It's Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast all day long — from sunup to sundown. The fast is broken each day with a celebratory meal called an iftar. Muslims follow a lunar calendar, which means Ramadan falls at a different time each year. When Ramadan falls in August — as it does this year — it means long, hot days without food or water.
Yvonne Maffei, who writes the food blog My Halal Kitchen, talks with NPR's Renee Montagne about how to prepare and persevere when it's hot and you're hungry.
"We're spending around 16 hours a day fasting," Maffei explains, "so during the times when we are eating — which is after the sun goes down — we have to really hydrate ourselves." Maffei suggests foods that are filled with water — like squash and watermelon — to help rehydrate the body.
Refreshing Summer Recipes
It's been a hot summer. We're collecting your favorite tips for snacks and meals during warm weather. What are your strategies for beating the heat? Tell us in the comments below, or on Facebook.
It helps to have tasty drinks, too. Maffei has developed a drink that is sure to help anyone beat the heat — even if you're not observing Ramadan. It's called the Honeydew Melon Cooler, and it's one of her favorites. All it takes is honeydew, guava, mango, orange juice and a blender. They're fruits you wouldn't necessarily think to mix together, Maffei says, "but it's really delicious and it's very tropical."
In addition to rehydrating, it's also key to eat filling, nutritious food. For iftar dinner, Maffei recommends Hanger Steak with Mango Salsa. "Beef is [an] excellent source of protein and iron that we need — and we lose a lot of that when fasting," she explains. The thinly cut hanger steak cooks quickly and pairs nicely with a salsa of tomatoes, chopped mango, white onions and lime juice. "It's really refreshing, and you can have that with a side of rice or couscous maybe," Maffei says. "It gives you some energy rather than a sugar crash later on."
The most traditional way to break the fast is with a date — that was the tradition of the prophet Muhammad, Maffei explains. The sweet fruits are a perfect fast-breaking food. "It has just the right amount of sugar in it to bring your body's glucose levels up," Maffei says. "Toward the end of your fast, you feel a little bit lightheaded ... and then as soon as you have those dates, you start to feel a little bit more alive again." (Check out Maffei's recipe for Dates with Cream.)
The predawn meal — suhoor — is key to a good fast. "It's not just cereal and milk," Maffei says. "That will never get us through the day." In her house, three alarms are set for 3:30 a.m. That gives the family about one hour to prepare and eat a filling meal before the sun starts to rise around 4:30. They eat eggs, vegetables, fruit, smoothies — and coffee, if there's time. "Ramadan is not meant to be a hardship on us, so we're encouraged to have these meals," Maffei says.
Despite the 16 hours each day when you can'teat, Ramadan isn't a holiday that's defined by not eating. It's also a time to enjoy the taste and the experience of food even more.
"I think that when you break your fast, you realize how much gratitude we need to have for the miracle of food," Maffei says."You start to really savor things. Some of my best meals are at the iftar time."
It sure is hot. Humid, too. I've found the perfect way to cool off without ever having to get out of the house by making my own fruit coolers. You can really do this with any fruits, but this is what I had on hand. Cool off, enjoy the sunshine and relax. This recipe serves 2, so share it with someone special to you.
1/2 honeydew melon, roughly chopped 1 small yellow guava, seeds removed 1/2 mango, peeled and pith removed 1/4 cup orange juice
1. Place all prepared ingredients into a blender. Blend for 1 minute or until smooth.
Serves 3 if you are serving one date per person; otherwise, double or triple this recipe
There are many varieties of dates: Medjool, Deglet Noor, Halawy, just to name a few. My personal favorite is the Medjool date because it is soft and thick and doesn't taste too sweet. I also love them because they can be stuffed with crunchy things like almonds, hazelnuts or any kind of nut you prefer, adding texture and flavor to an already-delicious gift of food.
If you're having guests over for iftar or would just like to make a pretty presentation of your dates, you might want to try Dates with Cream. I use a recipe for homemade creme fraiche to dollup on top, but you can use store-bought fresh creme fraiche or another type of all-natural cream, if that's what you have.
A great summer dish to leave you satisfied and refreshed all at once — this hanger steak can be grilled indoors or out. Prepare the mango salsa first so that the steak isn't waiting too long to be accompanied by its sweet and savory counterpart.
Mango Salsa Ingredients
1 clove garlic, minced 1 mango, diced 1 avocado, diced 2 tbsp fresh cilantro, roughly chopped 1/2 white onion, minced 1/4 red onion, minced 8 to 10 cherry tomatoes Salt, to taste Juice of 1 lemon or lime
4 hanger steaks, or any type of steak you would cook on a grill, about 6 to 7 ounces each Freshly ground pepper
Lately I've been soaking and cooking my own dry beans — everything from black beans to pinto beans and now chickpeas. I used to do it a lot more often than I do now, but I'm suddenly forcing myself to enjoy the health benefits of freshly cooked beans as well as the economic benefits. Beans are cheap in a can, but they can be even more economical dry. They plump up when soaked and can nicely surprise you with how much more you get when cooked. For example, in this recipe for Chickpea and Sun-Dried Tomato Salad, I soaked one cup of chickpeas and got about one and a half when cooked.
I was lured in by the amazingly fresh parsley and cilantro at my grocery store, so they immediately went into preparing this salad. Just remember to leave out the olive oil and lemon juice until the last moment. No sense in going through all the work to prepare such a lovely dish just to end up with soaked ingredients!
1 1/2 cup chickpeas (cooked) or 1 cup dried 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped 1/2 red onion, diced 1 small garlic clove, minced 1 green onion, finely chopped 1/2 cucumber, seeds removed and diced (approximately 1 cup) Zest of one lemon Salt, to taste 1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more to your liking Juice of one lemon
1. If using fresh chickpeas, soak overnight. Once they have enlarged, boil the chickpeas for about 1 1/2 hours or until soft but not broken. If using canned chickpeas, just rinse them of the liquid that comes with them.
2. Add the fresh ingredients, but not the oil or lemon juice until ready to serve.
3. Toss and enjoy!
This salad is great with a sandwich or soup or can work as a side to just about any main meal with Mediterranean flavors.
We can't discuss food in Ramadan without talking about the significance of the date fruit. My dad first introduced me to dates over a kitchen table full of board games and Sicilian snacks: pistachios, hazelnuts, dried figs and large, plump dates. He often joked with me that those were the only kinds of "dates" I could have at the time. Little did I know then that this fruit would become a very significant part of my adult life.
The palm tree has been around since prehistoric times and is historically significant to many cultures and religious groups. Dates from these trees are closely associated with Muslims during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. At the end of the fasting day, it is a tradition to break the fast with a date or two because that was the tradition of Muhammad, the prophet to whom Muslims believe the Quran was revealed during this very month. Muhammad used to break his fast with fresh dates before praying; if there were no fresh dates, then he broke fast with dried dates, and if there were no dried dates, he would take a few sips of water. As a result, the Ramadan tradition of breaking the fast with dates has become a sunnah, or action of the prophet, that Muslims follow.
Whether you are eating dates for tradition or just for taste, they are known to be a great source of iron, fiber, B-complex vitamins and magnesium — and have even more potassium than a banana. Dates also contain naturally occurring sugars like fructose and glucose, giving us a good deal of energy without the sugar crash that comes along with most unhealthy, sugar-filled foods. This is particularly true after a long day of fasting, when the date seems to be the perfect food to lift up the body, mind and spirit.