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The first night of Ramadan: Let them bring sweets

Ramadan is a time of fasting, self-restraint, and good deeds. It is also an occasion for storytelling, either in celebration of the nightly feast or as a way to pass the time. In the spirit of the long days and longer nights of Ramadan, Al-Masry Al-Youm shares stories and tips for a good month in a new series called “Alf Leila We Leila: Stories for Ramadan Through the Ages.” Throughout the holy month, we will post original pieces from the Al-Masry Al-Youm staff on everything from the five senses of Ramadan to reports of Ramadan abroad, alongside Arabic literature from Sheherazade to Mahfouz.

Here, Lifestyle Editor Nevine El Shabrawy recounts a Ramadan past, and describes how to avoid her mistake and host a perfect first feast.

Ramadan approaches and beyond all the warm and fuzzy feelings lies strong stab of anxiety, nagging from the beginning until the end of the month. Wagib. A word that means both “homework” (probably the root of my anxiety) and "what should be done," wagib is a series of pleasantries/obligations passed down to you by your parents, which are supposed to be taken for granted and understood by everyone. Well, everyone except me. 

For many, mostly women, Ramadan iftar (breaking the fast or “breakfast”) is the time in which your skills as a hostess and cook are put to the test. From day one of the holy month, you are expected to cook fabulous food, serve it right on time, and be ready for mid-meal switches–soup to main dishes, juices on hand, quick cleanup for dessert, and hot, strong tea to help everyone digest your wonderful meal. Anything else can seem like a failure.

The first Ramadan I decided to cook myself, I thought I had it perfectly planned out. I prepared a multitude of dishes, kept my vegetarian friend in mind, and the soup was piping hot exactly as the sun went down. But I had forgotten one thing. As guest after guest arrived, I realized that no one had brought dessert! One thing the iftar hostess should be exempt from worrying about is dessert; unless you're eating alone, someone always brings the sweet conclusion to the meal. But the fates were against me, and each and every one of my ten guests had extenuating circumstances that kept them from bringing dessert. Panicked and well-aware that hungry iftar-ers eat relatively quickly, I disappeared mid-meal and left the hosting to my husband while I raced about Maadi, searching for some dessert spot with any little box of halaweyat (sweets) or basbousa that had somehow not been sold in the 30 minutes before iftar. (Konafa is the first dish to go–so no hope there.) After much searching, I found some spare sweets. Dessert was ready, with not a moment to spare, and the meal was complete.

Lessons learned: have a dessert backup plan and, in case of an iftar-related disaster, be willing to improvise! But, if possible, try to avoid frantic, last-minute dessert-shopping by understanding some of the rules and expectations of Ramadan iftar.

Despite the fact that Egypt is my home, I am much more comfortable with a more American blatancy of expectations. On wedding websites in the US, they explain who pays for the bridal shower and what you should get from the registry. In Egypt, you are just supposed to know  how early before Ramadan to call family and wish them a Happy Ramadan, what kind of food you should make for a proper iftar, and, most importantly, who you should be eating with on the first day of Ramadan.

For most, the first day of Ramadan means iftar with family. This may seem simple, but with extended and disjointed families in Egypt, you may not be able to get everyone together easily, or at all. Whether due to the sheer size of someone’s family or extreme clashes in relationships, beliefs, and lifestyles, gathering your family together can be a difficult task.

Some have decided to take a stance and make the first iftar one for immediate family only. If you’re not married, this means your parents; if you are married, your husband and children. But if you are an only child or if everyone in your family is married and off with their own families, parents (who have become used to iftar with their children) will be very insulted if they are left alone (even though they are together!).

In any case, spending time with family is not burdensome. With the hectic lives we all live these days, it’s nice to be forced to have some quality time with people who are very important to us. So, how do you execute this gracefully without upsetting anyone?

My first bit of advice is, ask! Ask others first to see who is doing what for the first day of Ramadan. Secondly, make a checklist of which family members have to be catered to as soon as possible, and how many children are available to help out. For example, if your parents are divorced and can’t stand each other, can your sister host your mom while you host your dad? Look at relationships between your in-laws and your parents. If you live with your in-laws, should you plan your first iftar out so your parents don’t feel like they’re entering hostile territory? If everything is just too messy and your parents and in-laws are making it all too difficult, should you start your own tradition with your spouse and children for the first iftar? Keep in mind, if you choose the last option, one day in the nearer-than-you-think future, you, too, will be abandoned at iftar.

Another first iftar worry I face is the cooking. I have only recently taken up cooking and, although the effect on the family, health-wise, has been great, I have entered into a whole new playing field with Ramadan. The only rule I know for sure is, there must be soup. I’m sure there are other rules, and if you are also unaware of the rules and inviting in-laws over who know the rules really well, you need to find out what they are!

First iftar rules, according to people I asked:

1. Serve dates and milk, in case anyone does iftar like the Prophet did.

2. Amar al-Din, Tamr Hindi, Sobya, Er E Soos, Karkadeh… befriend these drinks, you will be expected to provide at least two at your iftar.

3. Soup-wise, if you want to stay traditional, make lissan asfour (small, teardrop-shaped noodles in chicken stock) or lentil. And don’t even think about a soup-less iftar.

4. You must have meat. For the first day of Ramadan, it is traditional to serve some sort of meat dish.

5. In Syria, it is also traditional to serve a breakfast dish at iftar. So, if your guests have Syrian blood, it wouldn’t hurt to heat up some ful (fava beans).

6. Make lots of food. Seriously. I’m told there’s something shameful about a dish emptying too early in the meal. Just convince the residents of your home that the second day’s iftar will be yummy leftovers.

7. Last, but not least: have a dessert handy just in case your guests forget the rules.

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