Al Yaman family with their guests at the iftar dinner. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: An iftar gathering at Al Yaman family’s home in Jumeirah Lake Towers, reflected the typical hospitality of the Levant people, except this one was a bit more special as it was an iftar that was inspired all the way from the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Added with a touch of modernity as it took place on the 37th floor of a residential tower and topped with diversity as guests from four other different nationalities and backgrounds sat around a long dining table, everyone was thankful for the month of Ramadan for finally bringing them together as neighbours.

Palestinian Wedad Abdul Hadi, a working mother with a toddler, and her Lebanese husband Bilal Al Yaman, a business consultant, say iftar gatherings are a nice opportunity to introduce others around them to Ramadan and to Muslim customs and traditions.

“The beauty of Ramadan back home was when we had iftar with our extended families and relatives, but now since we are a small family of three, having our neighbours and friends join us is what makes this experience extra special,” said Al Yaman, 36.

Inside the apartment, the aroma of the main chicken dish that was roasting in the oven for more than an hour filled the place.

Wedad Abdul Hadi, 27, who was juggling between taking care of her baby boy Noor and laying the food on the table, said: “Ramadan Iftars are all about Arabic dishes, I avoid making international dishes in Ramadan because throughout the year we always end up eating pasta, pizza and junk food.”

Just a few minutes before iftar, plates containing Palestinian samosas and other pastries were placed on the table. Some were filled with akkawi cheese, a white brine Palestinian cheese mixed with mozzarella and fetta cheese. While the others had a minced meat fillings that had been cooked with tomato sauce and black pepper. Two big bowls of salads were placed symmetrically on each side of the table, and the three main dishes for the day were almost ready to be served.

Wedad then asks her brother to switch on the TV to know when it’s time to end the fast. “We can’t hear the Azan from the mosque up here, we have to turn on the TV,” she said.

“To keep the essence of Ramadan, it’s always necessary to have the three-course meal with the soup, which is a Palestinian lentil soup we made today containing parsley, followed with the salad, the main dish and ending it with desert, of course,” said Wedad. “We don’t do this in other months.”

Wedad was happy to have her neighbours — who were from a mixture of nationalities, including an Indian man and his wife from Turkmenistan and a Chechen family friend — experience the Arab Levant flavours and Ramadan spirit at her home. “We’ve been trying to get together for so long.”

The dishes on the table originated from different parts of the Arab world, but they were typical of Palestinian and Lebanese cuisine. “The Chicken Mahshi with vegetables is the star dish of the day, it’s a dish we used to have back home in Nablus all the time. It’s something my mother cooks,” she said. “The spices and the yoghurt mix, which were used to marinate the chicken, is definitely my mother’s recipe.”

The key flavour of the chicken was the black pepper and cinnamon. Served on its side was the brown rice topped with fried pine nuts. “The chicken is usually stuffed with the rice, but here we have it on the side,” she said.

Her brother Ibrahim Abdul Hadi, 24, said he always feels nostalgic when he joins his sister for iftar. “Her food reminds me of my mother’s recipes back in Palestine. I would say she gets 90 per cent of the recipe right,” he said jokingly.

Throughout the feast, Wedad barely took her seat, making sure everyone was served and got a taste of all her dishes. “This iftar is missing a typical Lebanese dish, the fatteh, which is made with chickpeas, yoghurt and garlic with fried bread,” she said. “You must try this msa’aa today. This is originally an Egyptian dish, containing eggplant and minced meat, but it’s made in Lebanon a lot.”

The dark coloured drink on the table was the refreshing Ramadan drink, the Jallab, she said. “It is made mainly of grape molasses and artificial colouring, then smoked with Arabic incense. It has to be on the table for Iftar.”

Ibrahim, who came to the UAE three years ago, believes the Ramadan vibes in Palestine are different. “People over there queue to get their fresh bread, rush to the confectionaries to get their sweets and the roads are always busy with people walking on foot. “but sharing the feeling of Ramadan with people of different backgrounds is nice because we get to show them how we end our fast after 15 hours and we also get to share with them the real homemade taste of Palestinian food.”

Following a filling iftar, the men went for Taraweeh prayers, while the rest of the guests were served the traditional Palestinian tea with a special herb known as maramia.

“The sweets are the most fattening element during Ramadan,” said Wedad, as she served the guests her favourite dessert, called Kattayef, a sort of sweet dumpling filled with nuts in addition to fteer, another Palestinian dessert similar to baklava but is stuffed with fresh cream.

“It was an extremely hospitable iftar, it’s been such a long time I haven’t had homemade food,” said Indira Kasaeeva, the Chechen family friend.

 

Neighbour side bar:

Harish Mathew, 37, Al Yaman family’s neighbour from two years.

“Today’s iftar was a great example of how Ramadan brings people together. It’s been almost a year we’ve been talking about meeting and this is the first time we caught up. We never really got the chance to visit each other before. The food had the true Levant flavour and the people had been amazing. I felt the warm and positive vibes from everyone. Every year during this period, we get the opportunity to bond with a lot of our friends because work ends early and people have time during the evenings to come together. Otherwise, usually throughout the year, working until 7 becomes a challenge for everybody to come and meet together.”

 

Recipe of the day

Chicken Mahshi — roasted chicken with vegetables and rice on side (serves 10) — one hour 45 minutes to prepare

 

Ingredients:

Two whole chickens
½ kilogram of yoghurt
Spices — salt, seven spices, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom
Bay laurel
Chili peppers
One full garlic
Two fresh onions
Full broccoli
Six baby potatoes
One lemon
Olive oil, for marinating the chicken

Method:

1. Mix the yoghurt with a quarter tea spoon of each of the spices, three cloves of garlic and chili, leave it on the side.

2. Marinating the chicken: Clean the two full chickens and place them in a pan. Rub the chicken with olive oil then sprinkle a half tea spoon of each of the spices on the chicken. mash four cloves of garlic and rub it on the chicken so it can absorb it. Then marinate the chicken with the yoghurt mix using a brush.

3. Prepare the vegetables. Cut the broccoli along with six baby potatoes cut in half. Add half tea spoon of salt, some onion and garlic.

4. After the chicken absorbs the spices well, fill the pan with water, making sure it covers only half the chicken, add rest of the mashed garlic and cover the pan with foil. Place the pan in the oven, which should be set at temperature 200 and turned on for 20 minutes.

5. After 45 minutes, add the vegetables to cook with the chicken.

6. When the chicken is cooked, add one squeezed lemon on the chicken, depending on how sour you like it.

6. Rice prepared separately and topped with fried pine nuts.