Ramadan Food: When And What To Eat

Ramadan (in Arabic: رمضان, Ramadān) is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. During the whole month, faithful observers of Islam fast from sunrise (Sahour) to sunset (Iftar). During the fast, no food or drink is consumed, and thoughts must be kept pure. Followers of Islam believe that fasting helps the Muslim learn patience, modesty, and spirituality. Meals are served before sunrise and after sunset, and eaten with family or with the local community.

The elderly, sick, and mentally ill are exempt from the fasting. Also exempt are pregnant women, women during the period of their menstruation, and women nursing their newborns. In some Muslim communities, people who miss the fasting portion of Ramadan are expected to compensate by feeding the poor and unfortunate during the suhoor and iftar meals.

In 2009, Ramadan ended on September 20th. The Islamic calendar is based on lunar cycles, so it retrogresses about two weeks backwards every year. In 2010, Ramadan was closer to the middle of the summer, and this year, 2013, it began on July 8 and will last until August 7. 

The fast is strictly observed, even in higher latitudes. Muslims living in Northern Europe or Canada have to fast longer than Muslims living in the Middle East due to daylight hours being longer.

During Ramadan, two main meals are served; the suhoor, which is served before dawn, and the iftar, which is served after sunset. Since the suhoor is intended to last one throughout the day, it tends to be a heavy and hearty meal. Suhoor ends when the sun rises and the fajr, or morning prayer, begins. At the end of the day, when the sun sets, the maghrib prayer starts, and the day's fast is broken with the iftar meal. Many Muslims break their fast by eating dates before beginning the iftar meal. Muslims can continue eating and drinking throughout the night until the next day's suhoor. At the end of the Ramadan month, Muslims celebrate the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast, called Eid al-Fitr.

Both of the suhoor and iftar meals contain fresh fruit, vegetables, halal meats, breads, cheeses, and sweets. Remember that the Muslim world is large and is not constrained to the Middle East; there are Muslims worldwide in Europe, North America, Asia, Africa, and Australia. The types of food served vary by region. The meals are served either at home with family, or in the community mosques, or other designated places within the Muslim community.

Some foods that may be served at a Ramadan suhoor or iftar

  • Dates, pistachios, other nuts, and dried fruits
  • Fresh seasonal fruits
  • Fresh seasonal vegetables
  • Chabbakia - a dessert made of fried dough flavored with orange blossom water and coated with sesame seeds and honey. (Morocco)
  • Paomo - a bread and mutton soup (China)
  • Ramazan Kebabi - a dish made with lamb, onions, yogurt, and pita bread. (Turkey)
  • Sherbet - the world's first soft drink, developed in the Ottoman Empire. Sherbets are made from fruit juices, extracts of flowers, or herbs, and combined with water and sugar. (Turkey) 
  • Chapatis - unleavened flatbread that is rolled up with vegetables and meats. (India and Pakistan)
  • Lavash - a soft, thin crackerbread. (Armenia, Azerbaijan) 
  • Fattoush - a salad made of vegetables and pita bread. (Lebanon and Arab countries)
  • Tabbouleh - a salad made with fresh tomatoes, parsley, garlic, and bulgur wheat. (Middle East)
  • Khyar Bi Laban - cucumber and yogurt salad (Middle East)
  • Chorba - lamb stew with tomatoes and chickpeas (Morocco)
  • Fasulia - stew with green beans and meat (North Africa and the Middle East)
  • Bamia - a stew made with meat and okra (North Africa and the Middle East)
  • Mujadarra - a dish made with rice and lentils (Middle East)
  • Konafah - a pastry made with phyllo dough and cheese (Middle East)
  • Qatayef - a type of Arabic pancake filled with sweet cheese and nuts (Saudi Arabia, Palestine)
  • Ful medammes - fava beans cooked with garlic and spread on bread (North Africa)
  • Kolak - a fruit dessert made with palm sugar, coconut milk, and pandanus leaf. Fruits such as jackfruit or banana are added, or mung beans. (Indonesia)
  • Haleem - a porridge made of meat, wheat, and lentils. (India)
  • Paneer cheese (Persia and India)
  • Jalebi - deep-fried dough batter soaked in syrup. (Pakistan)
  • Shabi kebab - fried patties of ground meat and chickpeas. (India and Pakistan)

• Allrecipes has a good list of Ramadan recipes here.
More Ramadan recipes, via AsiaRecipe.
• The Boston Globe's Big Picture Blog has wonderful photos of Ramadan food and activities here.

If you are currently traveling in a Muslim country or live in a Muslim neighborhood, please recognize that right now is a holy time for Muslims and they are fasting during daylight hours. If you need to purchase food or drink during fasting hours, please be respectful and carry them in a non-transparent bag back to your home or hotel room where you can consume them in privacy.

Additionally, if you are interested in learning more about Ramadan and meeting Muslims in person, many mosques and Islamic cultural centers have community outreach programs where they invite non-Muslims to enjoy an iftar meal with the other members of the mosque. Be sure to check beforehand what the dress code is, as women may need to cover their arms and/or head. Here is a primer on Muslim etiquette.

I am attending a Ramadan Open House Iftar meal in San Francisco this weekend. I discovered it by doing a Google search for "Ramadan Iftar Outreach San Francisco."

As-Salāmu `Alaykum - "May peace be upon you."

(Images: Premshree Pillai, Hamed Saber, Binnur's Turkish Cookbook, Raja Islam, Ghadeer Alqattan, Vit Hassan, and Amazon - thanks!)