It is half past five in Urfa, Turkey, and the day is drawing toward sunset. The souq is deserted. Most stalls are covered with tarp and the sellers have gone home. The silence is odd. Every other day of the year, this time draws more business as people shop on their way home from work. But now, there is quiet and stillness as the earth’s face rolls away from the sun toward darkness.
Everywhere is the smell of delicious food. In virtually every household, one can see the same scene in infinite variation. The table is laid with little dishes of roasted eggplant and peppers; shredded chicken with walnuts; chopped cucumbers and parsley and tomato; sliced lamb sausage and cubes of white and Cheddar cheese; black and green olives with paper-thin slices of lemon; little domes of bright orange shredded carrots arranged around domes of pure white grated radish and deep crimson grated beets; a big glass bowl with warm saucy pinto beans decorated with bright green parsley; larger plates piled with little crisp pastry turbans stuffed with walnuts and fat stewed apricots stuffed with cream, both swimming in sweet syrup. On the stove, a pot of buttery rice; a cauldron of velvety red-lentil soup, its surface glazed with little pools of hot-pepper oil; in the oven, a tray of roasted meat and potatoes and a huge round layered cheese pastry. The little kitchen is clean and orderly. The hard work is past and its mess cleared away. And in the parlor, the family sits together.
What is remarkable about this scene is that these family members have nothing to do at this time but sit and be together. Perhaps they are talking about what they did earlier, orare opening a book of the sayings and doings of Muhammad – may God bless him and give him peace – and sharing out the reading of it, or are reciting Qur’an. The reason for this interlude in the business and stress of daily life? Hunger and thirst. They have been fasting. They have had not a drop of water, not a morsel of food since before sunrise, and now they await sunset and the evening Call to Prayer when the miracle happens: the miracle that changes water to wine, that makes the sweetness of Paradise itself come from a humble date. For it is in the absence of something that its essence is revealed.
Water is the essence of our physical existence … 90% of us is water and we cannot survive without it. Yet when do we really see this and give water its due? Only when there is thirst. The fish in the sea is not thirsty, have you noticed?
And this is why food as well takes on tremendous importance during Ramadan. The fast begins and ends in waves all over the globe and you will find the same patterns: special foods saved only for Ramadan, long pre-sunset lines at the bakery, a joyful willingness and need to spend longer hours cooking, early closing of marketplaces, workplaces, and schools, an intense desire for guests, a celebratory atmosphere lasting late into the night, children begging to be awakened for the pre-dawn meal, sahur, which in many places is announced by drummers in the streets, and underlying itali, a quantum leap in faith and closeness to God. It is a comment on the religion of Islam that worship becomes so all consuming as to touch every aspect of the individual – physical and spiritual – for, “Everywhere you look, there is the face of God.”
At the very center of the Islamic world, the Ka’ba, millions of people have gathered for Ramadan, and, as sunset nears, enveloped in a sublime silence pregnant with anticipation. There are some who will feel this silence as a foretaste of the Day of Judgment.
Rows upon rows of long plastic tablecloths have been spread throughout the crowd. Along their lengths appear huge sacks of dates, plates of za’ter – tangy with thyme ana sumac, and balanced by whole sesame seeds and salt saucers of dark greenish olive oil, enormous stacks of bread, and mountains of sealed drinking cups of lorn Zam, the miraculous waters of the well discovered by Hajar – peace upon her as she searched for water for her infant son thousands of years ago.
The Call to Prayer is finished and the silence deepens as millions quench their thirst and satisfy their hunger. Within a few moments, the tables and bowls and saucers and cups have disappeared and the evening prayer has begun. After it ends comes the proper iftar at a host’s home. Women are sitting on the floor in a large room opening into the kitchen, and men are seated on the floor in the parlor. They are sipping qamaral-din, nectar prepared from the apricot, the “moon of the religion.” Large bowls of soup come in, fragrant with wormwood leaves, cardamom, and cinnamon, and made from wheat-berries and lamb. Next come bowls of foulmedames, Egyptian broad beans and plates of crispy triangular sambusak pastries stuffed with meat, onion, garlic, and coriander. Then come massive trays of rice and lamb sprinkled with roasted pine nuts and parsley. And for dessert, coffee and kataif, which started that morning as small white pancakes poured onto a hot griddle. The pancakes get a dollop of walnut-cinnamon-coconut filling before they are folded, sealed, fried, and left to swim in sweet sugar-syrup.
