I am not Muslim. So when I thought about Iftar, I’m afraid I had some misconceptions.
Iftar is the evening meal that breaks the daily fast during the month of Ramadan. The ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Ramadan is a time of prayer and reflection and restraint from sin and pleasures of the flesh. The holy month begins with the first sighting of the crescent moon, around April 2, and ends around May 2.
Those Muslims who are able are obligated to refrain from eating and drinking between dawn and sundown every day throughout the month. The predawn meal, called suhur, is counted on to provide energy to get through the day. The evening meal, iftar, is meant to satisfy the day’s hunger.
I had assumed that a certain group of dishes would be served for iftar, at least for cultural reasons if not specifically religious ones. This is why assuming is generally a bad idea. It turns out that for iftar you can serve basically whatever you feel like eating.
And now that I think about it, that makes sense. Ramadan is 29 or 30 days long, depending on the year. No one wants to eat the same few prescribed meals for that long. You could serve cheeseburgers for iftar, or a bucket of fried chicken.
Still, many families serve food from their cultural backgrounds for at least some meals during Ramadan. It’s the food they grew up with. It’s comfort food. It tastes like home.
Most of the Muslim families in the United States came from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. For my iftar meals, I focused on recipes from those regions.
I began with the familiar baba ghanoush, a smoky eggplant dip beloved throughout the Middle East — and in more recent years, throughout the world. More complex in flavors than hummus, it is served in much the same ways: with wedges of pita, as a dip for vegetables or, frankly, licked off the finger you just dunked into it.
Don’t be embarrassed. Everybody does it. The finger adds flavor.
Eggplant is the primary ingredient in baba ghanoush, of course, but what makes it so silky and addictive are the other ingredients that are blended into it: yogurt, but not too much, garlic, tahini and lemon juice.
I made it two ways, by running the eggplant under a broiler and by cooking it on a grill. If you have one, the grill is definitely the way to go — the actual smoke from the fire is far more pungent than the vaguely smoky taste that comes from charring the eggplant skin in the broiler.
If you do not have a grill, then by all means broil the eggplant. You will not be unhappy. You just won’t be in the same state of transcendent bliss that comes from cooking the eggplant on a grill.
I stayed in the Middle East for my next iftar dish, mujadarrah, which is lentils and rice with fried onions.
This is the most comforting of comfort foods. Though it is made up of only four simple ingredients, plus salt and pepper, the way they combine together is just stunning.
Mere lentils and rice, while perfectly acceptable for a dish, is a little dull. But fried onions bring unexpected depth to the flavor, along with the irresistible sweetness that comes from a long, slow caramelization.
It takes a long time to properly brown onions, but the results are spectacular. I made a double batch so I could keep some in the refrigerator until needed. Besides, the house is going to smell like onions every time you do it, anyway, so you may as well make more than you need.
The fourth and final ingredient of mujadarrah is yogurt (browned onions are made from onions and olive oil, but I’m counting it as a single ingredient). The creamy tanginess of the yogurt cuts through the umami-heavy undertones of the other ingredients. It is a masterful stroke that brings cohesion to the dish.
I’ve seen recipes that say the use of yogurt is optional. Don’t listen to them.
I headed to Southeast Asia for my next iftar dish, potato bread patties, which come to us from a food blogger in Pakistan.
These delightful little packets are a quick way to make samosas, those stuffed fried appetizers that are a must at any restaurant serving food from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The filling is the familiar potato stuffing that can be found in samosas; it’s what makes the flatbread aloo paratha so good. Plain mashed potatoes are highly spiced with coriander, cumin, turmeric and a tangy spice mixture called chaat masala (I bought it at an international food store; if you don’t want to go to the trouble you can do without it).
Into the mixture also go onion, garlic, mint, peas, lemon juice and cilantro. No single ingredient stands out; it is the singular combination of all the tastes mashed together that provides the signature note.
What makes these patties stand out is the wrapping. Instead of a dough you make yourself, then knead and then let rest for an hour, this dish uses plain old sandwich bread. You just roll it flat, place some filling in the middle and fold it over into a triangle. Dip it in egg, dredge it through breadcrumbs and fry it in hot oil.
Voilà. You’ve got yourself a potato bread patty.
I saved a main course for last, Sticky Malaysian Chicken With Pineapple Salad. Once again, the warming, comforting flavors belie how easy it is to make.
This dish has two parts — three if you count the chicken, but that’s just chicken.
The first part is the glaze for the chicken. It is a mixture of honey, soy sauce, garlic and ginger, with sesame oil, fish sauce and a chile for heat. It all comes together in a food processor in a matter of minutes.
While the glaze-covered chicken is cooking in the oven, you can make the second part of the dish, the pineapple salad. This is a remarkably refreshing concoction of pineapple, cucumber, red onion and lime juice.
The sprightly salad is a lovely contrast to the chicken, but to be honest, either part of the dish would be great on its own.
And for iftar? Nothing could be better.
Yield: 6 servings
Adapted from a recipe in Saveur
- 2 (1-pound) eggplants, halved lengthwise
- 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons tahini
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup plain, full-fat yogurt
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds, see notes
- Mint leaves, for garnish, optional
Notes: Pomegranate seeds are harder to find than they used to be. I bought mine at Whole Foods. They are a lovely addition to this recipe but are not essential.
