At the heart of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday that runs from May 15 to June 14, is a powerful dichotomy: During the daylight hours, adherents steadfastly avoid consuming all food and drink, while at dusk, they indulge in extra-special, bountiful meals; feasts prepared without the benefit of tasting along the way.
To learn more about this tension between fasting and feasting, we spoke with three observant Muslim cooks whose lives revolve around food, whether at a professional or an amateur level. Here's how their rhythms of cooking and eating change, in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways, during this holy month.
The three women we spoke with hail from all over the country and lead very different lives: Naila Kelani, 23, is a freelance journalist and passionate cook based in Cupertino, California; Nazneen Hamilton, 47, lives in Denver, where she is the corporate chef for a local luxury appliance company as well as the author of food blog Coffee and Crumpets; and Lutfunnessa Islam, 45, moved to the United States from Bangladesh 20 years ago and has been baking chapatis and other products for New York City's acclaimed multi-ethnic bakery, Hot Bread Kitchen, since 2011.
Despite the differences in age, geography, and profession, they all stressed a few commonalities: a slowing down of time, an enhanced appreciation of community — late nights and early mornings, while draining, mean extra hours spent with loved ones — and, of course, a heightened awareness of food. The pangs of hunger felt during the day are forgotten with the first bite of a sweet, nourishing date each evening.
They also agreed that cooking strategies need to change during the month to accommodate the sometimes-severe lack of sleep imposed by the proscription on daytime eating.
Cooking During Ramadan: Meal Planning and Many Hands
For Nazneen, organization and smart shopping are more important than ever. "Ramadan is a month of very early mornings, very late nights, and random naps in between," she says. "We are incredibly sleep-deprived, so whatever can make life easy for us we try and do. I try to be more organized as far as having all the necessary groceries and pantry staples already at home in order to minimize my trips to the store."
Naila added that, during a time when energy levels are low, many hands make light work, and putting together a wholesome, well-seasoned meal involves the whole family. "Cooking during Ramadan is always such a team effort," she says. "Either everyone is working on a different dish within the family, or you're cranking things out for a potluck."
Cooking Without Tasting: Sensory Memory, Salt, and Positivity
Of course, one of the most obvious challenges presented by Ramadan — for all cooks, but especially for professional ones — is the ability to turn out vibrant, balanced, and well-seasoned food without being able to taste as you go. The holiday's fast is all-encompassing, meaning that even the tiny bites and sips that normally inform our kitchen process are strictly verboten. It's an interdiction, Nazneen told us, that breeds improvisation.
"Cooking during Ramadan means a lot of eyeballing!" she explains. "Luckily, I have an idea of how much salt and spices are needed from experience." That's because "many of the dishes I make are comfort food dishes that are staples in my repertoire; after a day of not eating, it's these home-style meals we crave."
Relying on sensory memory — years of experience chopping the onions, blooming the spices, and brightening the finished dish with acid and fresh herbs — helps avoid the unfortunate scenario of plating under-seasoned food, but there's also a little game-time fine-tuning at the beginning of iftar, the evening break-fast. "After we break our fast with dates and water, I taste the food and will adjust it if something is missing," she says. "I can't do much about the spice level, but adjusting the salt helps a lot."
Another workaround? Rely on the palates of those who are not fasting: young children, the elderly, and others. "The perks of living with family is that there's usually one person who's not fasting," Naila explains. "Women are given a break when they're on their periods, and children often don't fast or only partially fast. So if it's not a younger sibling, it's a cousin or an aunt who can step in to taste. I have so many memories of my mom calling me or my siblings to taste something for salt content during Ramadan."
Still, seasoning snafus are all but unavoidable during the holiday. "My mom and I cook in great bulk during Ramadan, so things are bound to go wrong," Naila remarks. But the women told us that the holiday's embrace of the positive means that such events are taken in stride. "During Ramadan, everyone knows how hard it is," Nazneen says. "I don't host any parties unless they are iftar parties and all the attendees are Muslim and fasting — those are the best guests!"
Lutfunnessa agrees that the optimistic attitude encouraged by the holiday usually means that cooking errors are no big deal. "Sometimes I don't have enough salt, or I have too much salt," she remarks. "People don't say anything negative about it, though; when you are fasting, you have good behavior. You don't say anything bad, or listen to anything bad."
Fasting During Ramadan: Mind over Matter
This positivity also makes the hardship of fasting, which often inspires wonder and even pity among those of us who don't observe the holiday, that much more tolerable.
"I think Ramadan is a lot of mind over matter — or, in this case, stomach!" Nazneen says. "Once Ramadan starts, I get into a certain mode. I know I have to fast, I know I have to cook because that's my job, and I know I have to write about food because I have a food blog; it is what it is! I don't struggle with it anymore.
"Yes, the stomach does rumble, and reading food blogs makes my mouth water, but I don't mope around the house complaining that I'm hungry or dying because I haven't eaten! Somehow, I manage; I always get through it. There are a lot more blessings in the month of Ramadan than in any other month, and I truly believe everything I do is better when I'm fasting."