Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from both food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Once the sun sets and the fast ends, a series of beloved culinary traditions stretch through the night:
A Slow Start: The fast is traditionally broken slowly, with dates and a glass of water, followed by hydrating juices and soup. The dates hark back to a belief that the Prophet Mohammed used this fruit to break his fast. The juices often include jallab, a sweet, refreshing beverage made from berries and garnished with pine nuts. To break the fast, Bsisu shared an Orange Lentil Soup that's a common Ramadan dish in the Eastern Mediterranean.
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Treats for the Little Ones: In some Muslim countries, the setting of the sun is marked by a tradition similar to the American Halloween. Groups of children walk through the streets, carrying lanterns and visiting the homes of family and friends, who give them candy and sweets at each stop.
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The Main Event: After the initial dates and soup, many people pause and say the magrib (evening prayers). Then a bountiful meal, iftar, is served. Iftar is a nightly feast, with meat dishes accompanied by numerous salads, side dishes, and flatbread. Bsisu shared a recipe for a Stuffed Leg of Lamb with a fragrant spice rub and piquant sauce.
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Sweet Snacks: After dinner and throughout the evening, a glorious selection of sweets is served. "Arabs don't often eat pastries," says Bsisu. "We generally have fruit for dessert. But at Ramadan, we do a lot of baking." Ramadan evenings are a social time. "Even if you're too busy to see some people the rest of the year, you make sure you see them at Ramadan," says Bsisu. "On the first day of the holiday, our phone never stops ringing." Nearly every night, guests are invited for dinner, and people visit with friends and neighbors until the early morning. The hours are spent playing cards, eating sweets, drinking tea, and smoking an argila, or hookah, filled with "tobacco" made from fruit. For late-night snacking, Bsisu shared recipes for Semolina Pistachio Layer Cake and Sage Tea.
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Before Sunrise: Either late at night or just before dawn, a final meal, called suhur, is eaten before the start of the next fast. It usually consists of light but nourishing foods to carry fasters through the day, plus more sweets. For suhur, Bsisu shared Pull-Away Cheese Rolls, a recipe of her own invention that features a fluffy dough with an herb filling.
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The Great Feast: Ramadan ends with a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr. After a month of fasting during daylight hours, celebrants luxuriate at an enormous midday banquet. The meal traditionally features a roasted whole baby lamb, but Bsisu's Stuffed Leg of Lamb—more manageable and equally delicious—works just as well for this occasion as it does for iftar.
Eid "is a time of universal good cheer, like Christmas," says Bsisu. Presents and well-wishes are exchanged and a joyous atmosphere prevails. Homemade treats and fruit are also given throughout the month, in particular prized Medjool dates, considered a perfect hostess gift. "Look for the Oasis brand from California," says Bsisu. "They're so big and juicy—the ultimate delicacy."
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May S. Bsisu shared recipes for every Ramadan occasion. Here, she offers helpful hints on ingredients, techniques, and more.
Perfect for breaking the fast, this traditional soup is rich yet light. "The quality of the cumin is key," says Bsisu. "Try to buy whole seeds, kept in good condition, and grind them in a spice grinder just before using. You'll get a much fresher flavor."
More manageable than the traditional whole roasted baby lamb, this dish is equally impressive, and perfect for either the nightly iftar or the Eid al-Fitr feast. "If you think you don't like lamb, try it this way," says Bsisu. "The cooking liquid and the long, slow roasting make it incredibly moist and tender, with an almost buttery flavor." For a traditional Ramadan meal, pair the lamb with dishes such as hummus, cucumber and yogurt salad, and mujaddarah (lentils and rice with caramelized onions).
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"This no-bake treat is like a coffee cake," says Bsisu. "It's a nice snack throughout the night, or for the early morning suhur." The "cake" consists of two layers of a sweet pistachio-semolina mixture, separated by a creamy rose- and orange-scented filling and topped with fried nuts. "Be sure to use course semolina, not the finely ground pasta flour," says Bsisu. Rose and orange-blossom waters, essential for the flowery filling, are available in Middle Eastern markets and some grocery stores. "Do not use the extracts sold in health food stores," warns Bsisu. "They're too concentrated."
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During Ramadan, hydrating beverages such as this soothing brew are drunk throughout the night. "Take your time," advises Bsisu. "It takes a full ten minutes for the mild sage to infuse its full flavor." The more complex variation, with rose water, dried lime, cardamom, and mint, is also popular for the holiday.
"For a yeasted bread, these savory snacks are quite easy to make," says Bsisu. "You really can't go wrong." Halloumi cheese, a Mediterranean sheep's milk variety, is relatively easy to find. If unavailable, however, it can be replaced by half Feta and half mozzarella. Nigella—a peppery spice used here mainly for its black color—can be replaced by black sesame seeds.
"Food is a big part of Ramadan," writes author and cooking teacher May S. Bsisu in her book The Arab Table. "Every evening of the holy month is likely to present several calls for delicious food—and plenty of it." Growing up in Kuwait and Lebanon, Bsisu remembers breaking the daily sunup-to-sundown fasts with "memorable meals": plump dates and cool fruit juice, warming soup, succulent roast lamb, and numerous other treats. Drawn from these memories, her travels, and the dishes she now prepares for her own family in Ohio, Bsisu's recipes for Ramadan reflect the breadth of the Arab world. She sat down with Epicurious to share tips on celebrating this special holiday.
Check out the slideshow above to learn more about how important food is during Ramadan.