? Let’s brood.
The Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar – a month in which the Holy Quran was revealed. Hence this is a month when Muslims are expected to cleanse their body and soul, reiterate their practice of self discipline, restraint, empathy and sacrifice. Throughout the month adult Muslims practice a fast, abstain from sex, alcohol and smoking from dawn to dusk. Ramadan is a month of reliving the name of Allah.
The fasting practiced during the month of Ramadan is known as roza. The evening meal that commemorates the breaking of the fast is called iftaari and is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating arrays of dishes world over.
For devout Muslims Ramadan is a month of sacrifices but along with that sacrifice comes a tremendous sense of fulfillment. The prayer or dua for iftari says: O Allah! I fasted for You and I believe in You (and I put my trust in You) and I break my fast with Your sustenance
Now, let me come straight to the real deal, that is, my deal. Iftar is a gastronomical marvel. I have had the opportunity to enjoy iftari at different corners of the world during this lifetime, thank God for that. It is so interesting to observe the connotation of a feast – communion, fellowship, warmth, compassion and above all sharing.
While we are talking about iftari, let me begin with the country which has the world’s largest Muslim population – Indonesia. I still fail to believe that I have never been to this country – there it goes into my bucket list! But the Iftar cuisine of Indonesia is something to talk about. It is called buka puasa meaning “to open the fast”. Needless to say, the buka puasa platter is an awesome assortment of seafood, salads and meat. Like many other countries, Indonesia too has its buka puasa markets that bustle with people throughout the month of Ramadan. The Bendungan Hilir market in Jakarta is one such market that happens once a year, but Muslims all over the city throng to this market to break their fast. While dates are popular, kolak – a special dessert prepared with coconut milk is an important dish of buka puasa. There are many variants of kolak; however the jackfruit kolak seems to be the most popular of all apart from the ones with banana and cassava.
Indonesian people enjoy their special drink cendol prepared from coconut milk, rice and shaved ice. It is more of a dessert and less of a drink and is quite filling. They also have a special multilayered cake called kue lapis. Interestingly, most Indonesian cakes are not baked and instead steamed. And their sea food, from fish steamed in banana leaves (reminds us of eastern/North Eastern Indian traditions) to satay – their rendition of grills is something I can probably go on and on about. Satay is an extremely popular dish in Indonesia and several other countries of South East Asia and of course resembles our very lovely seekh kebabs.
Okay, I need to move to my next region. Let’s talk about Africa. Egypt, Morocco, Zanzibar, Tunisia, Libya and many other North African countries are predominantly Islamic and thank God for that, blessed with their fantastic cuisine.
Ti begin with, Moroccan food is to die for! Mohammed Ifriquine, a dear friend of mine from the Moroccan Embassy in India was a buddy, fellow traveler and adventurer almost a decade ago. We shared some wonderful moments together especially trying and tasting foods from all over the world. His Moroccan iftar spread was something I can never forget. Many a times I would either eat at the embassy with him or go to his then residence in Vasant Vihar. While I’d teach him the art of preparing Indian cuisine, he’d give me tutorials on Moroccan food.
A Moroccan iftar starts with dates, milk and juices. Harira – a traditional soup of Morocco is very popular. It is prepared from lentils and tomatoes. It is seasoned with various spices from cardamom, pepper, saffron to celery, parsley and lemon juice. It is regarded as a meal in itself. Well known author of culinary books and expert on the region, Nada Saleh writes in his book Fresh Morccan, in Ramadan, at the setting of the sun the fast is broken with harira. It is traditionally served with lemon wedges, dates and chebakia (honeyed cakes), but could be served as a one-pot meal, followed by some fresh fruit.
The chebakia is actually a cookie where you put generous amount of high quality saffron, sesame and honey and is prepared throughout the month of Ramadan in Morocco. Another awesome dish served during Ramadan in Morocco is bisteeya. It is a meat pie, traditionally prepared with pigeon meat, but now also prepared with chicken and fish. It is simultaneously sweet and savoury and culinary historians believe that it was introduced to Morocco somewhere around the 15th century by the Andalucians. Here goes the Spanish influence! However, this pie was finally perfected by the Moroccans and now has become an uncompromising dish on a Moroccan iftar table.
Morocco is the culinary heaven of North Africa. The indigenous people to inhabit this beautiful land were the Berbers whose culture dates back to several thousand years. Today, I won’t go into the prehistory and etymology of these beautiful people because honestly, there is a lot to write about. Let’s stick to Iftar. Moroccan food has a world wide appeal and is delectable and sinful. It is very diverse due to its interaction with several world cultures – Arabic, Mediterranean, Moorish and more. While there is a predominance of usage of rich spices from saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cumin and chillies, you also see usage of Mediterranean ingredients. Morroccans call this blend of spices Ras el Hanout.
