Vittles 6.8 - Ramadan

Four Versions of Ramadan, by Adi Perkasa, Saffina Jinnah , Adejoke Adeboyejo, and Iqra Chaudhry

Just a small intro from me, as today’s special Ramadan newsletter is longer than usual.

From this week onward I will be changing the scheduling of posts for Vittles. Putting out a newsletter five days a week has been good to prove a point about the wealth of great food writing out there, but I will be slowing down slightly over the next month. I’ll be putting out newsletters at least three days a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with a possible fourth for news compilations (although if you want food media compilations, then James Hansen and his brilliant new newsletter in-digestion has you sorted).

This is for a few reasons: the main one is that it allows me to pay contributors more, both the writers and the illustrators who keep the newsletter going. As ever, if you are able to donate to Vittles then please do here . The second is that it allows me a bit more room to publish longer, more ambitious writing. All the newsletters this week are examples of what I hope this approach might achieve.

Today’s newsletter is a compilation of Muslim writers from around the world talking about Ramadan and how observing the fast, as well as Iftar and Eid, has changed for Muslims all over the world. Although each account differs depending on the specific circumstances of location, class, and religious affiliation, what runs through them is the same resourcefulness, adaptability and focus on community. Ramadan may be more difficult and poignant this year, but the resolve remains universal: that, with the help of others, people will get through and that next year Eid will be celebrated the same way it always has been, with friends, family, and the food which brings them together.

Jakarta, Indonesia by Adi Perkasa

There is an Indonesian tradition that often takes place on the last few days of Ramadan before Eid Al-Fitr called mudik, when those working in cities return to their ancestral villages to visit their families. When I was living with my mother in Jakarta, away from my father, mudik was always one of the moments I waited and longed for throughout the year so I could spend time with people close to my heart and enjoy the additional food this entails. The voyage to our hometown of Bandar Lampung was a part of mudik itself. I remember that in the last years of elementary school, when my dad could not afford airplane tickets, I used to make the 200km journey myself by bus or by hitching a ride in a relative’s car. During the seven-hour traffic-jammed journey I would usually stop off at a Padangnese food stall near the Port of Merak. To have rendang before the dawn broke, or in the darkness of Iftar, made me crave my grandma’s cooking even more. 

Rendang is one of the dishes that is almost mandatory to serve during Eid in Indonesia, alongside ketupat (a rice cake boiled in rhombus shaped palm leaves) and opor (chicken cooked in coconut milk). While these are well known, my favorite Eid dish is a mild and chilli-free stir-fry of beef liver with shredded lemongrass, fragrant with bay and orange leaves, partly because I can only get it at my grandmother’s house. This liver is a perfect match with sekubal, a traditional Lampung speciality made from glutinous rice, steamed with coconut milk and then wrapped in banana leaves. If that small taste of rendang I ate on my journey to Lampung made me miss my grandma’s cooking, can you imagine how much more I will crave it this year? 

On April 21st, the Indonesian President Joko Widodo officially issued a ban forbidding mudik. Like most economic migrants who can’t come home and who will not be able to spend time with those they care about the most, I admit that I’m on our government’s side. Indonesia is the biggest archipelago in the world, so this policy makes sense to stop the coronavirus from spreading and help to flatten the curve. The ban was announced because research from the Ministry of Transportation had indicated that 24% of Indonesian citizens intended to go ahead with their mudik plans anyway, while 7% had already returned to their hometown. Some say that if 31% of Indonesians really do insist on coming home, then this policy may already be too late. 

Sometimes we forget that the essence of mudik is not only about the voyage or the delicious foods we eat. It’s about the good things we did during Ramadan that make us a brand new person – as if emerging reborn in Eid. We ask those closest to us for forgiveness for all our mistakes, strengthening the bond with our family and friends. This is the real lesson of mudik. 

This year, Indonesians will carve a new history. We may not be able to return home due to the pandemic, but mudik will always be a part of Indonesian tradition, if not this year then the year after and the year after that. So it wouldn’t be such a sacrifice if just once we experience an anomaly: eating ketupat on Eid while asking forgiveness from our family via video messenger. 

Adi Perkasa is a writer who represented Indonesia on Youth Journalism Conference by British Council - Future News Worldwide 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He writes about everything from food, fashion, beauty pageant, gender equalities, to romance fiction. You can learn more about him on his portfolio, Instagram and Twitter. Adi was paid for his writing.

Vancouver, Canada, by Saffina Jinnah

Mosques across Canada remain closed, but many Muslim communities here have made transitions and found new ways of worship while remaining at home. Those who live with their immediate family still have an opportunity to pray together. Some have socially distanced safely and meet for short prayers. Others have utilised technology.

