For Muslims all over the world, Ramadan (the month of fasting decreed by the precepts of Islam) began on Friday November 16 and will end on Saturday December15. The Islamic calendar is now in the year 1422, unlike the Gregorian calendar, and has twelve lunar months: Muhharam, Safar, Rabî Al-Awwal, Rabî Ath-Thânî, Jumâda Al-Awwal, Jumâda Ath-Thânî, Rajab, Cha’bân, Ramadan, Chawwâl, Dhul-Qa’da, Dhul-hijja. The beginning of each month is calculated to coincide with the visibility of the new moon. The letters of the Arabic alphabet are divided into two categories, according to the influence of the sun and moon. The lunar calendar is not a totally alien concept to the western world: our own farmers and land workers also followed the cycle of the moon instead of calendar months until just a few decades ago.
The beginning of the holy month of fasting is marked by the Night of Destiny, Lailat al Kadr, the night Mohammed received a revelation from an angel exhorting him to become God’s messenger (Rassoul Allah). This period coincides with the feast of Aid el Fitr or Aid Es Saghir, the breaking of fast, which lasts three days and is a very meaningful time: Muslims should experience joy, devotion and mercy, bad feelings should be forgotten and good works performed for the less fortunate.
During the month of Ramadan, the day is marked by the alternation of hours of daylight and of darkness. Dawn (Fajir) marks the beginning of the fast in the morning, followed by sunrise (Shuruk), midday (Dohr), afternoon (Asr), culminating in sunset (Maghreb) when the fast is broken (Maghreb also means “west”, hence the same name given to north-western Africa), and finally darkness or night, Ishaà.
It is well-known that the daylight hours are given over to fasting, while eating, drinking and sexual activity can take place at night. The rules governing Ramadan may be more or less strict, depending on the various interpretations of the Koran. For some, fasting may even be placed at risk by swallowing too much saliva, or by the introduction of liquids into the body that can reach the stomach (cleansing of female genitalia is quoted with regard to this), or even excessively deep inhalation of aromas.
In any case, eating, drinking or smoking are not permitted between dawn and sunset during Ramadan. The rigidity of these rules is subject to the good sense and discretion of individual Muslims. But all believers, from North Africa to Indonesia, are united in one common practice: the preparation of rich, reviving meals for the evening.
In Islamic countries, during Ramadan, the evenings are lively: families gather around the fire and the women cook sumptuous delicacies, high in calories. In the daytime it can be unadvisable and even dangerous for a foreigner visiting Muslim countries to eat in front of others, but in the evening the souk is full of sizzling kebabs, frying pans and bubbling pans.
Although immigration into Italy is a fairly recent phenomenon – dating back to the beginning of the Eighties – the large Islamic community (mainly from North Africa) has brought along its customs and habits; in the Langhe, land of great wines and gourmet traditions and the home of Slow Food, the month of Ramadan is now routine.
The hour of Maghreb is calculated for every country, region and province; in Dogliani on November 16 it is at 5.02 pm, and as the days get shorter it will gradually become earlier so that, on Saturday December 15, the fast can be broken at 4.51 pm.
Sanaa and Hassan, from Safi (a large coastal town between Casablanca and Essaouira with an important sardine fishing industry) are the parents of Miriam and Salwa (respectively six and four years old); they have been in Dogliani for over ten years and are perfectly integrated in the town. In their home I followed the preparation of delicious rich evening meals and can assure you that despite the fast, no-one is going to lose weight during Ramadan – quite the opposite, in fact!
Sanaa is already in the kitchen in the early afternoon, making bread which must rise for a few hours before cooking. Two types of bread are prepared during Ramadan: round loaves, commonly known as hobs, made from durum wheat flour, water and yeast, which become high and incredibly soft and are dipped into the sumptuous tajine of meat or fish; and batbot (this is the name used in Safi and Casablanca, but it varies from one region to another), based on soft wheat, water and yeast, which is left to rise for about two hours and then cooked on both sides in an iron skillet greased with oil. The batbot is usually spread with honey and butter and is smooth and doughy in consistency, like a more substantial pancake.
At sunset the meal begins with a glass of water and dates, then a hot drink is advisable; sugary milk, milky coffee or tea, with batbot. On the table next to the bread and drinks are a number of hard-boiled eggs, which are usually dipped in salt. Another typical Ramadan dish is harira, tasty pulse and meat soup, which needs to cook for about two hours. Sanaa makes her harira with chopped parsley, coriander and celery, adding chick peas, lentils, tomato, and then chopped beef or lamb, salt, pepper and a natural coloring like saffron which costs less than the original and gives the soup a nice fiery red color. When it is almost cooked, Sanaa adds a little flour diluted in water to thicken the soup and make it creamy, and sometimes a handful of fine small pasta.
The Maghreb meal continues with a series of homemade cakes and sweets, high in calories, with a common ingredient – honey. Chabakìa are little, round, sweet cakes eaten everywhere in Morocco (similar to the famous cartellate of the south of Italy); they are made from flour, eggs and fennel seeds fried and dipped in honey, then sprinkled with sesame seeds. Every Moroccan housewife makes them, and they can be kept in sealed containers for almost the whole period of Ramadan. Briwat are tasty and also appeal to western tastes: they consist of triangles of phyllo pastry (which in Italy can be found in the best supermarkets as well as in shops selling ethnic foods) filled with chopped almonds, eggs, butter and cinnamon, fried and covered with honey.
The recipe that perhaps best demonstrates the hyper-calorific nature of Ramadan is sfouf, a sweet that is not a pastry or cream but a powder. Flour toasted in the oven, and mixed with chopped almonds and peanuts, ground sesame, fennel and linseeds, all mixed together with honey, olive oil, sugar and butter: this explosive high-calorie delicacy is also found on Moroccan tables.
Thus Muslim stomachs may still be full when midnight comes, bringing the second meal of the long Ramadan nights. The night-time meal is more of a proper dinner, when meat tajine are eaten (beef, mutton, chicken) with a wide range of mixed vegetables, and sometimes kebabs, brochettes with meat and sometimes liver or spleen.
Those who have to work hard in the morning often permit themselves a third meal before Fajr, dawn, heralds the new day and the period allowed for eating draws to a close. Tea with bread, butter and honey, sometimes white cheese, or a few more spoons of sfouf.
The Ramadan fast originated as a spiritual and physical purification ritual and is perhaps one of the religious precepts that most effectively unites Islamic peoples. During Ramadan, Muslims from Tangiers to Kuala Lumpur come together around the table to share a rich substantial meal with their nearest and dearest. Ramadan is of course a time for prayer, but it is also a time to put into practice the resolutions that make a good Muslim. Prayer and food have an important and indissoluble role in all religions: just think of the sacrament of the Eucharist and fasting for Catholics, and the complexity of kasher rules and the dishes expressly linked to religious festivals for Jews, and the rules of halal, as well as Ramadan, for Muslims. But elsewhere, too, the link between ritual and food has been even stronger: some Indio tribes in Amazonia, in an extreme and ultimate act of love, used to eat the ashes of the deceased, mixing them with banana.
Food as a fundamental part of our identity, as a means of controlling social structure, as a link between life and death. Our life unfolds around a table.
Alessandra Abbona, a journalist, works at the Slow Food Press Office
In the photo: Harira soup