For many Muslims around the world, it has been nearly 30 days without lunch and dinner. We’re entering the final week of Ramadan: the holy month during which observers of Islam go without food from dawn until sunset, when they break their fast with the evening meal of iftar.
The dishes Muslims eat at this evening meal vary hugely—different ethnic heritages have different food traditions. Indonesians, for example, often eat a fruit compote dish called kolak, while those in Turkey eat Ramazan pidesi, a special bread that is only baked during Ramadan. In my Iraqi-Lebanese household, our Ramadan dishes are soup and salad. I know, that sounds dull af, but this isn’t a bland tin of Heinz and some wilted lettuce leaves. It’s Arabified, which means tons of herbs, spices, and obligatory fried stuff.
My favourite is a lentil soup called shorbat addas, made with fried onions, cumin, black pepper, and dried vermicelli. Every Ramadan since childhood, I come home to hear the whir of the blender, and my stomach does a happy dance because it means my mum is cooking a fresh batch of addas. The thick, flavourful, yellow broth is the most comforting way to fill an empty belly.
We also eat big bowls of fattoush. It starts out as a normal salad: mixed greens, tomatoes, peppers. Then it gets more Arab with the addition of chopped herbs, olive oil, lemon juice, and sumac. And after that comes the best bit: pieces of fried Arabic flatbread. I call it “salad on acid,” not just for the amount of lemon juice it uses, but because I imagine this is how someone on hallucinogenic drugs would make a salad. Kibbeh and mains such as tashreeb, an Iraqi dish of broth-soaked bread and black eyed beans, also feature on our iftar table.
But what do other British Muslims eat when breaking their Ramadan fast? I asked Muslims from different backgrounds living in the UK to share what’s on their plate, come sunset.
Iftar, for me, is nostalgic. Your whole diet changes and suddenly you’re not interested in burgers and fried chicken, you just want food that reminds you of home. I attempt to recreate food that my mum used to make in Bahrain, like saloona. It’s one of my favourites, a soupy curry dish that you make with pieces of lamb and pour it on top of naan bread into a bowl. It’s the best thing about Ramadan for me. I also try to make kabsa, which is a rice dish that’s popular with people in the Gulf countries. It’s cooked with turmeric so it comes out yellow, which sounds weird but tastes great.
We eat lots of spicy food like curry or chapatti and we’ll have some form of fried food, mostly it's samosas and bhajis. Luckily, all the ingredients I need are available here from Asian grocery stores. The only difference is the spices in shops here are not as authentic as back home. In India, people buy spices fresh, not from packets. If I’m recreating a sweet dish like kheer [a type of rice pudding], in India they use buffalo milk, but it isn’t available here so I have to substitute with whole milk instead.
We have dishes exclusive to Ramadan called kisuri and sana. Kisuri is a savoury kind of rice pudding that has clarified butter and sometimes lentils. It’s such a warm and hearty starter and instantly makes you forget the pangs of hunger you felt before. It’s traditionally eaten with sana [chickpeas with caramelised onions and chillies] on the side, which is my personal favourite thing to eat during Ramadan because of how filling it is. My mum is head chef in our house and she thinks being in the UK has made cooking these dishes easier. My parents migrated here in the ’80s, and their Ramadans before were spent in Bangladesh with my mum and aunts leaning over a wood-fire and doing most things by hand, so having a gas cooker and electrical appliances makes it easier to recreate things here.
If I’m coming back to London from Egypt before Ramadan starts, I’ll bring back food my mum has already cooked and share it with my Egyptian friends here—things I wouldn’t know how to make or wouldn’t be able to find here. Getting food straight from Egypt feels different than just buying it here, it’s a reminder of home—foods like warak enab [hot vine leaves] and macaroni in Béchamel sauce, our version of mac and cheese! We also have desserts like basbousa [semolina cake soaked in syrup] and balah el sham: churro-like Middle Eastern fritters.
For iftar, I like to keep it light so I don't get slumped for the rest of the evening, so I would have granola with fruits and yogurt. For suhoor [the meal eaten before sunrise], I pretty much have pounded yam and efo riro most nights. It’s a boiled, powdered yam, and efo is a Nigerian stew made of spinach, tomatoes, peppers, and seafood like shrimp and catfish. We definitely have way more food than normal in Ramadan! My mum likes to go over the top and prepare way more than we need, but we can't help but be grateful.
I usually make a Malaysian chicken kari with potatoes. The kari powder is hard to find here, so if I can’t find it, I improvise and use curry paste from the supermarket. It’s not the same as home cooking that my mum makes, but I enjoy making home-cooked food. Sometimes I go to the Malaysian hall in Bayswater [a Malaysian canteen in Central London] and break my fast and pray with others there, and they’ll prepare iftar meals for us, including sambal tahu, which is a tofu-based chili dish I love.