Platforms such as Zoom, Facebook and YouTube have become vital to share sermons and host virtual Iftar dinners. The Islamic organisation Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Canada has launched a national campaign, inviting Canadians to experience Ramadan online, and there are already 18 cities across the country participating. Non-Muslims are encouraged to join in to learn more about Islam while imams from across Canada will join to answer questions and Iftar dinners will be held to break fast together. 

The Muslim community in Canada is very culturally diverse; typical Iftar meals range from elaborate biryanis to simple but delightful western meals. Many traditions include grilled meats such as spiced kebabs or flavourful stews such as haleem/kichro. Considering the current climate, we’ve tended to shop less and buy more staples, which affects Iftar meal coordination, preparation and eating. This year requires some lateral thinking, combining exciting flavours with simple recipes adapted to common pantry items and spices: fragrant vegetable jeera (cumin) rice or a quick oven-baked one-pan tandoori chicken and potatoes. 

In addition to virtual Iftars, some communities such as the Ismailis are sharing recipes of meals they would usually get to share together. The Ismaili community is a minority branch of Shia Islam that consists of ethnically and culturally diverse Muslims living in more than 25 countries around the world. The Ismaili British Columbia social media channels have set up an innovative online space for creative expression and engagement referred to as the CHAI Studio (Culture, Heritage, Arts, Inclusion). Alongside visual arts, literary arts and Bollywood dance lessons, recipes have also been shared as creative expressions: everything from a simple chai and mantu (dumplings) to firnee (an Afghani custard which is very popular during Ramadan and at Eid).

A key aspect of the month of Ramadan is charity, giving and volunteerism. Muslim organisations have helped find ways to safely collect and/or deliver food and supplies to those in need. The Ismaili Civic initiative is working with local grocery stores on engaging the public to donate newly purchased items to various food banks while the Muslim Care Centre, situated in the Downtown Eastside – one of Vancouver’s most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods – will be distributing Iftar packages of dates, rice, meat, samosas and fruits. 

As Muslims get creative on how to observe this month, many are looking ahead as to how Eid will be celebrated. Whether you are a practicing Muslim or not, Eid is a special day filled with well wishes and celebrations with family. Though people are not rushing off to buy new clothes or prepare large feasts, many are planning on hosting virtual celebrations. Some will be dropping off meals, and many will be wishing Eid Mubarak over the phone and through email. Some hope that restrictions may be partly lifted by then and that we can rejoice with family, share nehari or rendang and eat sheer khurma – a creamy cardamom and saffron pudding that Eid isn’t complete without! However this Eid looks, it will be a time to reflect on how we celebrate and how it may look different in the future. It will be a time to express gratitude and appreciate what we have. Though Eid looks different this year, it will make clear just how similar we are and that we are stronger together.

Saffina Jinnah is a Canadian writer of Indian and East African heritage who usually writes about housing and homelessness. She was paid for her writing.

Lagos, Nigeria, by Adejoke Adeboyejo

As a result of the lockdown imposed by the Nigerian government to prevent the spread of COVID-19, religious activities, which include gatherings in mosques, have been put on hold. Breaking of the fast is usually a communal activity and it is common for mosques to host large gatherings where many people are fed. The Alausa Central Mosque in Ikeja – the capital of Lagos state and one of Nigeria’s commercial centres – is usually a hive of activity during Ramadan, with gatherings of worshippers for prayers, Islamic lectures (tafsir), food distribution for the less privileged and the communal breaking of the fast known as sahur. Sometimes, people get invited into the homes of government officials and other highly placed people in society for the sahur, but this year activities connected to the fast are being observed privately in homes, while clerics broadcast sermons online and on television.

The economic impact of COVID-19 has also affected how Ramadan is being observed. While the pandemic has brought about economic downturns in many parts of the world, Nigeria is particularly hard-hit due to the fall in oil prices. Furthermore, the lockdown, which commenced a few weeks prior to Ramadan, has prevented most people from going about their normal business. Those who earn wages on a daily basis have suddenly found themselves without income, and this is having a negative impact during the fasting period. In previous years, many families prepared for Ramadan by stocking up on food items like rice, yams, corn and beans. Now, with less money to spend in the economy and little or no income, many are finding it extremely difficult to afford basic food items.

In a country where the majority lives on less than $2 a day, many Muslims depend on the kindness of wealthier fellow Muslims who provide food to the community where everyone can share what is supplied. In the northern part of the country, there are many street children, known as Almajiris, and during Ramadan they usually enjoy the generosity of Muslims in the form of well prepared meals: hot pap with akara (bean cakes) or moin-moin (bean pudding), which is usually a favourite for breaking the fast since it is a light meal. There are also heavier meals like rice, amala (yam flour) or tuwo (made from rice or corn flour), which is eaten with soup. Such meals are usually distributed at the mosques at dusk and dawn when people break their fast. However, mosques are closed and benefactors have to find other avenues of distribution; a group known as the Pious Muslim Women, which distributes raw food items to about 2,000 people during Ramadan, has opted to give cash to beneficiaries this year in place of food items.

