"And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread; then complete your fast until the night appears . . . Thus doth Allah make clear his signs to men, that they may learn self-restraint."--The Koran
FOR THE past 30 days, devout Moslems all over the globe have observed one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith: the fast. All during the sacred month of Ramadan, healthy adults have refrained from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse in the long hours between sunrise and sunset, to commemorate the month in which the first revelations of the Koran were made to The Prophet, Mohammed. Only the elderly, the sick, travelers journeying at least 50 miles from their homes, and pregnant or nursing women are exempt from the fast.
Early tomorrow morning, as the new month of Shawwal dawns, Islamic countries stretching from North Africa to Indonesia will come alive in celebration for the Eid al-Fitr, "Feast of the Breaking of the Fast." Here in Washington, many Moslems will gather at the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue for mid-morning prayers of thanksgiving followed by a day of feasting, almsgiving and visiting with relatives and friends.
"Ramadan is quite different from the Christian Lent in the sense that we give up not a particular food, but all food and drink between sunrise and sunset," explained Mohammed Iqbal Butt, minister of information at the Embassy of Pakistan. "The tradition in my part of the world is to eat a light breakfast before dawn, which came at 3:43 a.m. today."
Since the 12 months of the Islamic year are based on a solar calendar of 29- or 30-day months, Ramadan may shift from season to season throughout a 33-year cycle. For this reason, the exact dates change from year to year, and cannot be pinpointed as Christmas can on the Gregorian calendar. Thus the faithful must rely on religious officials to notify them when to begin and to end the fast.
At one time, added Butt, town criers traveled the streets awakening people who wished to eat before dawn, and guns were fired or drums beaten to signify the end of the fast in the evenings. "Now we use the modern mediums of radio and television, or our watches and calendars, to keep track of the times."
Though the dishes served at the end of each day's fast vary from country to country, one food remains a constant. "The Prophet used to break his fast with dried dates, so it is traditional in many Islamic countries to have dates on the table," said Butt, enumerating the wide array of dishes prepared for the fast-breaking. "The modern conscience says that overeating is bad for you, so many Pakistanis now stick to a normal meal rather than a feast. But on the first of the new month following Ramadan--the Eid al-Fitr--there is great festivity and much overindulgence."
Tomorrow morning, Butt and his wife, Shameem, will celebrate the new month of Shawwal with the traditional Pakistani sweet--a custard made of ultrafine wheat vermicelli, milk and sugar. "We have a tremendous sweet tooth, and consume a lot of sugar," explained Butt of his countrymen's fondness for desserts. The custard, he added, is the only food that is allowed to be consumed before people visit the mosque for midmorning prayers of thanksgiving.
Afterwards, a feast is laid, the dishes depending on the affluence of the family. At the Butts' Bethesda home, this meal will include shami kebabs (curried meat patties), a chicken khorma (curry), a biryani (a layered rice and meat dish, in this case goat), rayta (cucumber and yogurt salad) and two sweets--sawayur ka zarda (very fine vermicelli cooked with a saffron syrup) and sawayur ki ferni (custard using the same noodles cooked in milk and sugar.
"When you go to call, you must be served one of these two desserts," said Shameem, explaining that what appears to be aluminum foil sprinkled over both dishes is actually paper-thin sheets of finely pounded, edible silver. "You must remember that our desserts are very sweet--almost like pecan pies."
"And there is always chicken, come what may," she adds with a laugh, "and beef dishes and perhaps kekabs. There used to be as many as 12 dishes on the table for parties, but now the menu is much smaller."
Though she doesn't consult cookbooks, Shameem has collected recipes through the years she has spent traveling as the wife of a foreign service officer. "I cook only by experience, not by weights and measures," she explained. "These recipes are really handed down from mother to daughter. No one will ever tell you how much spice to put in anything--it all comes from experience."
After 26 years of raising three sons and living in such cities as London, New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington (where the Butts have been posted most of the last 20 years), Shameem still relies on traditional Pakistani specialities when cooking at home, but enjoys preparing them in a well-equipped kitchen. "Thank God for the food processor!" she adds after launching into a lengthy description on how to make the curried meat patties.
