Ramadan brings a taste of nostalgia to these UAE residents
Our sense of taste and smell are intrinsically, almost inescapably, linked to memory and experience. The scent of meat being seared over coals is forever associated with a family holiday, or the ability of warm coffee cake to instantly erase 20 years and take us back to our grandmother’s kitchen.
While the notion of food and memory works on an individual basis, food-related rituals and traditions also play an important role in forming and maintaining our cultural identity. It explains why many of us living far away from home in the UAE strive to recreate familiar eating experiences – whether that’s Britons flocking to restaurants serving Sunday roasts (on a Saturday), Lithuanian friends painstakingly preparing a meatless 12-dish Christmas Eve supper, or Indian expats welcoming the arrival of kesar mangoes in supermarkets.
It makes sense, then, that during Ramadan the dishes on many iftar menus are often imbued with a deep sense of both affection and meaning. As a young girl growing up in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Sukaina Rajabali distinctly remembers her mother breaking her fast with rab, a warm drink made by slowly simmering rice powder with sugar, cardamom and water or coconut milk.
“Although I never drank rab myself, it was only ever around during the 30 days of Ramadan and was a real staple on our iftar table,” says Rajabali. “My mother-in-law prepares rab for iftar at her house in Dubai today. The smell alone transports me back, and suddenly I can picture my mum sipping from a flask on the days when we broke our fast at the mosque.”
The idea of familiar food and flavours having the capacity to evoke memories of past Ramadans is shared by many. UAE-based cookbook author Dalia Dogmoch Soubra says: “My parents are from Syria and I was raised in France. Even now one bite of aubergine fatteh or a mouthful of harissa soup, and I’m right back in our Paris kitchen, sharing iftar with my parents and siblings.”
Fatma Al Muhairi, an Emirati who grew up in Dubai, says that thareed (thin flatbreads in a vegetable or meat-based stew), harees (wheat mixed with chicken or lamb and slowly boiled) and cheese samosas are the three dishes that have always been part of her family’s iftar meal. “We never have them at any other time of year, which makes eating them at iftar even more special. I cannot imagine Ramadan without them,” she says. “They remind me of when I was a kid, playing outside waiting for Maghrib prayers to finish so that the whole family could gather for iftar. I would be the first one to run inside to take the best spot at the table – next to all the food I loved.”
Not only does food have the ability to stir memories, it can also provide a real source of comfort. Albina Vassilova left her four sisters and parents behind in her native Kazakhstan three-and-a-half years ago, when she first moved to Qatar and then to Dubai.
She says that whenever she is home sick, she cooks food from her country. “One of the most popular iftar dishes is lagman (noodles in broth). My mum taught each of my sisters and me how to make the noodles when we were younger, and I’m so glad that she did because it helps me feel close to them and not feel lost or alone.” Mohammad Al Torman, from Jordan, shares the same view and tells me that whenever he feels homesick, he decamps to the kitchen.
“My favourite thing to eat is traditional Jordanian food. When I was younger we’d call makloubeh ‘upside down’. We were always so excited when the pan was turned out onto the serving plate to reveal the layers of meat, rice and spices. I made it last week; the taste wasn’t quite the same, but it helped.”
Al Torman will be spending Ramadan in the UAE and on his days off will prepare food that he remembers eating at iftar when he was young.
“The table was always full of delicious dishes and every night there would be a different type of soup and lots of fresh salads. It was my mum’s lamb mansaf that I looked forward to the most.” Often referred to as the national dish of Jordan, mansaf features lamb cooked in a fermented yogurt sauce and garnished with pine nuts. It is a meal that Al Torman hopes to enjoy for years to come: “I’m a chef, so I love cooking and creating recipes, but when I have my own family I’ll teach them to cook mansaf the way my mum does.”
It seems that whatever your culinary skill level is, this is not the time for reinvention or deviating from the norm. As Vassilova puts it, “I always ask my mum for the recipes – I want my food to taste like hers does”.
Al Muhairi wholeheartedly agrees: “Part of what makes the food at iftar so special is that my mum has never changed the recipes. They’ve always tasted exactly the same, ever since I was young.” Both Rajabali and Soubra work in the food industry are more maverick in their approach, but only ever so slightly. “Because they were so readily available in Tanzania, there was a strong focus on cooking with coconuts during Ramadan,” says Rajabali.
“We would always extract the milk from the coconut flesh itself. However, since the procedure can take some time, these days I like to use coconut powder to speed things up.” Soubra’s alterations are similarly small. “My mother’s recipes are those of my grandmother and I make them her way. The only thing I’ve changed is using homemade stock instead of a stock cube”.
Rajabali says since she has children of her own, her Ramadan food memories have taken on an almost cyclical feel. “My daughter has recently started to fast and one of the dishes she requests the most is phirini – sweet vermicelli cooked in a milk base with hints of cardamom and saffron. I also adored it as a child – it makes me smile when she asks for it.”
“These dishes represent family to me, so it is very important that I cook them for my little ones. They love them just like I did and I hope that when they have children they will make their great grandmother’s recipes still,” adds Soubra.
The importance of preserving these traditions and passing them on to the next generation is clearly felt by all.
Al Muhairi says when she has children, she looks forward to teaching them why certain dishes resonate with her. Vassilova agrees: “When I have a family, I know I’ll tell my children stories about my sisters and cook the same iftar dishes – in my house there will always be noodles.”
Updated: June 3, 2017 04:00 AM