Breaking the Fast

One of the great rewards of any religious fast is the feast that breaks it. While heightened spiritual awareness, communion with the poor, and drawing closer to God are at the heart of fasting, gathering at the table to celebrate its end is no less vital—and a lot more fun.

On October 12, Muslims throughout the world will set aside the rigors of Ramadan, marked by prayer, charity, and abstinence from food and drink during daylight hours, to enjoy an extraordinary meal for Eid al-Fitr, or the “festival of breaking the fast.” Because the Islamic calendar follows the moon, each year the dates of Ramadan shift forward by about eleven days. The month-long fast of Ramadan, which began at sundown on September 12, ends with the sighting of the new moon this week.

“There seems to be a lot of mystery about what we do at Eid,” says Mahmoud Ajamia of Evanston. He and his family have been celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Chicago for 17 years, and they always invite non-Muslim friends to the feast. “They come and see that it’s really quite simple.”

Ajamia, a Palestinian American who grew up in Hebron, prepares a traditional Bedouin meal of mezze (Middle Eastern-style appetizers), mansaf, which is lamb braised in yogurt sauce, salad, and baklava for Eid. The mansaf, served on a large platter with toasted nuts and rice, was traditionally eaten with the right hand, while the left hand was held behind the back because it was considered bad luck.

This is the one day of the year that Ajamia does all of the cooking, since his wife, Kristin Brown, is American. “I do it because I want my kids to learn about the tradition,” he says. “Every generation should know where they come from and what their background is, so they know who they are and that they belong to something special. We need to know and understand our roots.”

Like many Muslims, Ajamia sees Eid as an opportunity to reach out and gather together new friends each year. To commemorate this, his wife asks guests to sign and date a special tablecloth used only for Eid. The signatures are then embroidered on the cloth. So each year when the Ajamias and their friends celebrate Eid, they see the history of their tradition, and the many friends they’ve shared it with, on the table before them. “The centerpiece of our table is this cloth,” Ajamia says. “Over the years it represents a wonderful bringing together of many different people.

“Plus it’s just extremely good food and a lot of fun,” he adds. “I want to introduce others to the beautiful customs of our culture, and food is a perfect bridge for understanding.”

Natalie Mosallam of Chicago grew up in a Muslim Lebanese American household in Dearborn, Michigan. This year, she hopes to bring her family to Chicago for Eid. “We always have a huge feast with the whole family,” she says. “My mom and several of my aunts come over and cook all day. The final Eid is the big celebration of food, and adults give children gifts and money.”

That celebration of food for Mosallam’s family is no small feat: it includes numerous dips and breads, roasted baby lamb and shish kebab, then stuffed dishes, especially warak aleesh, or stuffed grape leaf rolls, as well the classic Lebanese dish of kibbe. “My dad and I love eating kibbe with olive oil and Arabic bread,” she says. “As you eat, you hold a whole raw onion in one hand and take a bite right out of it with your meat and bread!”

Desserts include pastries, cookies, and nuts. “You can’t stop eating the luxurious chocolate covered nuts we serve for Eid. The candies come wrapped in festive colored paper—and Arabs love nuts, so they’re in everything,” she says.

“We always invite non-Muslim friends for the Eid,” she adds. “We want them to come so we can fatten them up! We say ‘Eid Mubarak,’ which is ‘Blessed Eid,’ and we always explain what the significance of Ramadan and Eid are, to make everyone feel a part of the family.”

Mosallam describes the traditional Lebanese dishes her family makes with reverence, awe, and downright excitement. “This food is so good because it’s made with a lot of love,” she says. “That’s always been the case with our family and our people.”

Chicagoans can experience a traditional Middle Eastern Eid feast at Alhambra Palace, the 25,000 square foot restaurant and night club at 1240 W. Randolph Street. Executive Chef Daniel P. Wright, formerly of Souk, has made Middle Eastern cuisine his specialty. “People have been fasting and sacrificing for a month, so they’re going to come to Alhambra Palace ready for a fantastic meal,” he says. “And we’re happy to oblige!”

