Ramadan Kareem: Understanding Islam’s Holy Month

Ramadan Kareem: Understanding Islam’s Holy Month

The ritual practices that unite diverse Muslim communities worldwide are known as the five pillars of Islam. They encompass the devotee’s declaration of faith, or shahada; regular prayer in the direction of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site; the giving of alms to the needy in one’s community; a pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Hajj, and finally, an annual fast undertaken in the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar – the month of Ramadan.  

Ramadan is considered the time when the Qur’an, Islam’s holy scripture, was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The word itself comes from the Arabic word ‘ramad’, or dryness. The name implies a burning heat, which scholars have variously interpreted as the ache of mindful fasting, or the aridity of the desert. Muslims are instructed by the Qur’an to fast from the time dawn’s light appears in the sky till ‘the blackness of night’ descends – essentially, from sunrise to sunset – forgoing food, water, sexual intercourse, and sinful behavior. Though exceptions to the fast exist, based on health and age, millions of Muslims across the globe use this time of abnegation to self-reflect, to immerse themselves in deeper prayer, and to engage in heartfelt acts of charity. Long portions of the Qur’an are recited during evening prayers for the length of Ramadan, encouraging contemplation of the holy text. Whether one is a child or an elder, the month is seen as a chance to treat others with greater tolerance and respect. 

From Fasting to Feasting 

The first meal of the day, called suhoor, is meant to sustain adherents till the evening call to prayer, when they may enjoy iftar, the second meal. One might break their fast in a traditional emulation of the Prophet, with three dates, or dig into a plethora of local dishes. Plentiful sweets help replenish a fasting population’s energy stores: Iran adores bamiyeh, a churro-like, syrupy dessert eaten with tea; Malaysia rehydrates with a rose-flavored milk called bandung, while Indonesian iftars often feature iced coconut milk desserts like cendol. Fresh bread and fried snacks galore complete the run-up to dinner.

As the month draws to a close, vibrant celebrations ripple across Muslim communities. Communal prayers are followed by the feast of fast-breaking, or Eid-al-fitr, begun at the first sighting of the crescent moon. Each country’s festivities integrate their own unique culinary traditions. Family and friends flock to each other’s homes, where gifts are distributed and good wishes exchanged. Charity abounds, with much excess food from households circulated among the underprivileged. This year, Eid falls on Sunday, the 1st of May. 

Breaking Bread Together

Most communities include year-long staple foods in their Eid celebrations, though they may be treated specially for the occasion. No such example is more salient than that of Ramadan pidesi, a classic Turkish bread that sees fasting families line up outside bakeries pre-iftar. Pide, a leavened, boat-shaped bread enjoyed year round in the Levant, takes on a special shape and significance during Ramadan. The bread is shaped into plump circles, and dented by hand to create a tufted pattern. Often more enriched than its normal counterpart, a Ramadan pidesi may come sprinkled with sesame seeds, and forms an important part of the Turkish suhoor and iftar meals.   

Iranian barbari is another staple bread that acts as an iftar or Eid-al-fitr centerpiece. It shares the handmade troughs of a Ramadan pidesi, but boasts a unique characteristic: the top crust is brushed with a cooked flour roux called a roomal, creating a burnished, satiny finish and crisp bite when baked. 

An Afghan Eid feast is incomplete without freshly made bolani, a pan-fried, filled bread served with yoghurt or herbaceous chutneys. A yeasted dough is rolled out to the thickness of a tortilla, and then filled with any of innumerable fillings: pumpkin, red lentils, alliums, meat, or potatoes flavored with cilantro and pepper. Once fried till crisp, they don’t tend to last long. 

Ambaabur (also spelled cambaabur) is a spiced flatbread that forms part of an Eid breakfast spread in Somalia and Djibouti. Its batter may combine wheat, millet and semolina flour, and can be fermented to obtain a sour taste, somewhat like the Ethiopian teff-flour injera. Eid ambaabur differs from everyday breads in the region due to its heavy spicing: turmeric, cumin, fennel, garlic, and onion combine to create a complex flavor profile worthy of the celebrations.     

In India, where BreadEx founder Uma hails from, an Eid favorite is shahi tukda. White bread is fried in clarified butter before its immersion in a bath of sweetened, saffron-scented milk. Topped with pistachios and chilled before serving, this simple bread pudding is a childhood favorite for numerous people across the subcontinent. Eid celebrations see Muslims the world over open their homes and tables to friends of every faith.  

Same but Different

In our research, a category of celebratory Middle Eastern baked goods caught our interest; though some are crispbreads, and some are bagel-like rings, semolina cookies or round yellow loaves, they use variations on one ancient name: ka’ak

In this vein, Kaaek bel zait is an olive-oil based bread eaten in several Levantine countries. It boasts a yellow hue due to the addition of turmeric, newly pressed olive oil, or both, and contains a mixture of nigella seeds, toasted sesame, and aniseed. For Eid-al-fitr, its dough is pressed into decorative wooden molds and baked flat in various thicknesses, creating either a crunchy brown disc, or a fluffy flatbread. Versions of it may also contain mahlab (ground cherry seeds) and mastic (aromatic tree resin), like a traditional Cypriot flaouna pastry eaten at Easter. Powdered spices like fennel, cinnamon and cardamom may also feature, similar to our corek recipe. A sweetened cookie version called Akras-al-Eid employs many of the same ingredients as ka’ak, though it is a tea-time snack with a crunchy sesame coating rather than a bread. 

The linguistic and culinary diversity this bread embodies reminds us constantly that one culture echoes another, that joy and good food find their way from one community to the next, breaching the surface in times of celebration.

A Time for Giving 

BreadEx is celebrating this season of compassion by teaming up with Break Bread, Break Borders, a social enterprise that employs women from war-torn nations and helps them achieve financial independence. Subscribers to our BreadEx: World plan will receive special Eid treats in the month of April through this collaboration. In light of the current upheaval in Ukraine, we are also donating 10% of this month’s revenue to World Central Kitchen, whose team is making strides in food security for displaced and endangered Ukrainians.

BreadEx wishes all celebrants in our DFW family and beyond a peaceful and plentiful Ramadan.  

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