Dubai resident Abeda Oturkar is a well-known culinary expert and runs Spice & Aroma, a catering company specialising in Asian and Mediterranean cuisines. During Ramadan, she will be offering her clients an extensive iftar menu with a range of dishes. But ask her about her favourite dish and she immediately picks pitthi, a traditional dish from Bengal and Bihar states in India.
"This dish was often made in my home for suhoor and I still make it during Ramadan in my own home. This dish is connected with wonderful childhood memories. I remember the excitement of viewing the new moon from the terrace, and the hustle and bustle in the kitchen as the elders planned the suhoor and iftar menus. After Isha prayers, the women of the house would patiently sit with a ball of dough and roll it into small grains between their thumb and index finger to prepare the pitthi. It was a labour of love as it took hours to make enough for the whole family. The grains were then slow-cooked in milk and that creamy taste and rustic aroma still lingers in my memory," she says.
"As a child I was eager to start fasting and was so excited when I was allowed to fast for half the day at the age of 7. But I always found it difficult to wake up so early in the morning. The only thing that would get me out of bed was the aroma of pitthi. And it was such a nice feeling to see the whole family gathered on the dasterkhwan (tablecloth) spread on the kitchen floor, sharing this early morning meal before beginning the day's fast," she adds.
Like Abeda, most people cherish the special traditional dishes that are cooked in their homes during Ramadan. Often, these dishes are based on recipes handed down over generations in the family. And for people who are living far away from their home countries, the traditional dishes they cook at home for suhoor and iftar provide a strong connection with their cultural roots and with past memories.
"Today, one can visit Ramadan tents at five-star hotels and enjoy sumptuous multicuisine iftar buffets at restaurants. But nothing can compare with home-cooked traditional dishes," says Ghada Kunash, art collector and proprietor of Vindemia art and antique gallery. Ghada is from Jordan and loves to go back home during Ramadan. "My mother is very happy when I visit her during Ramadan with my husband and children. She spends a lot of time in the kitchen cooking our favourite dishes. But the one I look forward to the most is the eggplant fatteh. This is an appetiser that my mother has always made during Ramadan. When I see my children enjoying this traditional dish along with the extended family, it brings back wonderful memories of iftar get-togethers during my childhood," she says.
Dedra Stevenson's earliest memories of Ramadan go back to her college days in Alabama, the US, when she embraced Islam. "I was 20 years old and used to break my fast with tacos or burgers at fast food restaurants," she recalls. "In the beginning I found it extremely difficult to fast. I had to work up to it just the way children are trained to do. But for the past 23 years I have been fasting fully. The hardest part for me is going without the coffee. But I look at Ramadan as a spiritual detox. It is a chance to detox from all your bad habits, to clean toxic elements out of your life and to focus on building your spiritual side," she says.
Dedra is married to an Emirati and has been living in Dubai for more than two decades. She has a deep interest in Emirati culture, especially local folklore and has written The Hakima's Tale, a trilogy of children's books set in the UAE, and now available in electronic format. She has also learnt to cook traditional Emirati food and the iftar menu at her home includes special Ramadan dishes such as fereed and saloona, which her husband loves. "I now break my fast with Arabian shorba (soup) and like to have traditional Emirati foods such as samboosa and loquemat for iftar. But I also crave for foods that I ate in my childhood, so I have added dishes such as char-grilled steak, grilled chicken and lasagna to my iftar menu. And my most favourite iftar food is crispy southern fried chicken with mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and a big pitcher of iced tea," she says. Dedra has also created a unique Eid tradition in her family. "I always make a big roast turkey with cranberry sauce for Eid and my entire family looks forward to it," she says.
Chef Sameh Youssef, executive sous chef at Holiday Inn Dubai Al Barsha has also created a new Ramadan tradition in his family by developing his own version of a popular Syrian dish cooked by his mother. "As a child I spent hours in the kitchen watching my mother cook, which led to my desire to become a chef right from the age of 10. But just eating the tasty dishes she cooked was not enough for me. I wanted to create my own dishes, so I began experimenting with her recipes by adding my own twist to them. One Ramadan, I tried a variation of my mum's plain "quails and rice" dish and the experiment proved to be successful. My whole family enjoyed my "quails with spicy red sauce and cumin rice" so much that this has become a must during Ramadan in the Youssef family. Not one Ramadan has passed since then without my family relishing this dish," says Chef Sameh. "Iftar is intended to be a humble meal and this is a dish that is simple yet does not compromise on flavour or aroma," he adds.
