BEIRUT: While abstaining from food and drink is the first aspect many associate with Ramadan, culinary traditions and breaking the fast together with family and friends are essential parts of the holy month as well.
Iftars bring together relatives and loved ones in once-a-year gatherings marked by home cooking and Ramadan food traditions.
The Daily Star has sought out special culinary treats and recipes to impress and indulge your loved ones as they break the fast.
Karim Haidar of Zabad Lebanese restaurant in Zaitunay Bay is known for adding modern touches to Lebanese classics. Yet, during Ramadan, people crave tradition and the balance of the meal is essential, he says.
“Ramadan takes people back to tradition. So it’s very hard to take them on a sideway,” says Haidar, speaking about the process of designing Zabad’s special iftar menu.
“Although our restaurant is a modern Lebanese restaurant, for Ramadan, we did a very classical menu, but with little twists,” he adds.
While beginning, as is tradition, with dates and a fruit drink to prepare the stomach (usually Jellab or Amareddine-based), Haidar says that despite the heat, a hearty soup follows accompanied by a range of mezzes, and then the rice-based main courses are served.
“In Ramadan, people want it all in front of them at the moment the iftar begins. So the moment you give them the soup, you have to have everything out on the table,” says Haidar.
In addition to a traditional lentil soup and main courses of lamb and chicken with rice, Haidar suggests innovating with mezze dishes.
Zabad is serving a selection of mezze that includes an unusual combination of aubergine with labneh (see recipe), fried prawns and two types of kibbeh: potato kibbeh in coriander sauce and grilled lamb kibbeh in beetroot sauce – a traditional sauce from Hermel.
“People think we are just creating crazy things but we work on the terroir, on the tradition. We go and get it where it is and then we mix the traditions, because we consider it authorized to mix the tradition of Hermel with Zghorta. It’s not mixing Japan and South American cuisine,” he says.
Similarly, cookbook author and cooking instructor Marlene Matar suggests incorporating rich culinary traditions from the region to create special iftar dishes.
Matar, the author of several books on Lebanese and European cuisine, has recently published a book documenting the rich, traditional recipes of Aleppo, entitled “Ma’idat Marlene min Halab.”
With support from the International Academy of Gastronomy, Matar spent three years researching Aleppo’s cuisine and included 217 recipes in the book.
“Aleppo was on the silk road, also a crossroads for spices,” she explains.
“I would go to restaurants and to eat with families to learn all the secrets. [People from Aleppo] are not generous with their recipes; they safeguard them for the family and believe that they have the best recipe for everything,” Matar continues.
Among the numerous recipes – including an entire chapter on kibbeh alone – Matar has selected dishes particularly good for iftar banquets.
She believes that simple additions and quality ingredients make all the difference – such as using green olives with rice and chicken (see recipe) or making the extra effort to create a homemade dessert, like filo pastries filled with ashta, rather than buying it from the store.
Ultimately, traditions trump the day, both Matar and Haidar agree. But executing the dishes with a small, unexpected twist can wow palettes. Just don’t forget to provide a wide variety of dishes come sundown to help satiate those who are fasting, Haidar says.
“Your whole day of meals is in one meal. You want to have everything,” he says.
Filo pastry triangles with Arabic clotted cream
Makes 12 triangular pastries
- 5 baklava filo pastry 24x32 cm or bigger to be cut to size
- ¾ cups ghee, melted
- 375 g bought Arabic clotted cream or prepared at home (see recipe below)
- sugar syrup
- 2 tablespoons of chopped pistachios for garnish
Prepare Arabic clotted cream and set aside till cooled.
Brush 4 filo sheets with ghee and stack them on top of each other. Place the fifth filo on top. Cut with a sharp knife to squares with 8 cm sides to end up with 12 squares.
Preheat oven to 200°C.
Place in the center of each square 1 tablespoon of the cream and fold to form a triangle.
Brush a baking pan with ghee and place triangles on top. Using a small spoon, pour the rest of the ghee on top of the triangles.
Bake 20 minutes or till golden. Remove pan from oven and place pastries on a platter.