Next comes the perfect way to recover from feasting after fasting all day and even work up a new appetite. The tarawih prayer is the jewel of Ramadan evenings. It is 20 repetitions of prayer, sometimes punctuated with singing sacred songs. One of the most profound features of tarawih is hearing the live recitation of the Qur’an, a phenomenon few people understand. It is one thing to read aloud the Qur’an, another to listen to a recording, but most beloved of all is listening to a live reading. Any Muslim can become radiant from fasting, feasting, and praying tarawih, provided his intention is sincerely for God.
kisahur, the pre-dawn meal, four girls sit sleepily around a table in Najf, Iraq, sipping their honey tea. The youngest is just 5 and is pleased to have persuaded her sisters to wake her for this meal. She resolves to fast again until noon. They edthinnuwah, little packets of paper-thin bread sweetened with date syrup and stuffed with egg, which their grandmother madeforthem long before they woke up. Hinnuwah comes from the word for sympathy, and this was the prayer on 7efe’s lips as she spread the sticky dough across the hot rounded pan where it would bake in seconds.
The white threads of dawn appear on the horizon, and in Damascus, Syria, women practice centuries-old secret crafts. Buta quick turn through the souq is enough to justify the claim that it is the sweets capital of the world. In bakery windows ere mountains of iMe birds-nests, each with a fat cashew or a few huddled pistachios in the center; shredded pastry logs stuffed with pistachios and served in slices; delicate little layered pastries bundling a center of walnuts or pistachios; baraziq, sweet little disks coated with toasty sesame seeds; “judges morsels,” cardamom-flavored, syrup-soaked balls of cloudlight, deep-fried dough; basbusah, sweet squares of semolina dotted with cream, and kunafah, crispy shredded pastry layers baked with a filling of cheese, butter, and pine nuts and soaked with rose-scented sugar syrup; and cookies, too, the best of which is wariyeba, a crescent with a pistachio where the two horns meet.
Sherbets are known and loved throughout the Islamic world, but the art of makingthese fruity drinks developed most in the Ottoman palace kitchens, which recruited master cooks from all over the world.
Turkey’s varied terrain supports an astonishing variety of fruits and flowers, and many find their way into sherbets. The claret-red sour cherry juice is made without cooking to preserve the high vitamin C content. A kilo of Turkey’s unique vishne are washed and buried under a kilo of sugar. Over the next few days, the juice concentrate is poured off and bottled for storage. Another kilo of sugar can be added for another round, and the remaining cherries can be pitted and preserved with sugar. The hibiscus flower tea, found all over the Islamic world, is best made in Egypt. A few handfuls of the dried flowers are placed in a large glass jar with 2 liters of drinking water. The jarste in the sun ail day and by evening, the lovely red tea is sweetened and blended it until it becomes thick, pink, and foamy.
Last but not least, lemonade. In some places the whole lemon is washed, seeded, cut into pieces, blended and processed until smooth, mixed with sugar and used as a concentrate. In Istanbul, a familiar method isto grate the rind of five lemons, add chopped fresh leaves of four mint branches, a couple of tablespoons of sugar, and work the mixture into a paste. Mix in juice from the five lemons, five liters of iced drinking water, and sugar to taste.
All over the Islamic world, food preparation is an art held in high esteem and practiced as a way to honor God and celebrate the bounty that flows from Him. And like all art, it expands upon being shared. During Ramadan, poverty seems to have no hold on the Muslims. If ingredients are meager and spare, no matter, the methods of preparation and serving will be all the more elaborate and a shared feast for ending the fast will be the felicitous result.