- 1L milk, full-cream
- 1 small cup (5 oz) pitthi or riz pasta
- 1 small cup sugar or jaggery
- 4 tbs cream
- 6-8 dates, dried
For the pitthi (grains of wheat dough)
Knead two cups of wheat flour into a hard dough. Wrap in cling film and let it stand for 30 minutes. Take wheat flour in a platter, dust your hands with it. Then take a pinch of the dough and roll it into a grain shape with your thumb and index finger. Dust again with dry flour to prevent the grains from sticking together. Prepare a cup full of grains. Alternatively use riz pasta made from durum wheat.
Deseed the dates and soak them in water for 30 minutes. Slice them thinly and keep aside.
Pour the milk in a heavy-bottom or non-stick pan. Add the riz pasta or pitthi (dust off the dry flour) a little at a time to avoid lumps.
Bring the milk to a boil stirring it constantly. When it starts boiling add the sugar or jaggery, reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the grains are cooked (they will swell up).
Stir in the cream and dates, and simmer for another five minutes.
Serve chilled for suhoor.
Visit www.facebook.com/SPICE.AROMA.COOKERY for Ramadan menu.
- 2 thin Arabic bread (khubz), cut into bite-size pieces
- 250g meat (lamb or beef), minced
- 4 eggplants, medium, peeled and sliced at 1/2cm thickness
- 1 white onion, medium, sliced
- Canola oil, for frying
- Tamarind soaked to give 1/2 cup of juice
- 1 cup chicken broth
- Black pepper
- Sweet paprika
- 2 tbs tomato paste
- 1kg yoghurt, plain
- 3 tbs tahini
- 1/2 tsp garlic, crushed
- Salt to taste
- A handful of parsley leaves
- 1/2 cup almonds and pine seeds, fried
Fry the onions until tender. In the same oil, fry the eggplant (or you can just brush with the oil and bake in the oven for five minutes on each side until it is cooked).
Fry the bread until it becomes crunchy, always with the same oil so that it catches the taste of onions and eggplants.
Continue frying the minced meat in the same oil as well, adding a little bit of the spices.
Mix all the ingredients in a deep pan and add the tamarind, tomato paste, chicken broth and all the spices with salt. Let it boil for five minutes on low heat.
Spread the fried bread in the bottom of a rectangular deep serving dish (about 5cm deep) and sparingly use the sauce of the tamarind and the tomato to wet the bread a little bit, but not to make it soggy. Spoon out the onion mixture with eggplants and meat, draining the sauce. Spread evenly on top of the bread.
Mix the yoghurt with the tahini, garlic and salt. Be careful not to put too much salt as you should have used some before for the eggplant mix.
Spread the yoghurt mixture on the eggplant and meat and garnish with fried nuts and parsley, and maybe a sprinkle of paprika.
Serve as an appetiser for iftar.
Quails with spicy red sauce and cumin rice
- 2 tbs vegetable oil
- 8 quails, washed and cut into halves (lengthwise)
For the rice
- 2 tbs ghee
- 2 onions, medium, sliced
- 1 carrot, medium, cubed
- 2 tbs cumin seeds
- 1l chicken stock
- 500g basmati rice
For the spicy red sauce
- 300g tomato, peeled and chopped
- 2 tbs tomato paste
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 tsp white vinegar
- 1/4 tsp chilli powder
Heat oil in a large pan and cook quail pieces on both sides until they are golden brown on the outside and cooked on the inside (season quail with salt and black pepper before frying). Remove from oil and set aside. Heat ghee in a pot and sauté onion slices until they become tender. Add carrot and cumin seeds, and stir for few seconds.
Add chicken stock. Bring to boil while stirring occasionally.
Add the rice and keep stirring, bringing it to boil again. Then cover and let it cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes or until rice is cooked.
Meanwhile, combine all the ingredients for the sauce in a medium saucepan. Stir and bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat for three-four minutes or until sauce thickens slightly. Add the fried quail to the sauce and simmer for a few minutes.
Place rice on a serving plate and the quails with the sauce on top.
— Jyoti Kalsi is a UAE-based freelance writer