Around the world, hundreds of millions of Muslims are fasting from sunrise to sunset. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan began last week and continues until August 7. That’s thirty days of avoiding food and drink all day. But in many families, someone still has to prepare a hearty, and sometimes festive, dinner every night.
“Ramadan is a big change in routine,” says Jehad Outteneh, the shopper and chef for her family of eight.
I followed Jehad one day to learn her tricks, and her recipes. We started at the vegetable stand just a few steps inside old Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.
Today, as on many days, she buys bright red tomatoes and small cucumbers – the standard base for a Middle Eastern salad – plus mint, cilantro and lemons to spice it up. Today she adds lettuce for a second salad, a touch of festivity for tonight’s dinner. It’s the second week of Ramadan, and the fast is broken daily at sundown by a special dinner, the iftar.
That’s still several hours away.
“During Ramadan you feel the food has a different taste because you wait so long to eat,” Jehad says.
Jehad always seems to be smiling. She was born in Jerusalem’s Old City, above the maze of small alleyways crowded with tourists, pilgrims and residents. And she and her husband Hattim raised six children in an apartment here that, amazingly, shuts out the din. She shops for food everyday and knows almost all the merchants.
The rest of Jehad’s shopping list for tonight’s supper: chicken, cauliflower and rice for the main dish, maqluba. Walnuts, sweet cheese and pancakes for qatayef, a dessert dumpling and traditional Ramadan treat. She buys a couple bottles of soft drinks to supplement a chilled homemade carob drink in the fridge at home.
By the time she lugs all her bags home, it’s 5:30.
“I’m hungry,” she says. “And really thirsty.”
But it’s another couple of hours until sundown. Time to cook.
Jehad chose maqluba for tonight’s dinner because it’s quick and the family loves it. She can’t taste as she goes, of course, but it doesn’t matter. She’s cooked this dish hundreds of times, the way her mother taught her long ago.
“I only cook what my mother cooked,” she says. “Cookbooks ask for spices and things we don’t have.”
She manages to prepare food despite hunger pangs by focusing on the spirit of Ramadan. “It’s all for God,” she says. “All day I try to do good.”
Jehad’s family drifts in and out as she boils chicken, fries cauliflower, twists the stems off the mint and cilantro bunches. Her daughter Amani, 20, helps chop tomatoes, but says she couldn’t do much else as she has no clue how to cook. Her younger sister learned when she got engaged, and Amani expects to do the same.
Hiba, 21, pouring yogurt into bowls, accidentally licks a bit off her finger. She hurries to rinse out her mouth. She says she’s tired, thirsty and has a headache. Amani says she sleeps or watches movies to pass the long Ramadan days, and hates it when there’s a scene of people eating. But now sunset is getting closer and they hurry to finish preparations.
Amani arranges pickles. Jehad makes fillings for the qatayef: one a walnut-cinnamon-sugar mix and one sweet cheese. Her sons Ibrahim and Ismael, both in their twenties, and youngest daughter Huda, 13, wake up from naps and wander in.
With about fifteen minutes to go, Jehad turns on the radio. A man is reading from the Koran. In Jerusalem, there are two signals ending the day’s fast: a cannon, which the same family has been in charge of for more than 100 years, and the call “Allahu Akbar” – God is great — over the radio.
The table is set. The maqtuba has been transferred from pot to serving dish. The salads are dressed. The drinks are out of the refrigerator.
The cannon sounds – it’s loud! “Allahu Akbar” wafts in from the kitchen. This is also the call to evening prayer, and outside in the Old City streets worshippers are headed toward the Holy Sanctuary to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque or the Haram al-Sharif. But in Jehad’s home, it’s time to eat.
“I think God wanted us to eat first, then pray,” she says, smiling.
Jehad Outteneh’s Maqluba Recipe
Two medium chickens cleaned and cut into parts.
1 head califlower
1 medium white onion
Two pounds white rice
Soak the chicken parts briefly in salty water. Rinse. Put in a pot and cover with water. Set stove temperature to medium/high.
Add one chopped medium white onion. Continue to cook for about 45 minutes. Add water as needed. (Jehad uses hot water from the electric teapot.)
Chop cauliflower into bite-sized pieces. In a separate pot, pour in enough oil to mostly cover the cauliflower. Heat oil and add cauliflower when hot enough to fry. It’s ready when its honey colored. Remove from oil; place on paper towel to drain. Let it cool, then add cauliflower to pot with chicken. Add six big shakes of cardamom powder and some salt.
While the chicken and cauliflower continue to cook, rinse rice. Add a small amount of salt and a generous amount of turmeric; mix with the wet rice. Add the rice to the chicken and cauliflower pot. Continue to cook until rice is ready. Serve warm with yogurt.