Some years ago I was visiting my sister and her family in D.C., and we decided to eat at an Afghan restaurant near the Pentagon that she knew—it was popular, I think, among both immigrants and soldiers who had done tours there. Although we could order as soon as we arrived, we found out we wouldn't be allowed to actually eat for another half hour. It was Ramadan, and they wouldn't be serving food until the sun had set and Muslims could break their fast. Though to be ready for hungry coreligionists, who had been abstaining since the first peek of light a good sixteen or so hours earlier, they were already setting out tables of snacks, which would be served for free to anyone who came in the door. (More elaborate food was available at standard prices.) Sure enough, within a short time, we were glad we'd placed an order and taken a table. The place was soon packed with Muslims eager to break their fast and communally celebrate their faith.
That was my first experience of iftar, the feast that follows the fast for Muslims. It's an example of the way other food cultures coexist side by side—or hidden in plain sight—with "mainstream" food culture in a city like Chicago. This past Tuesday night Chicago Foodways Roundtable, an offshoot of Culinary Historians of Chicago that plans events relating to food culture, arranged for about 25 people to experience iftar at the much-loved Pakistani restaurant Khan BBQ on Devon Avenue. Khan BBQ does not normally offer a buffet line (which was $12.99, $6.99 for children), but on Tuesday the offerings ranged from their standard menu items like chicken boti and lamb biryani to homey things I'd never seen there before, like a dish of cold chickpeas that tasted like baked beans and yellow rice that turned out to be surprisingly sweet.
Introducing the assembled guests to the traditions of iftar was Yvonne Maffei, a Crystal Lake resident who looks the part of a native-born Muslim from the Middle East. In fact, she's a convert, born in Ohio of Sicilian and Puerto Rican heritage, who has a widely popular blog devoted to healthy cooking according to Islamic dietary proscriptions, MyHalalKitchen.com. Before the event, I spoke with Maffei about Ramadan and iftar.
Michael Gebert: Tell me the basics about the holy month of Ramadan, and how you observe it.
Yvonne Maffei: Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and it's the time when Muslims believe that the holy Quran was revealed to prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. So it's a time of reading the Quran, memorizing the Quran, reflecting on the Quran.
But the thing that most people outwardly see is that we're fasting. So we abstain from food and water and any type of drink from dawn to dusk. At sunset time we break our fast and have some water and a date or something a little bit sweet to help our bodies come down from the long fasting day. Then we proceed to prayer, the sunset prayer, that lasts about five minutes, and then we come back to the table for dinner, just like a regular meal.
Then people typically will go the mosque where the Quran is being recited, or maybe they'll do that at home. The time at the restaurant is not a time when people are mingling or socializing for too long. It's sort of OK to eat and run!
And then very early, before the sun rises, they'll have another meal which is called suhoor, making sure that it's nutritious and hydrating, because once the sun rises, that's the cutoff point for no more eating. So we do this for the entire month of Ramadan.
And it began on June 27?
For us, we began fasting on the 29. Some people began on the 28. It just depends where they were in the world and if the moon is sighted in that part of the world.
Are there common foods at iftar? Given the variety of cultures that Islam spreads across, it's hard to imagine what would span them all.
I'm a convert, and I come from an Italian and Puerto Rican family, so I don't have a traditional food for Ramadan. People from the Indo-Pakistani community or the Arab community do have traditional foods that they want to enjoy. But the thing that's common is that we all like to break our fast with dates because the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, broke his fast with a date or three dates. So any Muslim, from Mexico to Indonesia, is going to try to probably break his fast with a date. But there are different cultural norms—for the Indo-Pakistani community, they will try to break their fast with a date and some water, or a drink called Rooh Afza, which is a milky, frothy drink that's kind of pink, you can buy it at the stores all over Devon. And they also like to have something crunchy before prayer and the big meal, maybe a samosa; something meaty but not too big.
I've sort of adopted some of those traditions, just because they're really delicious. But it's fine as long as everything is halal, which is food that is permissible in Islam, and not things that are haram, or forbidden. We don't drink alcohol or eat food that is cooked in alcohol, and we don't eat pork or animals of prey. There's a variety of things we don't eat, but there's a huge abundance of things that are halal. Really, it's just a matter of what you like to eat within the whole halal spectrum.
So if you're a non-Muslim who just stumbles into a Pakistani restaurant without knowing this is going on, what's the protocol? Should you be dipping into their food when they've been fasting for it all day?
Oh, I think people have pretty good manners. I think that they would understand that this person is just trying to do the right thing. But I would say just go with the flow, look to the person next to you who you know is a Muslim and just follow them and ask their guidance. But really, just enjoy the food.
It's probably not a good idea to eat before breaking the fast—if you're at the same table with Muslims, I think it would be appropriate to wait. But other than that, you can have anything you want—we just don't rush into the main food because our stomachs wouldn't be able to handle that. So we kind of ease into it with the water, the dates. At home I like to acclimate our stomachs with soup, but everybody's different.
What are some other restaurants offering iftar in the area that people might want to check out?
Well, I'm such a home cook that I don't really go out often, particularly for iftar. And usually if we go out we're invited to peoples' homes, and that's a really special thing; someone's labored all day to make a meal for fasting friends. But in the Devon area I would suggest Usmania Chinese, because it's pretty unique for the Muslim to have Chinese food that's halal, and I've been there before and the food is really, really good. And I've seen signs that they're doing iftar, so it would probably be a similar setup to this but a totally different cuisine.
Down here on Devon I've had friends tell me that D.D. [Delhi Darbar] Kabob is pretty good, and for the sweets we usually go to Tahoora a couple of doors down. They have really good Pakistani sweets, and they also have drinks like mango smoothies and falooda, which has like tapioca bubbles. Different things, that you really wouldn't find outside an area that has a Pakistani community.
Special thanks to Catherine Lambrecht