Iftar – A time for feasting, a time for sharing

Iftar – A time for feasting, a time for sharing

July 23, 2014

The spirit of Ramzan is something every Muslim identifies with. There is the fasting all day long for a whole month, the month of Ramzan (or Ramadan). But then this extreme hardship has a wonderful reward (of course, the ultimate reward is a spiritual one – coming closer to Allah) – what is called iftar. It refers to the meal all fasting Muslims have after the sun sets.

Iftar is mostly a sumptuous affair, being the gratification of the hunger resulting from a day’s fast. There is another meal called sehri. This is the breakfast, which must be taken before sunrise, called ‘seher’ in Urdu, Arabic and Persian. Being an early dawn meal, it is not sumptuous.   

The feast

The one must-have food for both iftar and sehri is dates. Most iftar meals begin with dates, often dry dates. Other dry fruits and nuts like almonds and pistachios are also often had. It is said that even if one doesn’t feel like taking anything for sehri, a few dates and water is most recommended. Not only is date a very nutritious fruit, it is also the staple fruit of the dry Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. Along with dry fruits, sherbets and soups often start the meal.

Dates are often eaten to break the day’s fast

Breaking the fast with…

Turkish pide bread – Turkey
Borek (filo dough-stuffed pastry) – Turkey
Lablabi (a chickpea soup) – Tunisia
Harira (chickpea-green lentils-vermicelli soup) – Morocco, Maghreb region
Couscous salad - Morocco
Aashe reshteh (noodles (reshteh)-beans-chickpea-lentils-onions soup) – Iran
Samosa – South Asia
Ful medames (mashed brown fava beans with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and spices) – Egypt
Hummus – Lebanon
Mujaddara (reice-and-lentil pulao) – Middle East
Basbousa (almond semolina cake often cut into little diamonds) – Middle East
Qatayef asafiri (sweet stuffed pancakes) – Syria (esp. Damascus)

(Clockwise from top left) Pide bread, lablabi, harira, aashe reshteh, ful medames, basbousa 

Like so many places in India, Kolkata also has a great tradition of iftar food. Places like Zakaria Street and Rabindra Sarani (at the junction of which lie Nakhoda Masjid) in central Kolkata are the hubs of typical iftar food stalls. Of course, along with food, post-sunset is also the time when a lot of shopping is done, both for oneself as well as for gifting, all through the month, climaxing on the evening before the day of Id-al-Fitr (often an all-night-long shopping spree), the festival which marks the end of the month of Ramzan.

Nakhoda Masjid

‘Ramazan’ and ‘Ramadan’ imply the same thing – the ninth month of the Hijri calendar, which is followed in Islam. The months of the Hijri calendar are in Arabic, in which language the word is ‘Ramadan’. In Urdu and Persian, ‘Ramadan’ becomes ‘Ramazan’ or ‘Ramzan’, the softer ‘z’ replacing the harsher ‘d’. In India, it is ‘Ramzan’ which is more commonly used.

After beginning with dates, the food trail for the evening leads to more delicious foods and sweets. Haleem and kebabs are some of the all-time favourites. Haleem is available throughout the year in Kolkata, but is especially had during the month of Ramzan in the Islamic world.

Haleem is a sumptuous food in itself – tasty as well as filling. It consists of lentils and meat (mostly either mutton or beef or chicken) in a rich, creamy gravy. The arbi haleem, another name for low-cost beef haleem that is available all through the year, is found in most parts around Park Circus, Colootola, Chitpur and other Muslim pockets of the city. Several Mughlai restaurants in the city prepare special haleem, the most notable among them is the haleem made at Aminia restaurant on Zakaria Street, opposite the Nakhoda Mosque main gate. According to them, their USP is their variety – six types of haleem, from maghaz (brain) to zabaan (tongue).

