With Ramadan just starting, I decided to look around for some traditional sahoor (the pre-dawn meal) and iftar (the evening break-the-fast) foods. It is traditional to break the fast each evening with dates and/or water, but many families eat other foods for iftar as well, usually after Maghrib prayers.
Fun fact: Muslims tend to avoid fish during Ramadan, as it is believed that it makes you thirsty the next day.
While there are some food traditions that span across the MENA region many countries and even individual families take pride in unique and specific recipes. But with increased access to global media, it has become easier than ever to share recipes across cultures and borders. With just the click of a mouse I gathered recipes from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Somalia, and the Palestinian Territories faster than you can say bil-hanā' wa ash-shifā' (Arabic for bon appétit!).
Important Precaution: I’ve found some delicious ones, so you may not want to read this while you’re fasting!
First up is oat soup, sometimes called Quaker soup, after the brand, which is popular in Saudi Arabia.
Oat Soup, or Shurbat Hab (Saudi Arabia):
- 4 chicken breast, boneless and skinless, diced
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3 mastika (called gum mastic in English, it is a resin that can be purchased in crystal or paste form from a Middle East supermarket, and is used as a thickening agent. If you can’t find it you can substitute cornstarch)
- 1 cup quick cooking oats
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 chicken bouillon cubes
- 6 cups water
- 1/2 tablespoon cumin, ground
- 8 green cardamoms
- 1 small onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Parsley for garnish
- In a 4 quart pan on medium heat add butter, garlic and onions, cook until tender.
- Add chicken, cumin, cardamom, mastika, salt and pepper allowing chicken to turn white on all sides.
- Add tomato paste, chicken bouillon and oats and water. Bring to a full boil then reduce heat to low for and allow to cook for 45 minutes covered. Sprinkle fresh parsley on top of each serving.
Yields: 12 servings
Ful (or foul), kunafa (or Kanafi), and Sambusas are other popular sahoor and iftar foods. There are many variations, but here are some from different countries around the Middle East and North Africa.
Foul Meddames (Lebanese style):
This is a simple fava bean recipe, Lebanese style, eaten for sahoor or iftar with some pita bread.
- Small fava beans, dried (as much as you'd like to make. If you prefer you can
use cooked canned beans)
- 3 tbsp olive oil (for every 19 oz or 2 cups cooked fava beans)
- 2-3 cloves garlic (for every 19 oz or 2 cups fava cooked beans)
- Juice from 1/2 a lemon (for every 19 oz or 2 cups cooked fava beans)
- Salt (preferably sea salt)
- Cumin and minced fresh parsley, optional
- Soak the dried fava beans overnight.*
- Boil the beans (in fresh water). Bring to a boil and then let simmer, covered, for 1-3 hours. They should fall apart easily when done.
- Drain fava beans.
- Mash the garlic and stir it in with the beans. Then turn off the heat. Mix the lemon juice, salt, olive oil, and other spices in a small bowl and then add to the beans.
- Mash the beans slightly.
*Tip: First you should rinse the fava beans and pick out any bad beans. Bad beans will usually float to the top when you fill a bowl of dried fava beans with water. When soaking, use a large pot or bowl and make sure the fava beans are covered with water. The water should be about two inches higher than the beans. Typically, you will use 3 cups of water for every cup of beans.
Kunafa/Kanafi/Kanafeh (Palestinian Style):
This traditional dessert can be made with nuts (as it is in Egypt) or with cream or cheese, as it is here. You will need to make the simple syrup first and then the Kanafi, as the syrup needs time to thicken.
- 1 (16 ounce)
box shredded phyllo dough
- 8 ounces butter, unsalted
- 1 1/2 lbs whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1/2 lb fresh goat cheese or 1/2 lb light cream cheese
Ingredients (Simple Syrup):
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon rose water (optional)
For syrup (make first):
- Bring water and sugar to a boil, reduce heat.
- Add lemon juice and rose water (optional).
- Simmer until all sugar is dissolved, about 5-10min.
- Set aside to cool.
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Drain ricotta of excess liquid and mix with other cheese.
- Remove shredded phyllo dough from box and loosen shreds in a large bowl.
- Toss the shreds with melted butter to coat evenly.
- Arrange half of the buttered dough evenly on a 9X13 pan or baking dish.
- Spoon cheese mixture on top in an even layer.
- Place the remaining dough on top and press lightly with hands.
- Cover with foil and bake 30 min at 350°F.
- Remove foil and bake an additional 30 min or until crisp and golden.
- Serve warm or room temp with lemon syrup.
