Iftar Muslim traditions

An Invitation to Ramadan

Sunday, June 14, 2015 Tariq Al saud

For the typical American, many are clueless about Ramadan. They may have had the word “Ramadan” bandied about. They know it’s a Muslim holiday but are pretty much are in the dark beyond that. So when a girlfriend, boy friend or coworker invites them for a Ramadan dinner, the knee jerk reaction is to “sure” and bring a bottle of wine. Oops! First faux pas. Ramadan is not exactly the same a Chinese New Year or Christmas. It is a celebration but a few points on Ramadan etiquette can go a long way to not looking like an insensitive clod. Keep in mind that the point mentioned are guidelines. Just like Christianity with it cafeteria Catholics, Orthodox varieties, Southern Baptist, Mennonites and Christmas-only Protestants, Muslims also come in a variety of sects and vary depth/level of their practice. That a special someone has invited you to enjoy Ramadan with them, its is an honor. It just helps to know what to expect. Are you going to be involved in a 4-hour prayer service? Are you smoking a peace pipe? Is it byob? What’s it all about? Is it like going to mass?

In a nutshell, Ramadan is a time of fasting, introspection and prayer. Like the 12 days of Christmas, it is meant to bring meaning to one’s religious practice and build family. Fasting is one fundamental principles involved in Islam. It is kind of like a time out for the body and it happens every ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Fasting serves many purposes. While one is hungry and thirsty, one is reminded of the suffering of the poor. Fasting is also an opportunity to practice self-control and to cleanse the body and mind. Ramadan is the most sacred month and many feel the peace that comes from spiritual devotion as well as kinship with fellow believers.So this is your first tip off, Christianity falls every 12 months and follows a different calendar. Ramadan runs for 30 days and during this time Muslims do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. They are also supposed to avoid impure thoughts (no sex) and bad behavior (drinking). Muslims break their daily fasts by sharing meals with family and friends after sundown. The celebrations really begin after 8:00 PM depending on when that ninth month falls in the calendar.

Suhoor vs Iftar 

Which meal are you invited? The Suhoor is the meal consumed early in the morning before the daily fasting. Think of it as a sunrise breakfast without the sunrise. The meal is eaten before dawn. Being the last meal eaten by Muslims before fasting, Suhoor is regarded as a benefit/ blessings in that it allows the fasting person to avoid the crankiness or the weakness caused by the fast.
The Iftar is the evening meal during Ramadan. There isn’t a noon-time snack or lunch. The traditional three meals a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner)are absent. Food is consumed during the night. The Iftar is the meal after sundown so most likely, this is the meal you are being invited to. Word to the wise also is you are traveling: In the Muslim world during Ramadan, most restaurants are closed during the daylight hours. Cheating on your diet is not an option. Families get up early for suhoor so set your clock otherwise you are down to one meal a day and you will be crabby. Diabetics make note of this carefully and know what to do while traveling.

So is this a pot luck? 

You may be thinking it would be nice to bring a dish to pass. Isn’t that the typical thing to do? For some, a bag of Doritos and some spinach dip might come to mind as a dish to pass. That doesn’t quite cut the mustard here. Think of it from this perspective, you have had nothing to eat all day. Someone handing you a jar of cheese dip may inspire a growl or worst. Put some thought into your selection. Most traditional or practicing Muslims practice Halal methods of meat prep. Certain foods like pork, ham or bacon are so far off the radar screen that they should not even be considered. But also keep in mind, Jello is also made from pig, so that recipe that is a hit at Christmas will most likely remain untouched. Pies that are made with lard are also not a good thing. Food or sweets that use vanilla extract are also off the list for other reasons but I will get to that in a moment.

So what can you expect to eat?

Traditional Suhoor Foods include dates.  They are important to eat for suhoor and also for iftar due to their high fiber content and nutritional value. For many immigrant muslims, these are also a comfort food as they are so prevalent in their home country. They are similar to the potato for Irish Catholics.

Rice Pudding will most likely show up as a delicious dessert at a suhoor. There are several different types of rice pudding and many different ways to make it that are traditional in different regions. Egyptian rice pudding is made with short grained Egyptian rice and milk, then simply flavored with sugar and vanilla beans. Indian rice pudding is made with long grained basmati rice cooked in cream and flavored with spices such as cinnamon and cardamom.

Foul is not the person sitting next you. Foul refers to Foul Maddamas.  It is an Egyptian dish made of mashed fava beans mixed lemon juice, garlic and various spices. It is usually served for breakfast along with eggs and flat bread such as pita. It is very filling and substantial. You will not be hungry after eating it and it has a meaty flavor.

If you are invited to a Suhoor, you may experience a Mezze platter. Mezze platters have a Greek feel and are like an appetizer sampler. They usually have some hummus, falafel, perhaps some stuffed grape leaves or a variety of things to pick from. They are quite tasty. They may also include more breakfast-like components such as bread and jam.
The Iftar foods may include the Suhoor foods but a bit more. Realize the people you are with are exceeding so the food is they will want something more than eggs and pita. Fattoush is a delicious salad of Middle Eastern. It contains pieces of toasted or fried pita bread, mixed with lettuce, vegetables and a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice with various spices. It may have crumbled feta cheese, kalamata olives or hydrating veggies to refresh after a long day without food.

