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Ramadan: A Time Of Delicious Fasting?

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Ramadan: A Time Of Delicious Fasting?

Ramadan: A Time Of Delicious Fasting?

Ramadan: A Time Of Delicious Fasting?

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Across the world, Muslims are partaking in Ramadan, when the faithful fast from sunup to sundown, abstaining from food and water. The time is spent in spiritual reflection. But the month-long religious tradition is also spent enjoying unique foods that are only served during this reverent time of year. Abdulah Fawass, executive chef of the Mediterranean bakery and Cafe in Alexandria, Virginia, and Abbas Ammar, manager of the Al-Ameer Restaurant in Dearborn, Michigan, talk about the delicacies of Ramadan.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's your chance to sound off in a few minutes. Our digital media guy Lee Hill says you all had plenty to say about my commentary this week. Our Backtalk segment is coming up.

But first, our Faith Matters conversation. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today we want to talk about Ramadan, the Muslim holy month for this year started this week on the evening of August 10th. Observant Muslims fast from sun-up to sundown, abstaining from food and water. The time is spent in spiritual reflection.

Now, much is made of the fasting aspect of Ramadan, but we are going to let you in on a little secret. It turns out that Ramadan might be one of the best times of the year for good eating because when sundown comes, the fast is broken, sometimes with sweets prepared especially for this time of year. So we wanted to know more.

So we've called Abdulah Fawass, executive chef of the Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe. That's in Alexandria, Virginia. That's right outside Washington, D.C. And joining us from Dearborn, Michigan is Abbas Ammar, manager of the Al-Ameer Restaurant. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ABDULAH FAWASS (Executive Chef, Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe): Thank you.

Mr. ABBAS AMMAR (Manager, Al-Ameer Restaurant): Well, thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Do you find it funny that many non-Muslims are so intrigued by how you manage to get through the month? Mr. Fawass, do you want to answer that? Do you know what I mean? You get questions, like, how do you handle it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAWASS: The best answer will be if you have faith in God and Iman, that will keep you going.

MARTIN: Okay. And Mr. Ammar, what about you?

Mr. AMMAR: Sleep during the day and wake up at night.

MARTIN: Okay. So we have the practical and we have the transcendent. There you go. We have both. And may I ask, is it difficult working in a restaurant industry when you're abstaining?

Mr. FAWASS: Yes, it is, especially when you are fasting and making all these goodies. And kinafas with cheese, with cream, all that. So, yes, very difficult.

MARTIN: How do you manage not to, you know, sneak a taste?

Mr. FAWASS: I will think about God, other people, you know, the poor people, they might not have all this food we are doing or we eating here. And just bear your minds with them and hopefully God will help them and have like in Pakistan, Afghanistan, you know, with the flood and all this, God with them, you know. That's the best. For here, I mean we thank God for all this food around us.

MARTIN: And that was Mr. Fawass. Okay, Mr. Ammar, what about you? How do you manage to stay focused and not sneak a little taste of something?

Mr. AMMAR: I mean I really just try to stay busy. Like you said, I try to keep it as practical as possible. I mean, I know it's a religious month and we're doing it for all the right reasons. But got my eye on the prize and keep chugging along.

MARTIN: I hear you. Are you cranky right about now?

Mr. AMMAR: Pardon?

MARTIN: Mr. Ammar, are you cranky right about now? Are you little cranky? Really honest are you a little cranky?

Mr. AMMAR: Well, I mean in a normal situation, no, because this month is not only about not eating, it's a lot more. It's just about applying yourself in reaching a new level of humanity and reaching a new level of self-awareness.

MARTIN: If we could talk about food for a minute, and I hate to, you know, add to your burden. But, Mr. Fawass, why don't you start, are there some special things that people particularly like to enjoy during Ramadan once the fast is broken? Can you tell us about some of the popular items?

Mr. FAWASS: Sure. Sure. The most popular item in the Middle East, which we do with only for Ramadan during the year, you don't find it or rarely you find it unless, you know, some people order it special. It's called katayef. Katayef, it's like American pancakes. A little bit thinner and we stuff that, we fold them and we stuff them with nuts and some cream. And then we bake them, lightly baked. And after that, dip them directly to a honey or a thick syrup. And then we decorate it with pistachio and serve it. That's the most popular item in Ramadan.

