In Istanbul, Last Day of Ramadan Is a Festive Time

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For much of the Muslim world, Thursday is the final day of the holy month of Ramadan. In Istanbul, it's a festive time — celebrated with special foods, street fairs and bumper cars. Ivan Watson sends this audio postcard.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

In most parts of the world, today marks the final day of Ramadan.

NPR's Ivan Watson sent this audio postcard from Istanbul, a city just finishing the Muslim month of fasting and spiritual renewal.

IVAN WATSON: At 3:30 in the morning, the empty streets of a residential neighborhood echo with the sound of a drum.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM)

WATSON: This is an old Turkish tradition during Ramadan. A drummer goes on patrol, waking up the faithful for the pre-dawn meal that's eaten before the rising sun marks the start of another day of fasting.

In this huge, ancient city by the sea, tradition often collides with the modern world with sometimes-unexpected results.

Iftar is the meal Muslims eat after sunset. But some young Turks choose to break their fast at this crowded Burger King in Istanbul's Central Taksim Square. Just before sunset, dozens of people sit waiting here at empty tables. They will eventually order the sultan menu. This $6 Iftar special includes a burger, fries, a soda and dates, a traditional Ramadan food.

This 21-year-old university student named Tuba Koch(ph) admits she's desperate to break her fast, but not because she's hungry.

TUBA KOCH: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Woman: More smoking. She's about to faint because she wants to smoke, not for food.

WATSON: Koch and her three friends are not observant Muslims.

They drink alcohol sometimes and they rarely pray. But 19-year-old Benan Oztuzun(ph), who has a stud through one of her eyebrows, says she enjoys fasting during Ramadan.

BENAN OZTUZUN: (Through translator) It makes us understand the value of the things that God give us. And it's also fulfilling a requirement of God, and it makes us happy.

WATSON: Professor Abdul Aziz Bayandir(ph) is a former mufti of Istanbul, who now heads an Islamic foundation here.

ABDUL AZIZ BAYANDIR: (Through translator) It is true that during Ramadan, more people pray and more people go to mosques. That's not actually what the religion wants. The religion asks that people pray and avoid committing sins every day of the year.

WATSON: In recent years, the city government has begun organizing street fairs during Ramadan at several locations around Istanbul. At this one, families eating sticky Ramadan sweets watch as a band dressed in old Ottoman costumes of red robes and turbans marches past stalls that sell trinkets and toys.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM)

WATSON: Nearby, adults and children laugh out loud as they slam into each other at a bumper car ride.

A man named Ahmad Ersu(ph) watches the scene while sitting on a park bench with his wife and two children. He says Ramadan brings a spirit of unity to this sprawling, chaotic city of more than 12 million people.

AHMAD ERSU: For this, we are very happy. Ramadan gives us happiness and peace.

WATSON: Tonight, as many Turks sat down to a final Iftar dinner with their families, the call to prayer echoed throughout Istanbul, through mosques where minarets have been decorated with rings of bright white lights.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

SIEGEL: You can read more about the celebrations that mark the end of Ramadan and recipes for some of the sweets served on the occasion at npr.org. Check out our food column called Kitchen Window.

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Eid ul-Fitr: Ramadan's Sweet Ending

An array of sweets awaits author Shomial Ahmad when she returns home to Fort Worth, Texas, to celebrate the end of Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr. i

An array of sweets awaits author Shomial Ahmad when she returns home to Fort Worth, Texas, to celebrate the end of Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr. Vishal Malhotra for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Vishal Malhotra for NPR
An array of sweets awaits author Shomial Ahmad when she returns home to Fort Worth, Texas, to celebrate the end of Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr.

An array of sweets awaits author Shomial Ahmad when she returns home to Fort Worth, Texas, to celebrate the end of Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr.

Vishal Malhotra for NPR

This is a sweet time of year for Muslims. Literally. Eid ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, a month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting. In Pakistan, the country from which my parents emigrated, it is called the "festival of sweets."

I will celebrate the holiday, one of the biggest on the Muslim calendar, with my parents and their friends, whom I affectionately call aunties and uncles, in my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.

Soon after the new moon is sighted — expected this year at the end of the week — I'll be sampling an endless supply of homemade, sweet things.

Mehr Auntie's jalebis — gooey, pretzel-shaped candies made of fried sugar — will stick to each other on a long, silver tray. Warm kheer (rice pudding) will float in a tall pot on top of my mother's stove. A tower of mithai (flour and milk cakes), including Nighat Auntie's signature kala kand (a solid cake of ricotta cheese, milk and heavy cream), will sit on her kitchen table.

All this sweetness, however, comes with a price: the aunties' recurring question, "Why aren't you married, Shomial?"