Although originally from Somali, sambusas are popular all over the MENA region, with a meat filling as shown here, or vegetables. They are a versatile and portable appetizer!
- Vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 pound 85% lean ground beef
- 2 tablespoons dried parsley
- 1 teaspoon curry powder, plus more to taste
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 package egg roll wrappers (or philo dough)
- Water, for sealing
- In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft. Stir in the beef, parsley, curry powder, garlic, salt, and pepper, and cook about 5 minutes, stirring to break up lumps, until the meat is no longer pink. Taste and add more curry powder if you want. Transfer the meat mixture to a medium bowl and cool to room temperature. Wipe out the skillet.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut each egg roll wrapper in half diagonally. Working with one triangle at a time, lightly brush the edges of the wrapper with water. Fold the long side of the triangle in half, pinching the edge to seal and form a little cup.
- Place a generous tablespoon of the meat mixture into the cup, then pull the open flap of the wrapper over the cup, pressing to seal. As each sambusa is finished, place it on the baking sheet. When the sheet is full, cover the sambusas with another piece of parchment paper and continue layering with finished sambusas.
- Line a platter with several layers of paper towels. In the skillet, heat about 1 inch of oil until a deep-frying thermometer reads 365°F to 375°F, or a pinch of flour bubbles and sizzles in the oil. Add half of the sambusas to the oil and cook for 2 to 4 minutes, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Using tongs or a skimmer, transfer the sambusas to the paper-towel-lined platter to drain briefly. Repeat with the remaining sambusas. Serve.
T’fayas are special occasion stews served along Morocco’s coast known for their thick, sweet, heavily spiced sauces. Here is a recipe for a traditional caramelized onion and raisin t’faya, which is usually served over couscous. The spices it is made with constitute a popular Moroccan spice blend known as ras el-hanout.
Moroccan Caramelized Onion and Raisin T’faya
- 1 cup raisins
- 1 kg (about 2 lbs.) onions
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 to 3 teaspoons orange flower water, or to taste (optional, can be substituted with rose water)
- Place the raisins in a bowl and cover with water. Set aside to soak for 15 minutes or longer. Drain before using.
- Peel and thinly slice the onions. Transfer them to a pot or skillet along with the drained raisins, butter, honey, spices and water. Cover and bring the mixture to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low or low and simmer for a half hour or longer, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very soft and golden. Add more water only if the liquids evaporate before the onions are cooked.
- Once the onions are buttery soft and richly colored, reduce the liquids to a thick syrup. Stir in orange flower water to taste. Remove the caramelized onions from the heat and set aside until needed. Reheat if desired.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 servings
Note: Orange Flower Water is a popular ingredient in Moroccan and Middle Eastern cooking. It is made by distilling crushed orange blossoms with water. Look for pure Orange Flower or Orange Blossom Water in any Middle Eastern grocery store.
Lentil soup is also a popular evening dish for Ramadan, found throughout the MENA region.
Mediterranean Lentil Soup:
- 2-4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, or about 3 ½ ounces, diced
- 3 large Roma tomatoes, or about 10 ounces, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 cups brown lentils (measured after they have been soaked overnight)
- 2 tablespoons salt
- ¼ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoons dried mint (optional)
- 1 teaspoons dried parsley
- 1 teaspoons basil (optional)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 4 cups Saffron Road Chicken broth (or any chicken or vegetable broth)
- Fresh parsley or cilantro
- Lemon wedges or quarters
- In a large Dutch oven over medium flame, heat the oil. Sauté the onions until translucent, then add the tomatoes and then the garlic. Stir well and let them absorb the oil.
- Add the lentils and all of the dried herbs and spices. Pour the broth over the top.
- Continue to cook over medium-high f or about 45 minutes to one hour, after which the lentils should have softened significantly. Turn the heat off then use an immersion blender to blend ½ or more of mixture.
- Alternatively, let the soup cool significantly then add half of it to a blender, then return it to the pot.
- Continue to cook on medium-low heat f or another 20-40 minutes before serving. Ladle into bowls and add a bit of fresh parsley or cilantro plus a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil on top. Serve with fresh lemon or lime on the side.
This is a dish reserved for special occasions in Iraq, and is also popular in the Palestinian Territories.
- 4 chicken thighs, cleaned (can also be made with veal)
- 1 large eggplant, cut into thick slices
- 1 cup rice, washed and drained
- 1/2 cup vermicelli
- 1 tomato, sliced
- 1 potato, sliced
- 1 green pepper, sliced
- 1 onion, sliced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- Vegetable oil
- Sweet pepper
- Black pepper
- Place chicken thighs in a pot, cover with water and heat.