While Moroccan have a strong Mediterranean influence, countries like Zanzibar have Asian influences. You will see harees being served as an important iftar dish. Harees is a traditional Arabic dish that is prepared from wheat (whole wheat soaked overnight), meat (or chicken) and salt. It is very popular in the Middle East. This dish certainly originated in this region and traveled all over the world with the Arabs. Hence, in countries like India and Pakistan you get haleem, its mouthwatering rendition. Slightly different in texture and spice levels, this dish is definitely very popular throughout the region; especially for iftar.
I must mention one of world’s favourite iftar desserts from Turkey i.e. baklava. The history of Baklava has been traced back to the Assyrians. The Assyrians ruled the region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia (present day Iran) 2400 BCE. However, it was not until 8th century BCE that they started the concept of putting a few layers of bread together with nuts, pouring honey over it and baking them. Gradually it became popular but the ingredients like dry fruits and honey were expensive. Hence, many believe that it was mostly the royalty and other rich people who could afford to prepare this at a daily basis. Today, this sweet dish is the sweet heart of Turkey and no festive moment could be complete without its presence.
Okay, while I am on it, I have to tell you this uncanny story. About fifteen years back like Mohammed Ifriquine, I had a very dear friend Said in the Oman Embassy. In fact Said, Carlos (from Brazil) and I were like a trio having a blast in the corridors of Delhi. Oh those days of pure fun and food! Not that we have changed much; but it so happened that Said and Carlos got transferred and I left for an assingnment abroad and subsequently for the North East for almost seven years. Then of course there was no media networking or mobile phones. In short, we lost touch.
Three years back Arin, a few other friends and I were having dinner at Fujia a chinese resturant at Malcha Marg in Chanakyapuri in Delhi. This place again reminds me of my childhood. Some of the waiters there have been working in this place for thirty years now and they till date blackmail me in front of my friends by mildly mentioning some ‘childhood’ adventures.
Anyway, we were the last people in the restaurant and it shut after we got out. It must have been past 12:30 at midnight and most of us were smokers in the group. Smokers, who had cigarettes, but had no lighter. It was Delhi winters and only a post dinner smoke could have well, saved us. Okay we were getting desperate. Since when did Chanakyapuri gate keepers stop carrying match boxes? No shops open, no shacks around. And there we see at a distance two sheikhs in their traditional attire doing what? Lighting up of course!!! We suddenly became strong believers in the forces of God.
We decided to send Arindita to be the communicator. So there she goes with her diplomatic (well, I guess natural) smile and says, “Excuse me, may I have a light please?”
Sheikh 1 in the process of turning towards Arindita and us (our group standing at a distance of say 10 meters) and replies, “Sure…”
Sheikh 1 and Ashish Chopra speak in unison, “HABIBI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
That was my long lost friend Said who I was meeting after ten years. The name Said roughly means ‘to bring happiness’. How true!
Do I have to still tell you that he is my supplier of Omani dates and coffee and food? And that his charming wife prepares this mouth watering dry fish pilav and oh man…let’s leave right here.
Home Sweet Home:
I know the article is far from complete. But then I do not want to put you through the strain of reading an encyclopedia or an Ashish Chopra memoir.
As we meander from region to region in India, cuisine and culture – two indispensible compatriots change their colour, but the fervor remains undiluted. People who know Indian food are very much aware of the difference between Muslim cuisine of Hyderabad, Lucknow, Delhi, West Bengal, Kerala, Kashmir, Gujarat or for that matter North East. But, let’s just try and elaborate or rather journey through the iftar experience in this unbelievably diverse country.
As you walk through the bustling streets of Old Delhi in the evenings of the holy Ramadan month, you can feel the zeal, the festivity and the spirit of fellowship. The shops glitter with Id specials. People have just thanked their Gods for blessing them with the spirit to live life. I keep remembering the restaurant Gareeb Nawaz that, whether the holy month or not, serves food to 300 poor people at an average every day. He talks about ‘barkat’…déjà vu.
The month of Ramadan transcends into the celebration of Id-Ul-Fitre and one forgets all boundaries and simply delights on the festivity. The moment the proclamation for breaking the fast is announced, the process of iftari begins. People from all walks of life gather with the spirit of exuberance, warmth and colours to savour the divine flavours of iftar. The fast is normally broken with dates and fruits. And then comes the main course. The mind boggling kebabs, delightful nihari, biryani, korma, khamiri rotis – the list is endless. This trend continues throughout the month till Id. And this gets me to wonder that despite violence, aggression and negative energy all around, iftar brings a ray of hope, feeling of brotherhood and the expression of kindness and warmth. So all I can say is if kebabs be the food of love, eat on, eat on, eat on…