About the Author

Shomial Ahmad is a Kroc Fellow at National Public Radio. New to the kitchen, she always has an auntie on the phone when she is experimenting with a new recipe. She has impressed her grandmother with her chickpea recipe, and the Fort Worth aunties prefer Shomial's chai over her mother's. For everything else, they prefer her mother's cooking.

When I was in high school, they asked me what my SAT score was. When I was in college, they asked me what my major was. And then after college, after my first job and after graduate school, the question was always the same, and it was always about marriage.

Every Eid, I try, usually unsuccessfully, to deflect the question.

I can predict how it will go this year. The beginning of the day won't be a problem. Eid prayer will be at the local mosque. The prayer hall will be filled with the sound of chanting and Arabic verses. In pastel-colored outfits, the aunties will stand together while they pray.

After the service ends, I'll hug the aunties, wishing them an Eid Mubarak, or "Holiday Blessings." The aunties will be distracted, scanning the room, figuring out whom they must hug and who's wearing the best outfit.

The most they'll say to me when they give me an Eid hug is either "You're so healthy (fat)" or "You're so weak (skinny)."

The questions will begin once the parties begin. The best and the grandest party will be at Mehr Auntie's, where more than 300 people party and eat.

Someone will fry fresh pooris (flatbread) outside. Aunties and uncles everywhere will sip chai (black tea with milk and sugar). The caterer will constantly refill the silver burners with fresh naan (a puffy, white-flour flatbread). And there will be lots of desserts.

One year, Mehr Auntie had mithai shipped from a South Asian sweet shop in Chicago. Another time, there was pink and blue cotton candy. Every year, there are certain standard desserts including chum chum (pink cylindrical cakes covered with nuts) and black forest cake from a local bakery.

Invariably, I'll be juggling a plate of food and chai for two uncles, when I get the first question. There'll be an auntie in line for food, and she'll want to know why I'm not married. Or an auntie will point at me and say, "You're next, Shomial."

My usual answers are evasive, yet polite: "It'll happen when the time is right" or "I haven't found the right guy." This Eid, I think I'll try a new reply.

My mother told me that if someone predicts a girl will get married soon, her parent has a traditional response: "Allah should quickly reward you with butter and brown sugar in your mouth."

It seems a sweet way to end the fast and end the questions.

Seviyan

Dried Seviyan i
Vishal Malhotra for NPR
Dried Seviyan
Vishal Malhotra for NPR

These roasted, sugared noodles are the traditional dessert served on Eid ul-Fitr. You can either make them as a sweetened milky soup or dried. My mother insists that I eat some of these noodles before I go to Eid prayer to symbolically mark that the days of fasting during Ramadan have ended.

Dried Seviyan

Makes 10 servings

5 tablespoons canola oil

One 7-ounce package, roasted vermicelli*

2 cups whole milk

4 tablespoons slivered almonds

8 to 10 whole cardamom pods

1/2 cup of sugar

20 shelled and sliced pistachios

Place oil in a medium-size pot, break the vermicelli into inch-long pieces and add to oil. Cook vermicelli over medium heat, stirring occasionally. After about 5 minutes — or when the noodles turn walnut brown — add the milk and almonds.

Pinch the cardamom pods to release the seeds, and add both seeds and shells to vermicelli. Add sugar. Cover and cook 20 to 25 minutes over medium heat. The noodles will begin to soak up the milk.

Check every 5 minutes to see how much milk has been absorbed; stir occasionally. When the milk has just about evaporated, turn the heat to low in order; the noodles should separate. Heat for 10 minutes.

Garnish with pistachios and serve warm in separate bowls.

Milky Seviyan

Mikly seviyan i
Vishal Malhotra for NPR
Mikly seviyan
Vishal Malhotra for NPR

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 gallon whole milk

1 1/2 cups pitted dried dates

1/4 cup sliced almonds

1/4 cup sliced pistachios

1/4 cup dried and shredded unsweetened coconut

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup roasted vermicelli, broken into small pieces

10 crushed cardamom pods

1/4 cup yellow raisins

2 drops kewra (optional)*

In a large pot over high heat, bring the milk to a boil. Add the dates and continue to cook over medium heat for another 20 minutes. Stir constantly, so the milk doesn't stick to the pan.

After 20 minutes, or when the milk is the consistency of half and half, add almonds, pistachios, coconut and sugar. Let cook for 10 minutes over medium heat or until the milk thickens a little more. Add vermicelli and stir constantly. When milk thickens further, add the cardamom, raisins and two drops of kewra, if using. The dessert is a warm, creamy soup with thin noodles when finished.

Ladle into bowls to serve.

*Kewra is a South Asian flower essence, commonly used in South Asian sweets. It and the roasted vermicelli are available at South Asian markets.