- When chicken is soft, take out the chicken thighs and set the broth aside.
- Fry individually in vegetable oil first the potato, then the eggplant, then onion and finally vermicelli and set each aside.
- Put a few drops of vegetable oil in the bottom of a pot, and then add in the fried vegetable slices in layers on top of each other. Start with the tomato, then the potatoes, the eggplants, the green peppers, and finally the onion slices. Spread the vermicelli on top of them forming another layer and top it with the chicken thighs and finally the rice.
- Pour the chicken broth over the pot, add water if necessary, to cover all the layers (5 cups in total). Add in salt, sweet pepper, and black pepper. Leave over medium heat.
- When the rice has absorbed the broth, turn off the heat and leave the pot covered for 10 minutes.
- Uncover the pot, place a serving tray, face down, over the pot, and turn it upside down carefully, to maintain the shape of the pot.
- Rice (white or any kind you like)
- Olive oil
- Salt + Pepper
- Turmeric , Saffron, Cardamom, Bay Leaves
- Nutmeg, Allspice, + Cinnamon
- Ground Lamb + Ground Beef
- Chicken (drumsticks, thighs, and breast
- )Peas and carrots
- First, make saffron rice. Rice with a bit of saffron, cardamom, and bay leaves to taste.
- The chicken should be baked in the oven with no cover with a mixture of ketchup, olive oil, and turmeric until done.
- Mix and cook the ground lamb and beef with salt & pepper, adding some nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon.
- Boil the peas and carrots separately.
- Bake the almonds in the oven or fry them on the stove top with olive oil or ghee (clarified butter).
- Layer everything together and add some yogurt on the side. The yogurt provides a mild counter-balance with all the spices in the dish.
There are also popular drinks that are made for Ramadan.
One is called Qamrideen, and is made by boiling dried apricot paste in water with some sugar and sometimes rose or orange blossom water.
Another is Karkedeh, which is made by soaking Hibiscus in water, and adding sugar.
Finally, Sobia, or Soubia, is a very popular Ramadan drink in Saudi Arabia. There are many versions, often sold in plastic bags by street vendors during the season. It can be white or dyed red. It is made by lightly fermenting brown bread and barley, and then boiling it with water, then adding cinnamon and cardamom or other spices, and sugar. There are many different recipes with a wide range of ingredients.
I’ve included a sweet version here that is made with coconut milk:
- 1 cup milk,
- 1/2 cup coconut milk*
- 1/4 cup sugar (+/-1 Tbs-- depends on your sweetness liking)
- 1 Tbs sweetened coconut
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- 1 small piece cinnamon stick
- 1 cardamom pod, smashed
*Note: The thickness of the coconut milk will have an effect on the overall product of the drink. You may need to add more water or less.
- Make a slurry of the water and cornstarch by whisking in a bowl, set aside.
- Bring milk, coconut milk, sugar and shredded
coconut to a boil. Add slurry, and whisk vigorously.
Simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and add the cinnamon and cardamom. Steep for only 5 minutes.
- Strain and chill well.
Here’s a recipe for a more traditional Sobia made with bread:
- 1 whole
wheat pita bread
- 12 cups water
- 1-1/2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tablespoon ground cardamom
- 1 tablespoon oats
- Cut bread into small pieces.
- In a large bowl add 6 cups of the water, oats, 3/4 cup of the sugar and bread, soak overnight.
- Squeeze bread with hands, drain twice with a strainer.
- Add cardamom, cinnamon and then drain for a third time.
- Add remaining water and sugar; stir well until sugar has dissolved.
- Pour into jugs and place into refrigerator.
With these recipes you can make the most of your pre- and post-fast meals, and if you’re not observing Ramadan you can still try them out in the spirit of the season!
If you’re curious about other recipes from the Middle East and North Africa region, check out these websites:
http://myhalalkitchen.com/: A food blog (and there’s a cookbook too!) full of delicious halal recipes, created by Yvonne Maffei.
http://www.yasalamcooking.com/: Another excellent food blog, with both Middle Eastern and other recipes from around the world, including some more great Ramadan suggestions.
http://shahiya.com/english/: A website full of Middle Eastern recipes, including a lot of ideas for Ramadan. The website is available in English or Arabic.
http://www.tasteofbeirut.com/: A food blog written by a Lebanese-American with Lebanese and other recipes.
A blog sharing Syrian recipes along with some comments on Syrian current
What are your favorite Ramadan foods? Feel free to post your favorite recipes and foods in the comments below!