During Ramadan, commercial activities involving food are usually at their peak. Roadside food businesses are prevalent in many parts of Nigeria and it is not unusual to see food sellers working overnight during the holy month. Freshly prepared food such as cornmeal, boiled rice, moin-moin, beans, tuwo and many others are usually available for sale from early evening until the morning. Some people may buy the prepared food to take home, while others eat it where they purchased it. This year, these activities have been minimal or, in many places, non-existent. 

The beauty of Iftar is the togetherness, the gathering to eat with others. With this unprecedented situation, Muslims are using solitude to seek divine guidance and are hopeful that by next year a vaccine will have been found. Then, and only then, can people gather again and enjoy Ramadan, as well as normal life, the same as before.

Adejoke Adeboyejo is a freelance writer based in Lagos, Nigeria and she writes
about healthcare, women and development issues. She was paid for her writing.

Manchester, UK by Iqra Chaudhry

Ramadan is all about rituals.

We all have our own rituals: in the weeks leading up to the holy month, I try to cut down on my caffeine consumption, knowing that fasting is even harder when you have a withdrawal headache. My brother usually starts going to the mosque more often. We all try to pray more, and be more mindful of our actions. And there’s the panicked last-minute making-up of the fasts missed the year before. 

But this year things are different, and our familiar Ramadan rituals, some of them decades old, have been interrupted, changed or postponed.

I live in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. A huge chunk of the local community is made up of Muslims from immigrant backgrounds, and Ramadan is an important part of the neighbourhood’s social calendar. The UK’s strict lockdown rules means mosques have closed down, so the daily gatherings for prayers have been cancelled. The streets of Cheetham Hill, which are usually filled with people getting together in the evenings for Iftar, are eerily empty every night. With people of colour overwhelmingly falling victim to severe COVID-19 and dying of it in the UK, our communities have responded to the crisis by making sure that everyone who falls into the at-risk categories is kept as safe as possible.

One of the Ramadan rituals we’re used to is something we call ‘the neighbour plate’. Once a week during Ramadan, my mum sets up a military operation in our kitchen. The mission? Delivering delicious, freshly-cooked food to the neighbours. She sets up a production line, around an hour before Iftar, and will rope me and my siblings into cooking food. We make up plates for each of our neighbours and family members further afield and deliver them to all their destinations before it's time to break the fast. 

It's a chaotic ritual, but it’s one synonymous with Ramadan. Pakoras, samosas, kebabs, freshly-baked naans and steaming hot pilau rice are piled on to disposable crockery and wrapped up. Then we’re sent out, knocking on doors and delivering the piping hot packages, often having a quick natter with the neighbours in their hallway or kitchen and then running back to the house to do it all over again. Each time, we argue over who gets to stay indoors in their pyjamas and who is sent out on delivery duty, but as much as we complain, we love it. 

It’s a tradition my mum brought over to England from her tiny village in Punjab. I think it was a way for her to put down new roots and foster a sense of community with the people she saw every day, but was too shy to introduce herself to otherwise. When my family moved here, the neighbour plate was something no one on our street did – they simply nodded to each other, or issued a polite greeting, but mostly kept to themselves. My mum’s insistence on sending plates of food to strangers soon created a community, and some healthy competition.

It's hard to deliver neighbour plates with social distancing measures in place and so many people on our street are in at-risk categories for COVID-19. Several of our neighbours work as key workers, while others are older and need to avoid contact with the outside as much as possible. And travelling further than our own street is now considered non-essential travel.

So this year we’re doing something else. My mum has made up food parcels for our neighbours in the lead-up to Ramadan, with fruit and frozen goods aplenty, to make up for the lack of neighbour plates this year. 

Delivering the food parcels has been different too. I’m on delivery duty as the only member of the family who might have already had the virus and recovered from it (unsurprisingly, I wasn’t able to get tested). This year, I’ve left lonely bags of cold food on doorsteps, stepping back into the street to ring neighbours so they can safely come to the door, waving at them in my face mask and explaining that I can’t stop and chat, as much as I’d love to.

Ramadan has been made so much more difficult for the families on our street who can’t see their loved ones during this holy month, but still trying to do something that people have associated with Ramadan has restored a sense of normalcy. It's a reminder that even though Ramadan is going to be different this year, we can still make it special and let others know we’re thinking of them. Also, when lockdown is lifted and all of this is over, there’s a list of people who are expecting their neighbour plate a few months late.

Iqra Choudhry is a working-class writer from Manchester working towards her PhD. You can find her tweeting about food and all sorts of other things at @iqrathebookworm on Twitter. Iqra was paid for her writing.

All illustrations are by Reena Makwana who was paid for her work.