Other places serving quality haleem are Islamia on Colootala Street, Arsalan at Park Circus, Aliah on Waterloo Street (their USP is the saffron they use), Sufia on Zakaria Street and Zeeshan at Park Circus.  

An inviting bowl of haleem

Although there is no specific data available to establish the credentials of its origin, it is believed that haleem has been served during breakfast or dinner time in the royal palaces of Saudi Arabia for many centuries. Since it is very rich in spices, proteins, minerals, carbohydrates and essential fatty acids, haleem has been consumed by the Arab sultans not only for its rich aromatic taste but also for its amazing aphrodisiac qualities.

It’s not just haleem!

Haleem is something most certainly identified with Ramzan, but Ramzan is also about many other types of delicious foods. Some of the Kolkata favourites are described below.

CHICKEN CHANGHEZI: The chicken is marinated in curd and spices for hours before being deep fried in a wok of hot boiling oil to create a fiery hot chicken dish. Served with mint sauce, this is a bestselling street food item.

Chicken changhezi

BREADS: Bread is an important part of Ramzan meals as it provides the body with the required carbohydrates, the fuel needed for the next grueling day of fasting. Some of the special breads associated with Ramzan in this part include roghni roti, bakarkhani and sheermal – which are salty, mildly sweet and sweet, respectively. These can be enjoyed as they are or with any gravy dish.

(L to R) Roghni roti, bakarkhani, sheermal

PHENI: This is often called lachcha. It is a flour-based savoury best enjoyed with warm milk and a sprinkling of sugar. It comes pre-coated with clarified butter. Anyone with major sugar cravings can add a spoonful of condensed milk and use almond and pistachio flakes as toppings for a sweet treat. While many buy the fine Benarasi sewai that come for Rs 100 a kilo, many others opt for the cheaper grades which are coarser.

Pheni or lachcha being sold

HALWA-PARATHA: A traditional favourite, halwa and paratha are often eaten during sehri, the pre-sunrise breakfast, which is the last meal of the day before fasting begins. The halwa and paratha sold on a small cart on Rabindra Sarani is very popular. A huge paratha is cut into smaller bites, as per request, and served along with sweet halwa made from semolina.


For the sweet cravings

We often crave for a dessert after a meal, and for iftar also there is wide choice. Jalebis are very popular all over India and like all through the year, during iftar too they sell like hot cakes. Halwa, as mentioned earlier, is another popular sweet dish, with or without parathas. Other examples of sweet dishes served are gobi kheer, sweet yogurt, sweet dahi baray, almond halwa, kela halwa, khati mithi chutney, sweetened kubani (apricot) with cream and seviya kheer (vermicelli kheer).

Fresh fruits are also consumed widely during iftar. They are more nutritious and wholesome than dry fruits.

(From left) Seviya kheer, jalebi

For vegetarians too

Though there is the regular haleem, there is also a lot of vegetarian food served, especially nowadays when people are getting more and more health conscious. After all, vegetarian food is lighter on the stomach and helps detoxify the system. After fasting, if you eat too much meat dishes, it can make your system sluggish. Popular vegetarian snacks include fruit salad, ghugni, chana masala, papdi chat, pakodas, dahi vada and aloo chat. Restaurants now make vegetarian versions of popular foods like haleem, too, with dalia (broken wheat) and soya granules replacing the meat (it already has lentils).

(From left) Dahi vada, aloo chat

Vegetarian haleem

A time for giving

Iftar is not just any meal but a social event involving family and community members. Everyone gets together to celebrate the breaking of the day’s fast. It is common for people to host others for dinner, including inviting non-Muslim friends. It is also common for people to invite and share food with those less fortunate. The spiritual reward for charitable giving is considered to be especially significant during Ramzan.

Praying before breaking fast

Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv

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Comments (2)
Arindam Reply
July 29, 2014
Every year I get invited to an iftar party at my friend's place, and it's a time I really look forward to every year.
Anupam Bsiwas Reply
July 29, 2014
Mouth-watering article!
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