To those unaccustomed to observing a religious holiday like Ramadan, fasting from sunrise to sundown might sound daunting — especially if you cook for a living. But for Muslim food creator Ahmad Alzahabi, founder of The Golden Balance, preparing delicious recipes for his 5.2 million TikTok followers and 877,000 YouTube subscribers during this sacred month is a welcome challenge.
Alzahabi, who was brought up in Flint, Michigan by Syrian immigrant parents, first began fasting for Ramadan when he was 10 years old. According to the chef, it was easiest then because the holy month took place during winter, when sunset came not long after school ended. Even at that age, he was passionate about food and did not let fasting distract him from watching his favorite food channels or helping his mom prepare meals for suhoor (the meal before sunrise) or iftar, when the family gathered to break the fast and enjoy each other's company.
In his teenage years, when the lunar calendar pushed Ramadan into the summer months, the tenacious young athlete discovered the discipline required for this spiritual experience. Among his peers, many of whom were non-Muslim, he found a way to balance his religious tradition with the daily requirements of a young athlete. He hydrated often, ate nourishing dishes before and after the fast, and dedicated himself to feeling mentally and physically fit through high school and soccer practice.
In 2017, when Alzahabi turned 20, he told his dad he wanted to start a YouTube channel to teach others how to cook and how foster this balance he'd learned from his Muslim faith. The Golden Balance is a resource for home cooks — amateur and seasoned alike — to enjoy easy recipes that honor their culinary roots. Alzahabi highlights a range of cuisines and courses, from Middle Eastern to Indian to Italian, from protein-packed dinners — both meat-centric and vegetarian — to creamy smoothies and soups, while making prep quick, simple and fun.
"My last name in Arabic translates to 'the golden' — maybe there was a history of gold merchants in my family," Alzahabi told TODAY Food. "Going about fitness, nutrition, health and loving the food I'm eating — everything needs to be balanced."
While The Golden Balance features on a wide range of healthy recipe videos, Alzahabi's favorite time to create food content is, perhaps surprisingly, during Ramadan, while he's fasting. He does his food shopping during the day and gets to work cooking his favorite holiday dishes in the late afternoon.
"During Ramadan, there's something in the air. I feel a lot more motivated, a lot more driven to produce these recipes. I have an audience who is participating in the same religious month as I am, and other people who want to learn about it," Alzahabi told TODAY. "Of course it's challenging, but for me, I have to bring my A-game. My best recipes are always from this month, from more of my heritage, looking back at other recipes that have done well, delving deep into refreshing drinks, dates. I'm in my zone."
During Ramadan, which began this year on April 1 and ends with Eid al-Fitr on May 1, Alzahabi advises focusing on recipes that have lots of protein, complex carbs and healthy fats. He eats in moderation, especially when it comes to sweets, and drinks lots of water. One of Alzahabi's favorite dishes to break the fast is his mom's stuffed bell peppers — and his fans love it, too.
The food creator finds his work most rewarding when his followers reach out to say they've learned something, found his advice helpful or posted their own versions of his dishes. From the Midwest, Alzahabi fosters a global community through his channel, especially during this sacred time.
"When people see me fasting for Ramadan, I'm a 240-pound man that exercises every day. You think its impossible but once you give it a shot, your body is able to adapt, your mentality adapts. It’s a good gut check, a discipline check," said Alzahabi. "It keeps me grounded and brings me back to who I am. It's you versus yourself. It's not as impossible as it seems. I feel like I become a better person."