Fasting, feasting: foods for the faithful
The holy month of Ramzan is a period of fasting and prayer, charity and piety, retreat and abstinence. Lasting one lunar month (roughly 29 or 30 days), it culminates with the festival of Eid. The faithful fast during daylight hours, abstaining from both food and water, and eat one meal before dawn known as sehri, and another upon sunset, known as iftaar.
In households where the entire family is keeping rozas (fasts), the sehri is a bit like a largish brunch. The rhythm of the household changes; the cook sleeps through breakfast and lunch and gears up to provide iftaar and dinner, followed in quick succession by sehri. Sehri can have the usual roti, curry, eggs - foods with fibre that stay in the stomach for longer and provide sustenance all through the day. Hapshi Halwa - a richer version of Turkish Delight made with cornflour, nuts, sugar and ghee is also eaten for the same reason - being 'heavy' it stays in the stomach longer and provides heat. A traditional sehri favourite is jalebis left to soak overnight in milk or pheni, an extremely fine version of vermicelli bought ready made and eaten similarly dunked in warm milk. Others who are squeamish about eating a large meal at that time of day (night actually, since sehri must be eaten before the break of day, i.e., when a white piece of thread held up against the night sky shows up as white) usually eat toast, eggs or fruit. The smokers take care to have several quick ones and the tea and coffee drinkers similarly tank up for the day!
The fast is opened (not broken!) with a date, followed by a sip of water and then a wide variety of snacks. Most people eat just a little, go off to say the maghrib namaaz (sunset prayer) and then return to concentrate on the food. The idea behind the iftaar foods is merely to tickle the palate not fill the stomach with heavy foods. This is serious snack time, dinner follows an hour or so later. The spread usually includes some, if not all of the following:
Pyaaz aur aloo ke pakode: fritters made with onion and lightly boiled potatoes cut in rings and coated in a spicy gram flour (besan) paste; green ones can be made with chopped spinach; or pakode can be whole green chillies or other seasonal vegetables encased in a spicy batter.
Kachalu: a sweet and sour fruit chaat
Chane ki daal: a light chaat of boiled chana dal
Ghughni: sautéed or steamed green peas, seasoned with cumin and green chillies
Dahi ki phulki: gramflour dumplings in beaten curd redolent with crushed garlic and roasted cumin seeds
Chhole: boiled chick peas seasoned with garam masala and generously studded with chopped tomatoes and onion
Kaleji: tongue-tickling bite-sized pieces of liver in methi-flavoured thick sauce
Qeeme ke samose: mince stuffed in pastry puffs
Sonth ki chutney: a tart concoction of tamarind, gur, chilly flakes, dried ginger. Usually thin and runny with sliced bananas floating on top, it is eaten as an accompaniment with most of the above
Gallons of good, strong tea!!!
Dinner is a serious business during Ramzan. It has combinations of the following: shaami/seekh/galauti kababs, mutton or chicken qorma, biryani, sheermaal, rotis etc. followed by phirni - sweet boiled down milk thickened with powdered rice and flavoured with elaichi and kewra. Another family favourite that makes an appearance during Ramzan is shahi tukde - a rather elegant way of presenting stale bread by frying slices of bread, dipping it in a strong sweet syrup, then pouring cream (Milkmaid more often than not!!!) and topping the whole with strands of saffron and chopped nuts.
A particular dinnertime favourite is nihari - a rich fragrant, flavoursome, full-bodied curry cooked overnight over a slow fire. The meat melts and dissolves and the marrow in the bones makes the curry thick and gelatinous. This is "soul food" at its best and is strictly not for the queasy or the weight watchers. Other winter favourites eaten during Ramzan for their heat-giving properties are: paaye - a curry made with lamb trotters; chuqandar gosht - mutton and beetroot cooked together to produce a rich, reddish stew; shab degh - mutton cooked overnight on a slow fire with turnips and other greens. And for a truly memorable iftaar dinner there is the divine haleem - a meal in itself - made by cooking together pound barley, oats and de-husked wheat kernels, rice, pulses and meat garnished with ginger juliennes, slivers of browned onions, chopped coriander, piping hot ghee. Lots and lots of green chilly to make you go up in smoke and a small side dish of plain yoghurt to put out the fire. Can the Fasting Faithful ask for more?
More about Rakhshanda JalilRakhshanda Jalil writes on culture, literature and society. She has published over 15 books, including the much-acclaimed book on Delhi's lesser-known monuments called 'Invisible Delhi' and a well-received collection of short stories, called 'Release & Other Stories' (Harper Collins, 2011). She blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com. Her Ph D is on the Progressive Writers' Movement.
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