Iftar meals and their meaning: 3 Canadian Muslims share how they break their fast during Ramadan
During this special time, their tables are as diverse as their heritage and their lives here today
On Fridays, during the month of Ramadan, Bashir Munye and his wife, Asha, walk down to their local butcher on Parliament Street in Toronto, to pick up fresh goat liver. To break his fast at sunset, chef and food advocate Bashir is preparing a childhood favourite from his mother's kitchen, a dish from his Somali heritage — beer iyo basal. In his home, Bashir unwraps the liver and begins to thinly slice white onions and sweet green peppers, just as his mother used to do for him. The onions sizzle as they are dropped into a hot pan with oil. Slowly, as they begin to soften, Bashir adds tomatoes, long, slender slices of green peppers, and the liver. And finally, a dusting of an array of robust spices — turmeric, cumin, coriander and caraway seeds.
"These flavours and spices are imprinted in my DNA. They travelled with me, as a young boy at boarding school in Italy, and after moving to Canada — over two decades ago — they remain a part of me." An earthy, musky fragrance of tender onions and liver begins to rise, and the dish is done. A father of three, Bashir and his twenty-year-old son, Hamza, fast together. "Through this act of fasting, I want him to develop a sense of community and deeper sense of empathy." As Bashir and Asha scoop up their spiced liver dish with his homemade anjero — Somali fermented flatbread — his children ladle a garlicky beef stew over steamed basmati rice.
(Bashir Munye with his wife and children)
During Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, no water or food can be imbibed from dawn till dusk — a ritual observed by many Muslims around the world. As events and holidays in Islam are based on a lunar calendar, the dates for Ramadan shift by 11 days every year. During the summer months, a day without food and drink in northern countries like Canada can stretch out to 17 hours. For Muslims, Ramadan is a time for reflection, mindfulness and spiritual recharging. But it is also a time for families, friends and community — Muslim and non-Muslim — to gather and break bread together during the nourishing meal at dusk, iftar.
For many Canadian Muslims, the foods prepared for iftar meals tell a story of inheritance, a journey across oceans to create a new home in Canada, and a connection to another home. Their tables at Ramadan are as diverse as their heritage and lives here today.
For Sumaiya Ahmed, a Communications Officer for the Toronto Public Library, every iftar starts with a bite of her father's bronzed, crunchy dal pakoras. "I fast to belong," Sumaiya shares with me. "This is the only religious thing I do — I feel like I need to fast to remain a part of the community my parents created in Canada for us." Sumaiya moved with her parents from Karachi, Pakistan, to Toronto, when she was in elementary school, and felt a strong sense of isolation when she arrived here. "I felt I was unable to fit in." Fasting gave her that sense of belonging, in a place in which she initially felt lost.
(Irshad, Sumaiya's father, with her son)
Sumaiya's father, who grew up in Karachi as one of ten children, was always keen to help his mother in the kitchen. Sumaiya proudly tells me, "My grandmother had kitchen staff, but she was always chopping, stirring, tasting, smelling — and my father was a part of those kitchen customs." For 30 days, every evening, after work, Sumaiya makes her way to her parents' home with her husband and 22-month-old son, and once they arrive in the kitchen, a task is assigned to each family member. Her father is found gently mashing soaked masoor and moong lentils with chopped onions, verdant herbs, fiery chilies, salt and water. As time to break the fast approaches, he drops spoonfuls of the batter into a wok filled with hot oil, agitating each pakora until it turns golden and swells. In the meantime, Sumaiya and her brother toss the spicy and sour black chickpea chaat, adding pinches of their father's homemade garam masala, and sharpening it with fresh, chopped green chilies. Her mother prepares a jug of milk, ice and Rooh Afza; candy-pink, scented with rosewater.
With the frenetic pace of life these days, Sumaiya believes it is necessary to take shortcuts in the kitchen; she will often buy frozen parathas and samosas from specialty grocers around the GTA. Ramadan, she emphasises, is different. "It's a time to slow down and get together as a family to eat real food." That being the food passed down from the hands of her paternal grandmother, being preserved, here, to this day.
(Idil in her kitchen)
The meals of past generations are something Idil Farah, a nutritionist and recipe developer, finds herself reimagining and recreating in her kitchen for iftar, too. A single mother of a 7-year-old, Idil moves in with her mother, sister and aunt for the duration of Ramadan. "This month isn't just about deprivation," Idil explains, "It's about the essence of community, it's about taking care of those who are alone. It's magical, that sense of sitting together, around the table, no matter where in the world we are." Idil inherited the tastes and flavours of the Somali kitchen from her mother, but after being diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Idil had to reimagine those dishes both for her own health, and also for her mother, who has diabetes.
"My mother's food intake is restricted, but my gift to her, especially during Ramadan, is these recreated [yet] familiar family recipes." Some days Idil makes silky lentil stews, vibrant with turmeric, adding seasonal vegetables from the farmers' markets, and on others she will make her own version of malawah, Somali-style pancakes, using whole wheat, and eschewing sugar. Coming from a rice-heavy culture in Somalia, Idil's family has transitioned to eating more quinoa and brown rice. "What keeps the food real and familiar for us is the use of our spices with which we can still build those Somali flavours. It's just the textures which have changed."
(Bashir with his students at George Brown College)
On days when Bashir's culinary classes at George Brown College run late into the night, he gathers with his students around the zinc tables to enjoy iftar together, on the spot. Last week, they roasted a leg of spiced lamb. "For me, food is without boundaries — I am a Somali-born chef who grew up in Italy and came to Canada to study Culinary Arts", he tells me. "We are part of the new Canadian landscape."
He and the students enjoyed "cauliflower à la Polonaise" with the leg of lamb that night. As Idil says, we are immigrants, trying to create new traditions with the old.