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In Pakistan, Ramadan about 'taking a step back'

Ramadan is not about starving yourself," says author Huma Siddiqui, "it's about taking a step back." Epicurious examines memorable recipes and traditions of Muslim holy month.
/ Source: Epicurious

"Ramadan is not about starving yourself," says Huma Siddiqui, "it's about taking a step back." To the author of the Pakistani cookbook "Jasmine in Her Hair," the month's daily fasts "force you to change your routine. You slow down and begin to reflect on your life — what's happened over the past year, where you're heading. Feeling hungry connects you to what's important to you, what you really want. We get so busy sometimes that we forget what it's all about. It feels good to take back the driver's seat, rather than letting life drive you."

In fact, during Ramadan, food assumes more importance than usual in Pakistan, explains Siddiqui. As the day draws to a close, "You look forward to breaking the fast," she says. "The family comes together and dedicates several hours just to eating. No one has to rush off anywhere — you just sit around the table, eat slowly, and spend time together. You have some of your favorite foods, and everyone feels fulfilled and happy." To Siddiqui — who left Pakistan 25 years ago as a young bride — maintaining these traditions with her family in America has deep meaning. "In the Western world, everything moves so quickly," she says. "I feel it myself — I get so busy with work, meetings, everything, that I barely have time to eat. That's why it's so important to me to take a break during this time and sit down to a leisurely meal."

In her book, Siddiqui has collected recipes that she learned growing up in Pakistan and now makes for her own family. She shared four that are perfect for Ramadan celebrations, along with tips and explanations of the holiday's culinary traditions.

Breaking the fast
As is traditional across the Muslim world, Pakistanis break their Ramadan fasts with juicy dates. Black tea with cream and sugar and, in the summer (as the Muslim calendar is lunar, the dates of Ramadan shift), homemade lemonade quench thirsts. These are followed by a small snack. "When I was growing up, we always had something fried, such as samosas or pakoras, the chickpea curry known as cholay, and a sweet such as gulab jamun [milk balls soaked in syrup]," says Siddiqui. "Then everyone would prepare for the evening prayers." Men pray at the local mosque, while women do so at home.

A delicious dinner
When the men return from the mosque, iftar, the evening meal begins. "There's tons of food," says Siddiqui. "You just eat and eat and eat. The main dish might be a lamb or chicken curry, accompanied by basmati rice. There'll be a vegetable side dish, such as cauliflower with potatoes or lentil dhal, and for dessert a Pakistani halwah (different from Arabic sesame-based halvah — this is made from semolina or carrots) or more gulab jamun. There might also be shami kebabs, seasoned ground beef patties, with poori (deep-fried puffed bread) And in the summer, fresh fruit such as mangoes." During the meal, much of the conversation centers around plans for Eid ul-Fitr, the big celebration at the end of the month. "All the women will discuss what they'll be wearing, where to shop," says Siddiqui.

Morning sustenance
After dinner, the family will go to bed late, then rise early for the predawn meal, called sehri in Urdu. "Back in Pakistan, we had a cook," says Siddiqui. "He would prepare breakfast, then gently knock on our doors to wake us." Depending on the time of year, the meal could occur as early as 3:30 a.m. "We'd have eggs, either fried or made into an omelet, paratha (layered wheat bread) and sometimes leftovers such as samosas or shami kebabs from the night before. For dessert we'd have jalebi, bright orange deep-fried batter in sugar syrup. The cook would soak it in milk overnight so it would be soft and soothing for breakfast."

A different sheduleAfter breakfast, it's time for the morning prayers and then work or school. "When I lived in Pakistan, it was a bit easier to observe Ramadan," says Siddiqui. "In Muslim countries, everything changes during this month. Businesses and schools open earlier and then close in the early afternoon so you can go home and prepare for iftar. Shops also close in the afternoon and then reopen late into the night so you can shop after the meal is over. Here in America it's harder, but I still keep the traditions with my children."

Pulling out all the stops
At the end of the month is three-day celebration called Eid ul–Fitr. "It's a big deal — everything's closed," says Siddiqui. Eid can only begin after the moon is seen on the night of the last fast. Siddiqui remembers running with her siblings to the roof of their house to catch sight of it, then joining in the preparations for the holiday. "All the women would go shopping for bangles to match our dresses for the next day," she says. "We'd all pile into a car and go to the bazaar. Then we'd come back and paint our hands with henna. You had to wait a few hours for the intricate designs to dry, so sometimes I'd put plastic bags over my hands if I was really tired and wanted to go to bed.

The next day, the celebration begins in earnest. "We'd usually have a buffet for at least 100 people — all my aunts, uncles, and other extended family, plus many guests," says Siddiqui. "We'd have a huge feast, including samosas, shami kebabs, poori, seewae (a dessert of thin vermicelli noodles cooked in sugar syrup), and rasmalai (sweet cheese balls in a milky sauce). All day people would come and go—actually, for all three days." In America, Siddiqui misses the closeness of her family: "It's hard, not having that network." But she has created a community of her own. "I usually take the day off and host an open house for my friends. None of them celebrate Ramadan, but they love to come and eat my food! I make cholay, shami kebabs, samosas, and seewae. We'll also have some American dishes — my daughter Sabah makes the most delicious cheesecake, so she'll bring about six or seven of them. The first year I lived here, I didn't know very many people, so we just had about 10 or 12 people. Last year, the guest list had grown to 105!"

Huma Siddiqui walks us through four of her favorite recipes for Ramadan. The recipes are fairly straightforward, but her tips will help you benefit from generations of Pakistani kitchen wisdom. And whether you celebrate the holiday or not, her delicious dishes and menu ideas are worth a try.

These delicious little pockets of dough and filling are perfect for all Ramadan occasions: breaking the fast, sehri, Eid — or just anytime. "Tiny black nigella seeds add a subtle, nutty flavor and fragrance to the dough," says Siddiqui. "But, if you can't find them, they can be replaced by black sesame seeds or left out." Her other tip: "Be sure to use warm, not cold water—you want the dough to stay soft and pliable."

"Cholay is one of my favorite recipes," says Siddiqui. "Back in Pakistan, we always had it to break the fast. Here in America, I often make it for my Eid open house." This simple tomato–based curry gets its flavor from fragrant cumin and spicy chili powder. "I prefer a powder made

only from guajillo chiles — not a blend of different types," says Siddiqui. "The clear flavor will really shine through in the finished dish. You'll find simple instructions for making this in the recipe." Siddiqui also recommends using dried chickpeas rather than substituting canned. "If you soak and cook them yourself, they'll absorb the spices much better," she says. "I like to soak and cook a large amount of chickpeas at one time, then freeze the extras in small batches. When pressed for time, you can easily defrost a batch and use it for whatever you're cooking."

These ground beef patties have a finer texture than American hamburgers—and a lot more flavor. To help them hold together, "Be sure to cook the meat until it's very dry—you want all the water to evaporate," says Siddiqui. "You also want to press somewhat firmly when forming them." The beef is flavored with a pungent mix of spices, including two kinds of cardamom pods. "The smaller green pods are somewhat easy to find," says Siddiqui. "The larger, black pods might be more difficult—they add a hint of smoky flavor, but in a pinch, they can be left out."

"This sweet, milky dessert is often served alongside seewae for Eid," says Siddiqui. "It would be traditionally be made by curdling milk to make fresh cheese, but my version uses ricotta to skip that step. It's quick, easy, and still delicious." When baking the ricotta mixture, Siddiqui cautions to remove it from the oven when it's pale golden on top: "You don't want it to get too dark."