Ah Ramadan, the word itself can make a foodie smile. Cairo comes alive with the sounds of Arabic music and a severely bipolar traffic disorder. The food available in Cairo also takes a different form to cater to the Ramadan expectations and appetites. The month-long season of increased sedentariness and appetite wreaks havoc on the waistline, and is often blamed for the paradoxical increase of blood cholesterol levels, even though most people claim to fast from sunrise to sunset. How is this possible?
The answer is very simple: Ramadan tables are all about excess. A person fasting is a person who demands certain privileges: to be left alone to writhe in hunger, then to be fed like a king at sunset, then to be left alone to writhe in indigestion until just before dawn, only to begin the cycle anew. For a lot of folks out there, Ramadan is the only time of year when they regularly eat two meals a day; outside of Ramadan they’re lucky to eat one. These Ramadan meals must fulfil certain criteria, lest we anger the poor fasting glutton.
Let’s examine the first Ramadan meal: fetar. Literally translated, it means breakfast; and for 11 months of the year, it is often ignored or supplanted by nicotine and caffeine infusions. During Ramadan, fetar becomes an essential part of a person’s day – even if they’re not fasting. Expected on the fetar table are at least two kinds of meat, assorted starches and salads. Chicken and beef stews are pretty standard, as is a casserole of macaroni with béchamel. The most consumed liquid during this teetotaling month is a thick, dried apricot smoothie (sans milk) or a dark and deeply refreshing cold tamarind infusion. Rice? Check. Potato? Double check; the side dishes are the mortar to the bricks of the main courses, building a veritable fortress of cholesterol and fat capable of withstanding the siege of self-inflicted famine.
The second meal, sohour, is a different matter; the quantities may be less, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in variety. It’s meant to be a light meal to shore up the fasting man’s defences against the coming hunger. Foods rich in complex sugars, low-salt dishes and plenty of water seem to be the best combination. The reality is very different; during a recent visit to Tagine, salty and protein-rich foods were consumed – all of them very tasty – but the effects of which ensured a painful and arduous fast the next day.
Foul medammes and tehina are arguably the most popular options, followed by lightly fried potatoes, sambousak, chicken livers and assorted yoghurt and cheese salads. I know a household that fed their prepubescent children pancakes and French toast for sohour – they turned out fine, but developed an aversion to consuming maple syrup before 8AM.
For a Cairo neophyte, this can all be very overwhelming; the entire city becomes feverish with hunger; Road rage during the day intensifies as does the traffic congestion. Hotels bombard us with buffets and set menus designed especially for consumption during Ramadan. Invitations from friends and family will come; fetar at the house, and sohour probably at some Nile-side lounge to smoke the shisha, drink the juice and eat the mezzas. It’s all very entertaining, but you would expect quite the opposite from a month that tries to bring us closer to ourselves through self-denial and discipline. We shouldn’t be getting fatter; we should be getting smarter and kinder.
To be smart, you should check yourself before you wreck yourself‘; that is to say that one should not eat till one’s insides are bursting with roasted beef flavour. Sample all that the abundant dinner parties have to offer; just not to excess. Like a seasoned marathon runner, you should also realise that slow and steady wins the race. Pace yourself to keep those taste buds and that stomach lining nimble and ready for the tsunami of delicious protein and fat barrelling down your gullet.
True gourmands will revel in the experience of having their pick of all that life and Egyptian cookery has to offer. And there is something resplendent and patriotic about being served quintessentially Egyptian fare at almost every turn: outside of Ramadan, most restaurants wouldn’t be caught dead serving Ro’aa (except for those specialising in Egyptian food, of course). For one month, Egyptian home-style food is as fashionable as Foie Gras on Focaccia.
For this one month, one can walk through the empty streets twenty minutes before sunset and delight in the smell of cooked food everywhere. A traffic jam of the nostrils: roasted tomatoes, boiling chicken stock and the perfume of grilled meats emanating from every household cooking in uncoordinated unison is the reason we foodies love Ramadan so much.