Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 October - 5 November 2003
Issue No. 662
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Pull up a chair

With Ramadan blessings passing from plate to mouth in the Muslim world, Yasmine El-Rashidi explores life around the table

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The month of fasting is, in effect, the month of eating
This is a story about the dining table. Not one dining table, but many.

A dining table is a telling place -- about people, about culture, about society and communication. It was at dining tables that revolutions were planned, proposals made, and the dynamics of relationships enhanced and transformed. And it is there that the grandest of celebrations and festivities have commenced.

"Every meal is a message, and where we eat is as important as what we eat in getting the message across," writes food and eating anthropologist Robert Fox in Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. "Why do we not eat all our meals in the dining room? Its name would suggest that this is its purpose. But the very fact that we call it the 'dining' room and not the 'eating' room, tells its own story. The dining room is usually reserved for 'ceremonial' meals: those involving extended families on special occasions -- older relatives, in- laws, and important guests to be impressed."

Growing up in my grandmother's house, the dining room was always reserved for Friday lunch -- a 3pm episode with some 25 people. It was a lavish affair, of food, of drink, and of raucous laughter and talk -- my grandmother the crown jewel, commanding all with the chime of her prized silver bell.

My grandmother passed away many years ago, the gatherings thereafter dissolving, and the dining room remaining closed. In fact, for 11 months of the year the room remains empty -- our eating revolving around the kitchen, or the TV.

Come Ramadan, however, our eating habits change. And ours are not the only ones, as I found out.

"During the year everyone has a different schedule, so we don't set the table," says Dina Moufid, architect and mother of two young men. "The food is in the oven and everyone serves themselves accordingly. We have a table in the kitchen, but a lot of the time everyone takes their plate into the sitting room. The boys like to eat in their bedrooms."

Ramadan, of course, is different.

"It takes us back many years," Moufid says of Ramadan. "Before, family life was very different. It seems that there were more gatherings. I remember in our house, we would come home from school and wait for my father. Once he put his key in the door, the servants would whisk the food out of the oven and take it into the dining room. Everyone we knew was the same. I suppose people could afford it -- life was easier."

In every way, life has changed -- the social norms and expectations evolving in tandem with modern times. More women go out to work and more work consumes the day.

But come Ramadan, all difficulties are temporarily put aside and as the iftar cannon sounds, Egypt falls momentarily silent.

"For people like us," Khamis, a taxi driver, says, "Ramadan is like a big party. We can't afford to invite people and make lots of food except during this month. And people know this, so guests come and go as they please. And so we cook and cook and cook -- in case we have guests."

At Khamis's Ramadan table -- where people seldom gather during the year -- the standard plates of baladi bread (Egyptian pita), salad, fuul (beans), taamiya (falafel) and white cheese are replaced by gourmet servings of rice, feta, meat, pickles, stuffed vine leaves and okra sautéed in tomato sauce.

"And then of course there are special things that we only make a few times during the year. Like drakes and molokhiya (a green soup) with rabbit. When we first start eating everyone is very quiet because the food is so good," he smiles. "And, of course, because we're hungry."

Foreigners and Christians describe it as Christmas for a month. For that month the boundaries of religion are lost, the essence of celebration taking precedence.

Even Lord Kitchener is recorded to have lavishly indulged in the festive season -- a favourite soup of his being described in The Cook's Oracle: "Take two quarts of water, and boil a nice fowl or chicken, then put in the following ingredients, a large white onion, a large chilly, two teaspoonsful of ginger pounded, the same of currystuff, one teaspoonful of turmeric, and half a teaspoonful of black pepper: boil all these for half an hour, and then fry some small onions, and put them in. Season it with salt, and serve it up in a tureen. Obs. - It will be a great improvement, when the fowl is about half boiled, to take it up and cut it into pieces, and fry them and put them into the soup the last thing."

Soup becomes a staple in the Ramadan diet.

"You have to start your meal with something warm," explains Umm Ahmed, Khamis' wife. "It's better for your body." This is a common belief in the nation's iftar culture.