And then of course there is the kinafa, also with cheese or with a cream. That's semolina dough with shredded dough mixed together. Also that has a lot of syrup, of course, and decorated with pistachio.

MARTIN: Do non-Muslims come in during the day and get these items, too? Or do you close during the day?

Mr. FAWASS: Of course. No, no, no, of course. Of course. They do it. I mean, Americans, they love our food. I mean, and especially when Ramadan, when you have something new. Oh, what is this? What's that? And you explain it to them. And they eat it and they love it. There's no question about it.

MARTIN: Are there...

Mr. AMMAR: Yeah, our clientele at Al-Ameer is about 60 percent non-Muslim. So we get a really large clientele base that really were not really too affected by the Ramadan.

MARTIN: I see. And do the special Ramadan treats, though, Mr. Ammar, like Mr. Fawass was saying that sometimes the customers who are not Muslim will see that there are special treats on the menu for Ramadan and they'll ask...

Mr. AMMAR: Oh, yeah, they love it. They love when Ramadan comes around.

MARTIN: And what about, god, I hate to be pedestrian about this, but what about baklava, is that popular at this time of year? Or is that just...

Mr. FAWASS: It is the other choice, you know, the other kind of choice. Baklava is like it's a wide variety of things, you know. It's the same principle as the phyllo dough or a shredded dough filled with different kind of nuts or cream or cheese and different shapes. And that goes all year around, you know. And also in Ramadan, people, they like to do that. The katayef, like I said before, and kinafa is those two items is the most popular in Ramadan.

MARTIN: And what about any particular fillings that people particularly want at this time of year? Is there any particular version that's more popular than other...

Mr. FAWASS: They like the cream filling. We call it kushta. Kushta, it's like when you boil the cream, the milk, and you skim that top, you know, thick layers coming out of the boiling the cream, and that you add all this skimming and you make it like almost like a little lighter than cream cheese.

Mr. AMMAR: It's really close to ricotta cheese.

Mr. FAWASS: Exactly. Exactly.

MARTIN: I see. I see. Well, can I ask, before I let you go you're both very generous with your time, because I know you're both really busy, is there something that each of you particularly likes? Mr. Ammar?

Mr. AMMAR: You know, what I really love and our restaurant, we have it, it's seasonal, it's only for the month of Ramadan I just eat a simple date and I drink some date juice, which we call jelup(ph). And then otherwise, it's a free for all.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You kind of, like, ease into it, huh?

Mr. AMMAR: Yeah. You know, because you haven't eaten all day and you had been fasting for 10-plus hours, I don't think chowing down on a hamburger's really good for you. So I just wade into it.

MARTIN: You wade into it with the date juice, I see. Forgive me, I've never had it, is it like prune juice? Is there a flavor I could compare it too? I've never had it. I've had dates, but I've never had date juice.

Mr. AMMAR: Well, after the break, you send me your address and I'll mail you some jelup.

MARTIN: Okay, well, thank you. Mr. Fawass, what's your favorite thing to break the fast with?

Mr. FAWASS: Usually we go break the fast either a cup of water and, like, a piece or two of dates.

MARTIN: Is that a spiritual thing?

Mr. FAWASS: Yes.

MARTIN: Or is that a cultural thing?

Mr. FAWASS: No.

MARTIN: Or is it a just...

Mr. FAWASS: It's a spiritual thing. And but...

Mr. AMMAR: It's spiritual and practical, I guess.

Mr. FAWASS: Yes, it is. And on my side, I have a sweet tooth. I go for katayef right after.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You go right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAWASS: Because I make it all day and then I care for it. So I cannot wait.

MARTIN: I think I'm with Mr. Fawass. I think I'm kind of a go right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMMAR: Just get it done.

MARTIN: Let's get it done.

Abdulah Fawass is the executive chef of the Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe in Alexandria, Virginia. And Abbas Ammar is manager of the Al-Ameer Restaurant in Dearborn, Michigan. And they were both kind enough to join us - their Ramadan secrets with us. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. FAWASS: Thank you for having us.

Mr. AMMAR: Thank you for having us.

Mr. FAWASS: Thank you very much.

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