"We first came to Washington in 1962, and even back then it was really not a problem finding most of the ingredients because most are sold here. When we first arrived, I found a Spanish market that carried garlic and coriander and other things."
In fact, the only ingredients the Butts bring back from trips home to Islamabad, the capital city, are the tissue-thin sheets of decorative silver for desserts, and the fine and very delicate native rice. "But now that everyone here is into natural foods and cooking," she laughed, "it's not difficult at all to find these things."
From Shameem's kitchen come these time-honored favorites for celebrating the new month. SHAMI KEBAB (Curried Meat Patties) (4 servings)
These curried meat patties have a surprise inside--a combination of onions, green chili peppers and coriander. To counteract their heat, serve with the rayta that follows. 1 pound ground beef 1 tablespoon yellow split peas (soaked overnight) 1 inch ginger root, finely minced 3 to 4 whole cloves garlic 1 medium onion, minced 6 peppercorns 6 whole cloves 4 whole cardamoms 1 stick cinnamon Salt to taste 1 egg, beaten 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped 2 fresh green chili peppers, finely chopped, plus enough for garnish 1 sprig fresh coriander, minced Oil for frying Onion slices for garnish
Place the ground beef along with the split peas, ginger root, garlic, onion, peppercorns, cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon stick and salt in a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. (Since beef will throw off water and fat, no oil is needed.) Cook, covered, over medium heat until the peas are soft. Uncover pot and continue cooking until all moisture has evaporated. Drain contents of pan in a colander to remove fat before transferring to a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pure'e mixture until meat and spices are finely ground. Scrape into bowl and combine completely with a beaten egg. In a separate bowl, combine the finely chopped onion, green chilies and coriander. Divide meat into eight portions. Form into balls and flatten the meat mixture in the cup of your hand, making a little well. Place a little of the vegetable mixture in the well, then gently fold the rest of the meat over the top so that the vegetables are completely enclosed. Repeat with remaining patties. Heat about 1/2 inch of oil in a skillet and fry patties on each side about 1 minute until they are lightly browned. Drain on papers towels, and serve warm on a platter garnished with onion slices and green chili peppers. RAYTA (Cucumber and Yogurt Salad) (4 to 6 servings)
This cool, refreshing salad is actually very liquid, and complements the spicy shami kebabs and curries. 1 cup plain yogurt 1 cucumber, peeled and finely chopped 1 bunch scallions, finely chopped 1 tomato, finely diced 4 green chili peppers, finely chopped 1 coriander sprig, finely minced 2 cloves garlic, finely minced Salt to taste About 1/4 cup cold water (to thin consistency) 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cumin seeds for garnish
Combine all ingredients except water and cumin seed in a bowl. Add up to 1/4 cup of cold water to thin consistency of the rayta. Rub cumin seeds between the palms of your hand so that their aroma is released. Sprinkle over the top of the rayta, and chill, covered, until ready to serve. CHICKEN KOURMA (Chicken Curry) (4 servings)
Kourmas can be made of any sort of meat--poultry, beef, mutton or lamb. Since chicken is delicate, it can be added to the pot or casserole dish without browning. 2 1/2- to 3-pound fryer 1/4 cup oil 2 medium onions, finely chopped 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 inch ginger root, finely chopped 1/4 cup plain yogurt 6 whole cardamoms 1 teaspoon ground red pepper Salt to taste
Cut chicken into eight serving pieces and set aside. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat and cook onions, garlic and ginger root to a golden brown. Raise heat and add yogurt along with all the spices to the pan. Cook the mixture quickly, stirring, about 4 or 5 minutes or until it thickens slightly. Add chicken pieces to the pan, and cook, covered, 25 to 30 minutes or until the meat is done. Alternately, the chicken can be placed in a single layer in a shallow casserole dish and the thickened sauce poured over it. Bake, covered, in a 350-degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes or until meat is done.