Lentil soup is a favourite. Cairo-raised award-winning food writer Colette Rossant writes in Memories of a Lost Cairo -- a food memoir -- of both lentil stew, and the central role of the Egyptian kitchen as a whole, particularly in preparation for an annual gathering.

"Grandmamam herself would prepare her famous sambusacks, large eggplants would be charring on the primus, several legs of lamb would be marinating on the counter, and on a small table Aishe and the chauffeur would be stuffing grape leaves with a mixture of rice and chopped lamb. Meanwhile Ahmet would be preparing a ballottine of duck to be served sliced with a dark smooth jelly ... For the mezze, small pieces of lamb's liver were fried with onions and cumin; they would be sprinkled with lemon juice and minced parsley, served cold. Hummus was decorated with slivered almonds. There were also tiny artichoke hearts marinated in olive oil, fried ground chicken balls, and, in season, cold tender broad beans."

And former First Lady Jehan Sadat wrote of Ramadan too.

"Ramadan is -- and was -- the most joyous and social month of the year," she wrote in her memoir A Woman of Egypt. "Our family never ate the evening meal alone during Ramadan, gathering instead with as many as twenty of our relatives at their various homes. And never has food looked so good, smelled so good, tasted so good. As children we would circle the table just before sunset, staring hungrily at the special dishes prepared just for Ramadan: qat'aif, a pastry stuffed with pistachios, almonds, raisins and drenched in a syrup of lemon and sugar; kunafa, a dessert spun out of angel hair and topped with raisins, nuts and cream; kushaf, a compote of stewed apricots, figs, prunes and raisins."

Ramadan foods are made in much the same manner as during the year -- the difference not in ingredients, but in the quantity and variety.

"We just have more," Umm Ahmed explains. "And things we can't afford to have all year round; I don't think there's a big difference between what we do and what the richer people do. Except that they live in bigger houses and have more expensive things and they don't use their hands and talk as loudly as us."

Khamis laughs at his wife's description. It might have been just as poignant in describing 19th-century Cairo. In his book Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, E W Lane wrote of the breaking of the fast:

"In general during Ramadan, in the houses of persons of the higher and middle classes, the stool of the supper-tray is placed in the apartment in which the master of the house receives his visitors a few minutes before sunset. A japanned tray is put upon it, and on this are placed several dishes or large saucers containing different kinds of dry fruit (which are called nukl [now referred to more commonly as yamish]) such as hazel-nuts (generally toasted), raisins, shelled walnuts, dried dates, dried figs, shelled almonds, sugared nuts, etc, and kahk or sweet cakes. With these are also placed several kullehs (or glass cups) of sherbet of sugar and water -- usually one or two more cups than there are persons in the house to partake of beverages in case of visitors coming unexpectedly; and often a little fresh cheese and a cake of bread are added. Immediately after the call to evening-prayer, which is chanted four minutes after sunset, the master and such of his family or friends as happen to be with him drink each a glass of sherbet. They then usually say the evening-prayers; and this done eat a few nuts, etc, and smoke their pipes. After this slight refreshment they sit down to a plentiful meal of meat and other food which they term their breakfast."

For those with the means, the feast extends itself across the month -- the grandeur and excess ceasing to fade. For the others, the meat dwindles, as do the nuts.

"Nuts are expensive," says Yasser, a Bulaq-based vendor of Ramadan yamish. "Almonds run LE47 a kilogramme. One kilogramme a month is their maximum -- that doesn't last many days!"

What do remain constant, however, are the katayef (sambusacks made of a pancake-type dough and stuffed either as savouries or sweets), the other Ramadan sweets and fuul.

"People can make and eat kunafa and basbousa all year round," says "Mohamed the cook", who works in numerous homes around the city. "But they never do. It's only in Ramadan. Lots of things happen only in Ramadan. Like these well- off families eating fuul every day!"

Standing, as Lane observed, to turn night into day, Ramadan gatherings reflect the fusion of a nation -- and around the world, the union of billions. Freud's "sacred meal" transcends borders and differences, and the dining table, for 30-odd days a year, becomes the symbol of celebrations, and inherently, of peace.

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