Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, is a time for focusing on the spiritual, and being empathetic and charitable to others. During this month, as an act of self-restraint, Muslims fast—meaning no food or water—from sunrise to sunset. The meal at dusk, to break the fast, is known as iftar, a celebratory ritual when families and friends come together. Iftar is a time to share and a time for inclusiveness, when invitations are extended to friends in your community, regardless of their religious background. It is something I learned growing up; my parents taught me that there is always room for another person at our table—especially during Ramadan.
I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and have multi-ethnic heritage–Pakistani, Afghan and Persian. Because of my father’s job as an international development banker, I grew up all over the world: the United States, Nigeria, Kenya, the United Kingdom, and Bangladesh. As an adult, I worked in Rome, Italy, after which I made my way to Toronto, Canada, a place I now call home. I started observing Ramadan when we lived in Nairobi, Kenya; I was 16-years-old. After a long day of fasting, iftar meals often involve a reward–something fried, something sweet, something salty—but growing up, iftar was similar to a normal family meal in our home. My father believed that iftar meals should be simple, to reflect the spirit of self-restraint in Ramadan.
The more elaborate iftar meals were reserved for weekends, when we had friends from the community joining our table. It didn’t matter if you observed Ramadan or not, or if you were Muslim or not, you were invited to our home to break bread with us and be one of us. It wasn't easy for me to move around from country to country, but the sense of hospitality and graciousness I grew up with, thanks to my parents, meant that we often had new faces at our table. It was my parents' way of introducing others to our culture—but it also meant that through the sharing of food, we forged new friendships wherever we lived. Having led an itinerant life, food has always been a way for me to connect with others. And what better time than Ramadan, to invite everyone from the community, so we can connect as humans around a simple thing like good food.
"Having led an itinerant life, food has always been a way for me to connect with others."
On our weekend iftar table you would find platters of pakoras, salty, hot vegetable fritters, served alongside a tamarind-date dipping sauce; and samosas—those triangular pastries stuffed with cumin-spiced potatoes. My favorite was my mother’s cardamom-scented rice pudding, adorned with edible silver leaf and crushed pistachios. All the dishes were served family-style, and with their plate in hand, our guests would find a seat on a chair or the sofa, or on the rug. Everyone was welcome to eat wherever they liked. No matter where we lived—whether Nairobi, or Lagos, Washington, DC, or Dhaka—our home was open to everyone.
As an adult, I visit my parents in Washington, DC, during Ramadan. But because of the pandemic, I have been unable to do that for the past two years. We normally gather at my mother’s best friend’s home for iftar. Aunty’s Shelly’s home is always open to extended family and friends, and even though the crowd of people at her table may change every year, the dishes are a constant. I love her world-famous corn pakoras with mint chutney, and her bowl of chana chaat, made with chickpeas, potatoes and onions, tossed in a tangy tamarind sauce. As soon as everyone has broken their fast with dates and water, they disperse to say their prayers. After that, the fun begins, as platters of pakoras are passed around, and hot, steaming chai is poured into teacups. It is a time to be with loved ones, something I have missed very much during the pandemic.
"No matter where we lived—whether Nairobi, or Lagos, Washington, DC, or Dhaka—our home was open to everyone."
The iftar table is all about sharing plates. I am very excited about preparing my menu, as Ramadan falls in Spring this year (it is based on the lunar calendar, so the date varies). In these three recipes, you will find something fried, something sweet, and something salty. The first dish is a pakora. As someone who creates recipes which are a reflection of my heritage, I always think about what I can source, locally, to recreate traditional dishes I grew up eating—and as a hyphenated Canadian, I cannot resist asparagus when it is in season. In my pakora recipe, you add raw, delicate asparagus stalks to the batter. Then, you fry them up into crisp patties, and eat them hot, with a bright, lemon-infused yogurt.
Now for something sweet. These brownies are very special to me, because I have added three beautiful spices: cardamom, cinnamon, and clove. They remind me of chocolate burfi, one of the many confectioneries you find people lining up for outside mithai shops in Lahore during Ramadan. And lastly, there’s something salty. This jeweled salad is like the chickpea chaat my Aunty Shelly has always made, but mine has the addition of garnet-like pomegranate arils, which I love.
These are dishes that bring people together. In my home, family, friends, and neighbors gather to celebrate, and you’ll see platters being passed around, the clinking of tea cups, and laughter as a day of fasting comes to an end. I have missed all of this over the past two years, and I am really looking forward to spending Ramadan with my family this year. I hope you will make these dishes–and share them–in the spirit of Ramadan.