Wright’s extensive menu will consist of khardouf, which is an entire lamb stuffed with rice. The rice is accented with dill, mint, and toasted pistachios. He will also serve mezze appetizers of hummus, babaganouj, tabbouleh, fattoush, and falafel. The lamb is cooked until very tender, cut into pieces and served with the rice. Middle Eastern pastry completes the meal with tea infused with a heady blend of mint and rosewater. Wright’s standard fare of kebabs, shawarma, and fish will also be available. Everything is served family-style. Alhambra Palace offers not only top-notch authentic Middle Eastern fare, but also live entertainment of Arabic music, singing, and belly dancers.

Traditional Muslims eat hallal meat, which means that it is permissible under Islamic law because it has been properly blessed and specially handled. “It costs us more money to bring in hallal, but we know it’s important to some of our customers to do that,” says Wright. “The meat is treated much differently. I have gone and seen for myself how it’s done: a blessing is made that says the animal is killed in the name of God.

“I don’t like seeing the animals die, but as a chef I think it’s something I should see. And that hallal leg of lamb is the freshest, most beautiful lamb I’ve ever seen.”

Though the more than one billion Muslims celebrating Eid this week the world over will each have their own traditions at the table, there is a commonality among them all of family ties and reaching out to others. Just as the fast itself encourages solidarity with those who go without, the breaking of the fast is about sharing—both the food and the faith. Mahmoud Ajamia considers it an honor to uphold his Eid traditions, “as a way to keep our history alive, and provide an entry way for others to experience the richness of our traditions.”

Toasted Pine Nut Hummus
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Yield: 6 servings

1 15 oz can chick peas, drained and rinsed thoroughly
½ cup toasted pine nuts, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish
1 teaspoon salt
1 garlic clove
¼ cup tahini (sesame paste)
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

1. In blender or food processor, pulse to combine chick peas, pine nuts, salt, garlic, water and tahini. Stop occasionally to stir.
2. Add the olive oil and lemon juice, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides. Blend until very smooth.
3. Spread hummus on a small plate. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and parsley. Serve with fresh pita bread.

Bedouin braised lamb (Mansaf)
Dried or liquid yogurt (jameed) can be found at any Middle Eastern grocery store. The liquid jameed is often labeled “soup starter.”

Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Yield: 8 servings

For braised lamb:
5 pounds lamb shoulder or shanks, fat trimmed, and cut in ¼ pound pieces
1 pound dried yogurt stones or 2 cups liquid yogurt (jameed)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon cardamom
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

For rice:
3 cups basmati rice
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

3 loaves lavash, saj, or other Middle Eastern flat bread
1 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted

Braise the lamb:
1. If using dried yogurt, place in 1 cup of cold water and soak for 30 minutes until soft. Blend in blender for 2 minutes, until liquefied. Strain and set aside.

2. In a large pot, cover lamb with water. Cover and cook over medium heat for 50 minutes, until almost cooked through.

3. Add black pepper, allspice and cardamom. Remove 1 cup of broth and set aside for rice.

4. Ten minutes before serving, stir the 2 cups of yogurt into the broth with lamb.

5. In a small pan, saute garlic until golden. Add to lamb and yogurt broth and cook gently over medium low heat for ten minutes. Do not boil.

While the lamb is cooking and 30 minutes before serving, prepare the rice:
1. Place the rice in a large pot. Pour five cups of water, plus one cup of reserved lamb broth, over rice.

2. Stir in turmeric, turn heat to medium high, and bring to a boil.

3. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until rice is tender, about 30 minutes.

To serve:
1. Toast bread under the broiler until light golden brown and crisp.

2. Cover a large serving platter with the bread. Ladle 3 cups of the yogurt lamb broth over the bread to soften.

3. Spread rice evenly over the top of the bread.

4. Arrange meat on the rice. Sprinkle with almonds and pine nuts.

5. Serve with yogurt lamb broth in a bowl, to be used as gravy.

Moroccan Mint Tea with Rosewater
Rosewater can be found at any Middle Eastern grocery store and many other grocery stores.

Preparation Time: 5 minutes
Yield: 8 servings

1/3 cup high quality loose black tea
6 sprigs fresh spearmint
1 tablespoon rosewater
2 tablespoons sugar

1. In medium sauce pan, add tea, spearmint, rosewater and sugar to 4 cups water.
2. Bring to a boil for 3-5 minutes.
3. Strain and serve in teacups.

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