For meat kourmas, Shameem browns the cubes of meat along with the onions, garlic and ginger root, before adding the yogurt and spices to the pan. BIRYANI (Meat and Rice Pilaf) (8 servings)
Any meat can be used for biryani--chicken, beef, lamb or goat. For this dish, Shameem used goat, but the more conservative eater might want to substitute the curried chicken above. The meat is cooked separately from the rice, as for a kourma, but much drier--that is, it is fried until all moisture evaporates. You will need about a pound of meat, cubed, to prepare biryani for eight people. The parboiled rice and cooked meat are then layered in a deep pot or casserole and baked with milk, lemon juice and saffron. The directions for preparing the rice and assembling the dish are given below. 2 cups rice* 6 peppercorns 4 cloves 6 whole cardamoms 1 stick of cinnamon 2 or 3 bay leaves 1/2 cup oil for frying 2 medium onions, chopped Curried chicken (see recipe above), or other meat of choice 2 tablespoons milk Juice of a lemon large pinch of finely ground saffron Salt to taste
In a large saucepan, parboil the rice in 4 to 6 cups water along with the peppercorns, cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon and bay leaves until the rice is half done, about 5 minutes if using Pakistani rice or 10 minutes if using regular long grain rice. Drain in a colander. In a large oven-proof pot or flame-proof casserole, heat the oil and cook the onions until golden brown. Remove all of the onions and half of the oil from the pot. Reserve half the onions, and mix the other half with the drained rice. In the same pot, put a layer of the rice followed by the cooked meat. Repeat, ending with a layer of rice. In a small bowl, mix together the milk, lemon juice, saffron and salt. Pour evenly over the rice, and with the handle of a wooden spoon, poke holes in the rice so that the liquid penetrates the bottom layers. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook in a 300-degree oven for 1 hour. Right before you are ready to sit down, transfer the mixture to a platter. Gently scoop up the rice using a small plate or large flat spoon to mix the layers, but taking care not to break the rice. Scrape any crust from the bottom of the casserole and place this on top of the rice on the platter, along with the reserved onions. Serve immediately.
*The very delicate rice from Pakistan is available from Middle Eastern markets. You can also substitute an equal amount of unconverted long-grain rice. SAWAYUR KA ZARDA (Warm Vermicelli in Saffron Syrup) (8 to 10 servings)
One of the two traditional sweets served at the end of Ramadan is this mass of ultrafine pasta cooked in a saffron syrup. The finished dish somewhat resembles the shredded wheat pastries known in Greece as kadaife. 3 tablespoons butter 1/2 pound very fine roasted vermicelli* 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water 2 cups sugar Large pinch finely ground saffron Sliced almonds, chopped unsalted pistachios and beaten silver for garnish (optional)*
Melt butter in a skillet and break up pieces of vermicelli. Fry the noodles in the butter. Meanwhile, in a saucepan, make a simple syrup with the sugar, 1/2 cup water and saffron, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Set aside. When the noodles are a light brown, add up to 2 tablespoons water so that the noodles soften very fast. When they are soft, add the saffron syrup and bring to a boil, stirring gently. Leave it uncovered on medium heat until much of the water has evaporated and the zarda is gooey. Turn out onto serving plate and let cool somewhat. Decorate top with sliced almonds, unsalted pistachios and thin sheets of beaten silver.
*Shameem uses Rolex brand vermicelli available from Middle Eastern shops. This ultra-thin wheat pasta comes in roasted and plain varieties. The beaten silver, which is difficult to get in this country, is optional. SAWAYUR KI FERNI (Vermicelli Pudding) (8 to 10 servings)
According to Pakistani tradition, this sweet vermicelli custard is eaten on the first day of the new month to celebrate the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the feast day, Eid al-Fitr. 1 tablespoon butter 2 to 3 whole cardamoms 1/4 pound plain ultra-thin wheat vermicelli 1/2 gallon milk 2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon kewra (or equal amount rose water) Beaten silver, unsalted pistachios and slivered almonds for garnish
In a large saucepan, heat butter and add cardamoms. Let fry for a minute or so. Add the broken vermicelli and let it fry until it turns a golden brown. Add all of the milk to the pan and cook until the vermicelli softens. Do not let the milk boil. Stir in the sugar and cook over medium heat until it thickens to a custard consistency. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a while. Stir in the kewra (essence of cactus flower available from Middle Eastern markets) or rose water, and pour into a serving bowl. Refrigerate, covered, until serving time. The ferni will thicken somewhat when chilled, but will be more liquid than a pudding. Decorate surface with beaten silver, unsalted pistachios and slivered almonds.