Hold a big perforated spoon over the hot pastries and pour the syrup through the spoon moving it around to cover all pastries with the syrup.
Leave them in the sugar syrup 5-10 minutes then remove to a serving platter and sprinkle with chopped pistachios.
The pastries stay crunchy until the next day. They keep refrigerated 4 days when stuffed with home prepared Arabic clotted cream or 2 days with bought Arabic clotted cream.
Note: You can also fill the pastries with walnut stuffing (mix chopped walnut with some butter or ghee, sugar and cinnamon) or pistachio stuffing (whole pistachios and mix with ghee, sugar and cinnamon).
For the Arabic clotted cream (ashta)
Prepares 3 cups (750 g)
- 1 cup milk powder
- 1 cup water
- 1¼ cups whipping cream or milk
- 2 tablespoons corn flour
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 4 to 5 soft toast bread slices, crust removed (65 g)
- 2 tablespoons orange blossom water
- 1 tablespoon rose water
Mix in a small pot all ingredients except orange blossom water and rose water. Place pot over medium heat and stir continuously till mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Simmer for a few seconds while stirring.
Mix in orange blossom water, rose water and remove from heat. Cool.
Courtesy of Marlene Matar
Chicken and green olives
- 1 chicken (1.3 kg)
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons ghee or butter
- 1 onion (150 g), finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons flour
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4 garlic cloves (16 g), crushed
- 3 cups chicken stock from cooking the chicken
- 1¼ cups (175 g) stoned and cut in half green olives
- 4 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons salt or less depending on taste of olives
Fry chicken pieces in olive oil and ghee. Remove chicken and reserve fat to fry onion. Fry onion in the same fat. For a lighter version, remove skin and cook chicken without frying.
Remove chicken pieces with a slotted spoon; discard skin (if still on) and bones. Drain stock and simmer to the correct measure of 3 cups.
Fry onion in olive oil and ghee in a pot over medium heat stirring until tender.
Add flour, cinnamon, allspice, and black pepper; stir-fry few seconds. Add garlic and fry few seconds more.
Pour hot stock gradually over onion mixture while stirring and bring to a boil.
Lower heat, cover pot and cook sauce 20 minutes, stirring few times.
Add chicken pieces, green olives and salt to pot. Cook uncovered 10 minutes.
Add lemon juice, taste and adjust seasoning.
Serve hot with rice on the side.
Courtesy of Marlene Matar
Aubergine with labneh
- 2 medium aubergines
- 250 g of labneh
- 15 mint leaves
- 10 green olives
- 50 g of walnut
- salt and black pepper
- vegetable oil
2 days in advance:
Peel the aubergines.
Cut the aubergines into slices of 0.5 cm in length.
Season with salt.
Put in a strainer in the fridge.
1 day in advance:
Deep fry the aubergines in oil for 1 minute.
Put on paper to absorb oil for 24 hours in the fridge.
The same day:
Cut the olives in two and remove the stones.
Cut the walnut in small pieces.
Chop thinly the mint leaves.
Smash the fried aubergines with a fork. Add all ingredients and the labneh.
Serve with crispy bread.
Courtesy of Karim Haidar
Lentil soup with Swiss chard and lemon
- 300 g yellow lentils
- 2 potatoes
- 1 bunch of Swiss chard or 5 leaves
- 3 garlic cloves
- 3 onions
- 1 bunch coriander
- juice of 1 lemon
- ½ teaspoon of curry powder
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- salt and pepper
Peel the onions and the garlic. Crush the garlic. Finely chop the onions and coriander separately.
Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes.
Wash and coarsely chop the chard leaves.
Pour 2 liters of water into a large casserole and cook the lentils for 30 minutes, covered.
Saute the onions in a pan with the oil, add the garlic and then the coriander.
Add the chard and potatoes to the lentils, as well as the sauteed onion, garlic and coriander.
Cover and simmer 10-15 minutes
Add cumin, salt, pepper and lemon juice.
Courtesy of Karim Haidar