Halwa Poori

Halwa Poori i
Vishal Malhotra for NPR
Halwa Poori
Vishal Malhotra for NPR

In India and Pakistan, getting a bowl of halwa and a freshly fried poori is the classic breakfast street food. Vendors have huge vats of halwa (buttery, cream of wheat pudding), often decorated with pink and yellow food coloring. In another pan, someone will be frying fresh poori (flatbread) and placing them in brown-paper bags that quickly absorb the oil. On Eid, I can relive the feeling of a Pakistani street by breaking the oily bread with my fingers and using it to scoop up some halwa.

Makes 8 servings

5 tablespoons canola oil

1 stick of butter

1/2 cup cream of wheat

2 1/2 cups water

3/4 cup sugar

6 sliced, blanched almonds

8 to 10 cardamom pods

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil and butter over medium heat. When the butter is nearly melted, add the cream of wheat.

Stir the mixture until it turns an almond-brown color. Turn off the heat. (Make sure the heat is off for at least 5 minutes before adding the sugary syrup below.)

In a separate pan over medium heat, add water, sugar, almonds and cardamom pods, pinching the seeds out and adding both seeds and the shells. When the sugar is melted and the water is at a slight boil, turn off the heat. Add the sugary syrup to the cream of wheat mixture.

Over medium heat, stir the cream of wheat and sugary syrup mixture constantly, so it doesn't stick to the pan. When it starts to stick together, slightly cover the pot. Let it cook for 15 to 20 minutes over medium heat, stirring every couple of minutes. It's done when it develops a dough-like consistency.

Poori

You can buy frozen pooris from a South Asian grocery store, or you can try a shortcut my mother learned from Nighat Auntie, using freshly fried flour tortillas.

Makes 15 servings

2 cups canola oil

30 flour tortillas

Add canola oil to a 4-inch-deep frying pan and heat. When the oil begins to crackle, gently slide a tortilla into the pan. With a slotted steel spatula, tap the tortilla in the oil, and it should bubble up in a few seconds and become a puffy, oily tan bread. Remove it, and place it on a napkin to absorb the oil. Repeat and stack the pooris together. Serve two fried tortillas per serving of halwa.

Fruit Chaat

Fruit chaat i

Fruit chaat can be made with a variety of fruits. Vishal Malhotra for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Vishal Malhotra for NPR
Fruit chaat

Fruit chaat can be made with a variety of fruits.

Vishal Malhotra for NPR

This refreshing, soupy fruit salad is a standard food for breaking the fast during Ramadan. After breaking my fast with a date, I would dip my spoon into this chaat. Served in large crystal bowls at Eid parties, slightly spicy fruit chaat is a refreshing antidote to all the cakes and creamy sugar desserts.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 pear

1 apple

3 bananas

2 plums

10 to 15 red grapes

1/2 mango

1 orange

1 guava

1/2 pomegranate

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon chaat masala (or 2 tablespoons if you want it spicy)**

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup orange juice

Slice the fruit into small wedges. Quarter the grapes. Add sugar, chaat masala and salt. Add the orange juice. Mix.

**Chaat masala is a mixture of spices — dried mango powder, cumin, coriander and black pepper — that is used in many South Asian snacks. It is available at South Asian markets.

Bhel Puri

Bhel puri i
Vishal Malhotra for NPR
Bhel puri
Vishal Malhotra for NPR

Bhel puri can be a savory retreat from all the sweet things. It's classic Indian street food with a tangy tamarind sauce. It's great to munch on at Eid parties. Unfortunately, we'd mostly go to Pakistani households that didn't make the Indian dish. To get the maximum crunchiness, mix the ingredients only when you're ready to serve or have guests mix the ingredients themselves.

Makes 6 servings

2 medium-size brown potatoes

15.5-ounce can chickpeas

1 purple onion

1 medium-size tomato

2 cup bhel puri mix***

1/2 cup bhel puri chutney***

8 sprigs cilantro, chopped

Halve the potatoes and submerge them in a medium pot of water. Bring the water to a boil, and let the potatoes boil for about 15 minutes, or until you can penetrate the potato with a fork.

Drain the water. Peel the potatoes, and slice them into small triangles.

Drain and wash the chickpeas. Chop the onion and tomatoes into small dice. Add all the chopped ingredients together.

Add the bhel puri mix and chutney and toss all the ingredients together. Garnish with cilantro. Serve immediately.

***Bhel puri mix is a spicy, crunchy mix of puffed rice and strands of fried chickpea flour, seasoned with ingredients such as salt, paprika, turmeric and black salt and commonly packaged like potato chips. Bhel puri chutney is a sweet date and tamarind chutney. Both are available at South Asian markets.

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