Guest Post by Annisa Helou
Photography by Steven Klise
Food Styling by Elle Simone Scott
Ramadan is the most important time of the year in the Islamic calendar, a holy month when Muslims throughout the world fast from sunrise to sunset, not even allowing a drop of water through their lips. The daily fast is broken as soon as the Muezzin (the person who calls the faithful to prayer) announces the setting of the sun. To ease back into eating and drinking after the harsh day’s fast, they first take a few sips of either water or whatever soft drink they favour together with a few dates – the Prophet broke his fast with three dates and many still follow his example. They then retreat to say the dusk prayer, one of Islam’s five daily prayers, before sitting down to their first meal. The sober, sleepy atmosphere of the day is replaced with an exuberant, convivial one that goes on late into the night.
The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr (meaning the feast of breaking the fast and the second most important in Islam; the first being Eid al-Adha or feast of the sacrifice to commemorate Abraham’s sacrifice). Then parents dress their children in brand new clothes and gift them toys. They themselves exchange presents and give money to the poor; and of course, there is plenty of food to share with family and friends.
The dishes prepared for Eid vary depending on where you are in the world. There are 1.4 billion Muslims scattered around the globe but wherever you are, you will be sure to find plenty of sweets, a highlight of both the month of Ramadan as well as Eid.
One of the most famous Levantine sweets is baklava, a generic term for a whole range of confections made with either filo or ‘hair’ pastry (also known as qataifi) that are wrapped around nuts of all kinds, baked or fried before being drenched in sugar syrup that is often flavoured with orange blossom and rose water. Baklava comes in myriad shapes. Those made with filo can be cut into diamonds, or rolled into fingers, or scrunched up into mini baskets, to name a few, with finely ground nuts spread in between the layers or nestled into the baskets. The choice of nuts ranges from peanuts, to walnuts, to pistachios, cashew or almonds (and before pine nuts became so expensive, they were also used). On the other hand, baklava made with ‘hair’ or qataifi pastry is normally only filled with pistachios with the shapes being either rolls, squares or tiny birds’ nests. There will also be ma’moul in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine. These are moulded pastries, somewhat like mooncakes, that are stuffed with either walnuts, pistachios or dates with each shape indicating what is inside them – nowadays some sweet makers also use almonds or exotic jams like rose jam to fill the ma’moul.
A refreshing, lighter teat is khoshaf, a dried fruit and nut ‘compote’ where instead of stewing the fruit, it is customary to soak in an apricot flavoured liquid to re-hydrate it.
Cornes de gazelle (meaning the horns of a deer because the shape is similar to horns) are the most luxurious of Moroccan sweets, delicate raised crescents filled with ground almonds flavoured with mastic and orange blossom water. The dough used for them is rolled out wafer thin before being wrapped around rolls of very finely ground almonds, then shaped by hand. Ch’bakkiya are also a staple, both during Ramadan, when they are served with harira, the classic iftar (the first meal to break the fast) soup and for Eid, when they form part of the selection of sweets that people buy to take home or to gift when they are visiting with family or friends. The way ch’bakkiya is made is rather elaborate with the dough flattened into with thin strips that are then entwined to form a shape akin to roses. They are then fried and dipped in hot honey before being sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Most of these sweets are the preserve of specialist sweets makers and normally bought in while the rest of the food is prepared at home.
M’ruziyah is the main Moroccan festive dish, an intriguing combination of sweet and savoury where chunks of lamb are cooked with black, slightly sour raisins in a subtly spiced sauce that includes ras el-hanout (a complex spice mixture that includes over 25 spices) that is finished with honey and served garnished with toasted almonds. Before refrigeration, the dish was cooked in a generous amount of fat to have a kind of confit that could be kept for up to two months.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, peanuts are a staple and used in dressings for vegetable salads like gado gado, or mixed fruit salads like rujak. They also form the base for dips that are served with sate (grilled meat on skewers). In Lebanon and Syria, ouzi is the typical festive dish except that it describes two different preparations. In the Syrian version, the meat is cooked with rice and nuts and wrapped in filo to have fat cushions that are then baked whereas in Lebanon, the rice is cooked with minced meat and nuts, then served with a whole roast lamb, or a leg or shoulder depending on how many diners are at the meal.
In the Arabian gulf, a feast for Eid will always include roasted meat, usually lamb or goat, or in the desert, camel, served on a bed of fluffy long grain rice. The meat and rice can be garnished with toasted nuts or a mixture of chickpeas cooked with raisins and onions. In northern India, the festive menu will feature biryani and depending on which city you are in, the rice is cooked with goat (known as mutton there) or chicken, or simply potatoes.
One of the defining features of Eid is the cooking of the entire animal. I remember walking through the old souks of Aleppo during Eid (before the uprising) and seeing butchers slaughtering whole lambs right on the street for people to buy whole if they could afford it or just the cuts they needed. Families that have courtyards will have the animal delivered live to them to be slaughtered on the premises, either by the head of the house, their cook or a butcher they bring in for that purpose; and because alms is one of the cornerstones of Islam, they will divide the meat in three parts, one for the family, one for friends and neighbours and the third part to distribute to those in need.
Customs vary in different Muslim communities around the world, but wherever Eid al-Fitr is observed, it is sure to include dear friends and family, delicious food, charity, and self-reflection. It’s a beautiful festival that brings much to the lives of everyone that celebrates it.
Get the recipes: Khoshaf, Cornes de Gazelle, Gado Gado
Annisa Helou is a London-based chef, teacher, and food writer. Born in Lebanon, she worked in art and antiques before embarking on her celebrated career in food. She is the author of Feast: Food of the Islamic World (2018), Levant: Recipes and memories from the Middle East (2013), and Savory Baking from the Mediterranean (2007), among others. Helou runs Annisa’s Kitchen, a multi-functional teaching and entertaining space and in 2013 was named by Arabian Business magazine as one of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women.
As part of our observance of Eid al-Fitr in 2022, Peanut Butter & Co has made a donation to Impact Lebanon