The mezze platter at the Iftar can be a meal in itself. Traditional dishes include toasted flatbread with various dips and spreads, baba ghannouj (similar to hummus but made with roasted eggplant), Lebneh (a yogurt cheese); and several kinds of olives, pickled vegetables, stuffed grape leaves, and other small dishes. This is about variety. Soups can fall into vegitarian or non-vegitarian varieties and help with the dehydration that happens with Ramadan. Hareera is a Moroccan soup that is pretty common during Ramadan. Hareera usually contains a meat such as beef, lamb or chicken; chick peas; lentils; rice and various seasonings. Lentil Soup is another common dish served during Ramadan in Iraq. There are endless varieties of lentil soups. These may have meats or meat stocks but most have vegetables and various spices.

Main courses.

Middle Eastern cuisine is distinctive from other cuisines from it’s prep and cooking methods and also it’s ingredients. Grilled meats and kebabs are very prominent. Many of the dishes require labor intensive cooking methods or each ingredient is made through a special cooking process. As a result, the dishes are very special. Many of the dishes are stews that are served with pita bread or rice. They are more spice based than herb based like French/Italian cuisines. A couple of the most popular dishes for Iftar are Mujaddara and Mansaf. Mujaddara is a Middle Eastern dish comprised of rice, lentils and fried onions. It is a very popular dish all year round, but makes an excellent and filling meal during Ramadan. It is lovely at Ramadan and you will give you onion breath… but alas, it is Ramadan. You won’t be kissing anyone so enjoy. Mansaf is a Jordanian/Palestinian dish. It is lamb cooked in a fermented spiced yogurt sauce and served with rice, bulghur or flat bread.

On the sweet side - Desserts. 

Katayif is an Egyptian dessert.  It is small pancakes stuffed with cheese or nuts, fried and topped in a sweet syrup. Ma’amoul are small shortbread-like pastries that are stuffed with a date or nut filling. These cookies are popular to have on hand all year round so you will find them easy to find should you want to have them outside of Ramadan.

What wine should I bring?

In a word… no. Most traditional muslims are dry. They don’t drink, if they do, it isn’t during Ramadan. So save that bottle of cabernet for another time and don’t bring a bottle of scotch as a hostess gift. Think about flowers instead. If you are a non-practicing muslim and you are female, you are not expected to cover your head. While you may feel like the odd one out, you are a guest and it is not like you are at the mosque. Dressing modestly is probably advisable and don’t wear anything that is transparent. Avoid showing a lot of skin and save your tight slinky dresses for another time. This is a conservative religious occasion. Don’t expect there to be dancing on dance floor as this is not New Years in New York with a ball dropping. Also expect that the host my do directly to prayers, be respectful and honor the religion.

Ramadan Etiquette

Many (non-muslims) people around the world had been invited for Iftar during Ramadan. Here are few tips that outline what will most likely happen and what to do:

  1. You should arrive before the Iftar time about 10 mins or earlier. The reason why? The host friend or family will be busy cooking and setting the table. This is a big holiday. Be a good guest. If you wanna help them, it would be nice and it is really polite to do so. Alert your host you would like to help.
  2. Be conscious of tradition. Some families break their fasting with eating dates and they go to pray for about 5-7 minutes and come back to start their Iftar meal. Be aware that this is coming. Other families sit and have their full Iftar meal and go to pray after that. That’s will be great to you if you want to bolt, but also realize this is being a “bad guest”.
  3. Usually, the courses are as follows: after having the dates,  the Iftar meal will start with soup, then salad and main course and the meal will finish with drinking one of the Ramadans’ juices or yogurt. 
  4. After finishing the Iftar meal itself, guests will move to reception/living or family room for dessert. This is the fun time when you will get a chance to understand more about Ramadan. It can be a time when a lot of family memories will be talked about. It is just like Christmas at that time as families get together to discuss memories. This is also a good time to get to know your date or coworker as the family time means fun stories come out.
  5. Just like most Americans, watching TV shows is one of Ramadan traditions too. Except Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph is not part of the TV line up. Much of the time, these programs are not in English but their is a lot of physical humor. Think of it like watching a foreign film with the captions turned off. The host family will explain to you what they will watch. Consider yourself lucky if it was translated in English. This TV time is also the time for Tea, nuts and Hookah. If you don’t know about Hookah, then you are in for a treat. Be aware it is a flavored smoke. Some flavors will give a headache and others are very potent. Take it easy if you have never experienced it before. Drink lots of water.
  6. The evening meal before you leave will be fresh fruits or fruit salads. The event is really a long evening of eating, laughing and having a good time.

So you’re inspired to bring something? 

We have enclosed a fun and easy recipe that is tasty and falls within tradition. Got any fun stories about Iftar or Suhoor meals? Pass them along to us at Halfstack.
One says Ramadan Kareem in the Arab islamic world. So Ramadan Kareem!

Stuffed Dates 
1 lb pitted Medjool Dates
1 cup blanched and peeled almonds
1 cup sugar
1 Tbs orange blossom water (Use fresh Orange Juice as an alternative)
1 Tbs melted butter
1 tsp cinnamon

In a food processor, add almonds, sugar and cinnamon and process until the mixture resembles sand. Add the orange blossom water and melted butter. Continue to process until the mixture becomes a smooth paste. Take a small amount of the almond paste (about a teaspoon or so) and roll into a football shape. Insert the paste into the date and press in the sides. Some of the paste should be exposed through the slit on top. Repeat with the remaining dates. This is a lovely dish with a side of Tahini.

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