Video Credit: Gulf News

Dubai: The Emara family in Dubai is making the most of this Ramadan. As life in the UAE returns close to normality following two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of this Egyptian family are ending their daily fasts together. Gulf News was recently invited to join the family members for iftar at their household.

A memorable family affair

Half an hour before iftar, the kitchen was bustling with the women of the household, giving last touches to the elaborate traditional dishes that are being made for a sumptuous dinner spread outdoors. As the chairs were set, the excitement among the eight children in the household was palpable as they laughed and ran around. The sense of festivity and camaraderie was unmistakable.

Egyptian expat Mona Kamel, a Human Resources professional and her husband Mohammad Emara, an official with an online food delivery firm, live in Dubai with their three children — Saif, 15, Fares, 12 and Janna, five — along with the maternal grandmother Nafisa Hassan Ahmed, 69. They have been in the UAE for the last four years. Every year, it has been their endeavour to observe the fast with their extended family. However, because of the pandemic over the last two years, this was not possible.

This year, the Emara family has invited all their siblings from Kuwait to be with them during Ramadan and Eid and their home was bustling with 12 family members. The members included Mona’s sister Mai Kamel and her two children, Ronzy, 5, and Malak, 1; Mona’s brother Mostafa Kame, his wife Doaa as well as their daughter Makka, 1. The Emara family considers Jenny, their dedicated Filipina maid, as an integral part of the family. Jenny has been part of the Emara family for six years and cooks traditional Egyptain cuisine with a flair quite like a native. Capturing the true community spirit of Ramadan, the Emara family believes in sharing their iftar and suhour meals and prayer time with the extended family.

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The household bustled with 12 family members this Ramadan Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Creating happy memories

As Gulf News walked into the Emara household, it was touching to see the entire family with the senior-most member, grandmother Nafisa, and the youngest toddler less than two years of age, together offering prayers.

Mona said: “As kids, the happiest memories I have of my life in Cairo are those of observing Ramadan with all my siblings and extended family members. We would be up pre-dawn for suhoor, have our meals, rest and attend school. In the late afternoon, the kitchen was the place to hang around and help our mum prepare the iftar meals. There would be so much banter as all of us pitched in.

“Later, after iftar, we would sit down to watch special Ramadan plays on television. I want to create similar memories for my children. I am indeed fortunate that my siblings were able to come from Kuwait with their respective families and spend the entire Ramadan with us. Both my brother and sister have a work-from-home arrangement.”

Health in focus

Mona has diligently followed traditional recipes that were handed down to her from her mother and grandmother. For refreshing drinks, there was the traditional Qamardeen, made from dried peach extract, and Subia, a drink made of coconut milk, dairy milk, vanilla extract and dates, as well as laban.

Traditional flavours

Mona, under the supervision of her mother and with assistance from her sister-in-law and sister, made an elaborate traditional fare. She said: “I made a traditional rice-based soup. It helps us prepare for the main meal as eating slowly helps us eat the main meal better.”

The highlight of the evening was Mashi. Mona continued: “This is a dish made of cabbage and Egyptian rice, garnished with traditional Egyptian spices, tomatoes and herbs. This is stewed slowly over a slow fire and then stuffed with different vegetables such as capsicum, marrows, potatoes, eggplants. This is the main meal of the evening and is extremely filling and nutritious.

“I also made some traditional stuffed vine leaves, which is a popular delicacy throughout the Arab world and quite a staple for iftar. Of course having a salad as a side dish is staple during the main meal. I have prepared a medley of diced fresh garden vegetables and watercress, with some fresh lemon vinaigrette dressing. This is light, rich in fibre and complements all the cooked food.”

Balancing flavours and good health

Mona said it was important to keep the health of the family in mind while cooking, so she opted for slow cooking, grilling and stewing instead of frying. “For the non-vegetarian fare, I prepared grilled whole chicken, marinated with special spices. I made diced potatoes baked with meat pieces, and another meat dish mixed with spices and bechamel sauce, baked in the oven,” said Khalil.

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Grilled whole chicken Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

“Normally, we make the food on the day, but the preparation starts a day before. I learnt all the traditional dishes from my mother. When I got married, 16 years ago, I had no idea about cooking. Over the years, I learnt to combine the ingredients, but used recipes with some family secrets. Now I’m able to teach all this traditional cooking to my maid Jenny who has become an accomplished Egyptian cook,” said Mona.

Mai, Mona’s sister, said: “When we plan the meal for iftar, we try to make sure that it is filling, has lots of vegetables, grilled meats and rice so that the children feel satisfied and at the same time they are able to digest it well. Our preparations are traditional where there is nothing processed or fried.”

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Diced potatoes baked with meat pieces Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

The dessert that almost all children like — kunafa — was also there on the evening’s menu. Mona prepared kunafa with a crispy thin fried vermicelli exterior and stuffed with soft and fresh cottage cheese steeped in date syrup.

Creating Ramadan memories

Iftar for the Emara family was not just about having food, but having soul-nourishing conversation at the dinner table as well — sharing anecdotes, laughter, with the sisters and the grandmother reminiscing the times gone by and the children soaking up those tales.

Post-iftar, while the women settled down to watch their favourite Ramadan shows on television, the men chatted outdoors, while the children ran around, playing ball-and-catch.

“It is important for us to observe Ramadan that has a combination of family love and spirituality. My children now have a strong bond with their cousins and they will grow up looking back at these years and continue with this tradition. This is the true meaning of Ramadan for me,” said Mona.