personal essay

Iftar, Samosas, and the Month of Infinite Blessings Lived on Zoom

published May 5, 2020
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One Ramadan years ago, in the interest of time, my husband suggested we forgo “iftar foods” and keep things simple. We would break fast with a date per tradition and a glass of water, swiftly offer the evening prayer, and eat dinner. We were both beholden to busy work schedules so this made the most sense in terms of getting enough sleep before rising for sahoor, the pre-dawn meal. 

Although I acquiesced, I was disappointed. In many Muslim cultures, iftar is a ceremonious affair. You start with a date, yes, but then you move on to a litany of tempting amuse-bouches before gathering to pray. As South Asian Muslims, that means things like a big bowl of fruit chaat, fried chickpea fritters called pakoras, and samosas stuffed with spiced ground beef. Without these tantalizing appetizers, iftar became decidedly less festive — merely dinner eaten later than usual. In a country where Ramadan is virtually invisible, I realized iftar foods are what make the blessed month special to me. In the years since we’ve had children, I’ve made it a point to serve these dishes as a way to differentiate this special time from the rest of the year. Now, especially, this tradition feels more important than ever. 

In a country where Ramadan is virtually invisible, I realized iftar foods are what make the blessed month special to me.

For a holiday marked by the absence of food, I spend a lot of time thinking about it during Ramadan. Some might say I’m missing the point. But going without food and drink highlights how privileged I am to not have to think about food on a daily basis during the rest of the year. When you are food-secure, your mind does not fixate on where or how you will get these finite resources, because it doesn’t have to. Ramadan brings that intentionality back.

There is nothing unintentional about Ramadan this year. With COVID-19, no action, big or small, is done without careful consideration. Should we drive by a friend’s house with a batch of crescent cookies or is it putting them at risk? How can we meet our parents’ emotional needs while isolating from them during a special holiday? The global pandemic has brought into sharp focus how much we took the blessings of good health and community for granted. Lessons that, I should point out, Ramadan has long been trying to teach us. Forgoing food and water temporarily humbles us, and lets us experience what it’s like to be weak. In the same way, coronavirus has brought to light how delicate our health actually is.

Food has been a main comfort as we celebrate during this strange time. In fact, preparing and enjoying iftar dishes has been one of the major ways my family has conjured the Ramadan spirit in our home. We’ve clung to some traditional dishes. The end of a long fast in sweltering temperatures is met with the refreshing taste of peppery fruit chaat and a swig of tangy-sweet lassi, a South Asian yogurt drink. My mother-in-law has graciously dropped off her famous chicken pakoras on our doorstep. Other traditions have been modified. Instead of getting together with my mom and grandma a few weeks before Ramadan to wrap samosas in bulk for the month, I bought ready-made ones from a local maker. Due to the unpredictability of groceries, some new traditions have even been created. The kids and I made chocolate-dipped bananas with items we had on hand, inspired by their favorite Curious George book. 

The kids, who are too young to fast, have championed iftar time as their own celebratory moment. Even though they eat dinner much earlier than us, they are first in line for their share of iftar treats — dates, rose milk (a sweet drink flavored with rose water), and my mother-in-law’s lokhmey (small crepes filled with meat). The evenings I don’t have a special appetizer ready because I ran out of time (yes, this still happens), the kids are first to point out its absence. Admittedly, dinners eaten without partaking in iftar hors d’oeuvres first feel more empty to me too. Who knew these little snacks would help us feel some semblance of normal?

The global pandemic has brought into sharp focus how much we took the blessings of good health and community for granted.

Another cornerstone of the holy month is gathering with loved ones — breaking fast together and joining congregational prayers in the mosque at night. But in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, many mosques, like other places of worship, have shut their doors indefinitely. For our family, breaking fast alongside grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins has historically been a huge priority so our children could understand Ramadan as a unique time of togetherness. This is no longer an option. Instead we share dinner over Zoom with relatives, where we’ll compare notes on who’s eating what. It’s no substitute for breaking fast together, but it’ll do.

Inside the pressure cooker of grave circumstance and an uncertain future ahead, iftar dishes have soaked up even more meaning for me. Whereas I previously saw them as frivolous supplements, these celebratory foods are more necessary now than ever before. They signal to us that no matter what, the month of infinite blessings is here. We must celebrate with intention, for we don’t know which blessings we take for granted today may not be with us next Ramadan. We might not have friends to visit or relatives to hug, but this year we do have samosas.