— If you do not have a grill, skip to step 2.
1. Prepare a fire in a grill. When coals are hot, prick eggplant skins all over with a fork or knife and cook on grate, turning once, until cut side is just beginning to lightly blacken and skin is charred. Let cool. Skip to step 3.
2. If you do not have a grill, heat broiler to high; prick eggplant skins with a knife or fork and place on a baking sheet on the top rack of your oven. Broil, flipping once, until the cut side is just beginning to blacken and the skin is charred. Let cool.
3. Scoop eggplant out of its skin with a large spoon, and set aside. Place lemon juice, tahini and garlic in a food processor; let sit 10 minutes. Add the reserved eggplant, yogurt, salt and pepper, and pulse until slightly smooth. Transfer to a shallow dish. Make a well on the surface and drizzle with oil. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and mint.
Per serving: 165 calories; 15 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 3 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 403 mg sodium; 40 mg calcium
LENTILS AND RICE WITH FRIED ONIONS (MUJADARRAH)
Yield: 4 servings
Recipe by Melissa Mueller, via allrecipes.com
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 large white onion, sliced into rings
- 1 1/3 cups green lentils
- 3/4 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup plain yogurt
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they turn a rich mahogany brown, about 45 minutes to 1 hour or longer. Do not allow to turn black; this will make them bitter. Browned onions can be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days or can be frozen for several months.
2. Place lentils in a medium saucepan and cover with 1 1/2 inches of lightly salted water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer about 15 minutes.
3. Add rice and enough water to cover by 1/2 inch or a little more. Add at least 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, cover and turn heat to low. Simmer 15 to 20 minutes, until rice and lentils are tender. Let sit off the heat, covered, at least 5 minutes.
4. Add 1/2 of the onions and stir with a fork to mix well and fluff rice. Taste and season if necessary. To serve, top with remaining onions and yogurt on each portion.
Per serving: 460 calories; 10 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 5 mg cholesterol; 22 g protein; 73 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 8 g fiber; 167 mg sodium; 76 mg calcium
POTATO BREAD PATTIES
Yield: 8 servings (32 patties)
Recipe by yesicancook.pk
- 2 medium potatoes
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red chiles, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed cumin seeds (or dried cumin)
- Pinch of turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon chaat masala, see note
- 1 green chile
- 6 mint leaves, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup frozen peas
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, chopped
- 32 slices sandwich bread
- Oil for deep frying
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 3 cups breadcrumbs
Note: Chaat masala is a spice mixture. It is available at international food markets. If you can’t find it, you can leave it out.
1. Peel potatoes and cut them into quarters. Place in boiling water and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and mash.
2. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and salt to taste, and cook until translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook 30 seconds.
3. Add crushed red chiles, coriander, cumin, turmeric and chaat masala, and stir until combined. Add mashed potatoes, green chile, mint and peas, and stir until mixed well. Add lemon juice and cilantro and mix well. Remove from heat.
4. Remove crusts from bread and roll each slice with a rolling pin until thin. Place a heaping teaspoon of filling in middle of one slice. Lightly wet edges of the bread all the way around with water, fold one corner over to meet the opposite corner and form a triangle. Press sides together to seal. Repeat with remaining slices and filling.
5. Pour oil 1 1/2 inches deep in a large pot and bring to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. While it is heating, place eggs in 1 bowl and breadcrumbs in another. Dip each triangle first into eggs to coat, then into breadcrumbs to cover; remove to a plate. Fry triangles in oil a few at a time, without crowding, until golden brown on both sides. Remove to a platter lined with paper towels to drain.
Per serving: 600 calories; 13 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 93 mg cholesterol; 20 g protein; 98 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; 7 g fiber; 1,211 mg sodium; 267 mg calcium
STICKY MALAYSIAN CHICKEN WITH PINEAPPLE SALAD
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
Slightly adapted from a recipe by Rachel Khoo, via food52.com
For the glaze and chicken:
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 (1 1/4-inch) piece ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1/3 cup runny honey
- 1/3 cup light soy sauce or tamari
- 1 red chile (remove seeds if you prefer it less hot)
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 pounds chicken thighs
- 2 pounds chicken legs
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
For the pineapple salad:
- 1 cucumber
- 1/2 small pineapple, see note
- 1 small red onion
- 1 lime, juiced
- 1 pinch salt
Note: You can use fresh pineapple that has already been cored, or even canned pineapple if you wish.
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. To make the glaze: In a food processor, blend garlic, ginger, honey, soy sauce, chile, sesame oil and fish sauce until fairly smooth. Place the chicken pieces in a large roasting pan along with the glaze, tossing them well to coat. Roast for 45 minutes, remove from the oven and sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds.
3. To make the salad: Halve the cucumber lengthwise; remove seeds with a spoon and discard the seeds. Slice each piece lengthwise, then slice on an angle and put in a large bowl. Chop the pineapple into small cubes and add to the bowl. Peel and thinly slice the onion. Add to bowl along with the lime juice.
4. Taste salad just before serving; add salt if necessary.
Per serving (based on 5): 310 calories; 11 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 102 mg cholesterol; 25 g protein; 31 g carbohydrate; 24 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 1,600 mg sodium; 53 mg calcium