Exploring K-W's cuisine of Ramadan's shared meals

Food columnist Andrew Coppolino spoke with local Middle Eastern cooks and food store operators in Waterloo region this week about the special foods that many Muslim families share during Ramadan.

Some local restaurants will offer special meals for Ramadan

Ramadan began this week and during the month-long period of religious observance, many Muslims take the time to reflect on family, worship and spiritual care. In Syria, borek (above) is a pastry stuffed with cheese and sometimes meat. Is a typical dish eaten at iftar. (Andrew Coppolino/ CBC)

Ramadan began this week, the month-long period of religious observance during which Muslims in the community reflect on family, worship and spiritual care.

From now until May 12 it means daily fasting – including no water – after the pre-dawn suhur meal, and eating again only at sunset with an iftar meal. 

"Food plays a huge role," according to Faaez Al-hendi of Ammar Halal Meats in Kitchener.

"We don't eat all day, so when you finally eat it's a humbling feeling. And you get to enjoy things maybe you've [been] craving all day. It makes you realize the blessings you have and what you take for granted when you're not fasting."

2 meal deal

Ramadan meals break down into two meals, said Al-hendi.

"A suhur meal could be breakfast sausage and eggs, cheeses, lebneh (a pressed yogurt), olives, and lots of pita. Carbs and protein. You're really trying to get what you need to get you through the day, but it's also very enjoyable."

Then, the iftar meal breaks the fast at the end of the day.

"It happens exactly at sunset," Al-hendi said. "We have our alarms set, if you will."

It's traditional, he added, to break the fast at Maghrib, the day's fourth prayer, with some water and a date.

"That's been passed down to us for generations. It's typically the way Muslims break their fast worldwide, regardless of where they're from," he said.

In Syria, borek, a pastry stuffed with cheese and sometimes meat, is a typical dish eaten at iftar (a locally made borek is sold at Ammar). Another appetizer-style dish he suggests trying is a simple preparation of fava beans, diced tomato, lemon, parsley and olive oil.

"Typically during Ramadan, a family will eat every dish in their recipe book during the month!" he said with a smile.

DIY versus takeout

Middle Eastern grocery stores such as Ammar, Oma Fresh Foods, Aryana Supermarket, Kishki Halal Supermarket and Noor Food Store, and others, have an amazing range of foods from the Levant.

The stores are stocked with the ingredients if you'd like to prepare your own meals at home. Grill some kebabs and make a classic fattoush salad, or try your hand at making a shorbah lentil soup or beef kibbeh with bulghur wheat.

Beverages and desserts

There are also several beverages to try, including drinks made with pomegranate or licorice and a popular apricot nectar that you make by adding water to an apricot paste.

Vimto is a thick fruit cordial that is a popular iftar beverage, according to Al-hendi at Ammar.

Kunafeh and qatayef are popular dishes as well, the latter similar to a small pancake that is available either frozen or fresh. It can be stuffed with cheese, "ishta" (a thick cream), walnuts, or any number of ingredients.

They are fried or baked and get a drizzling of a sweet syrup.

Badder Jamali of Chopan Kabob restaurant said they will have a Ramadan platter for delivery or pickup. It's enough for a family of four to five. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Some offering specialty dishes

Area restaurants may or may not have special dishes for Ramadan. For instance, Queen Shawarma, on Queen Street at Charles in Kitchener, will close promptly at 9 p.m. and be "off to our iftar," one of the kitchen staff said.

Chic Pea Mediterranean Grill in Waterloo said they will have special plates both for individuals and families — by pre-order — for Ramadan, which will include different types of baklava and other Arabic desserts, as well as a special Ramadan sandwich.

In the Belmont-Highland neighbourhood of Kitchener, the popular Chopan Kabob halal restaurant that specializes in Afghan and Indian food will have a Ramadan platter for delivery or pickup.

"It's for a family of four to five, which is typical when you're eating for iftar. When we break fast, we do it as a family," said Badder Jamali of Chopan Kabob.

The platter is beef kabobs, chicken kabobs, rice and bread. "There's also beef-filled mantoo dumplings, all served family-style," Jamali said.

"When you go through a whole day not eating, it's nice to be able to break your fast."

"But you're also thinking about other people who don't have the opportunity to break their fast and have anything they want to eat the way we do. There's a consciousness when you break fast," he added.

Giving back to the community

The consciousness at Ramadan, as Jamali refers to it, includes community activism. Chic Pea is giving their Ramadan sandwich free to people in need.

At Shawarma Plus in Waterloo, the popular casual restaurant is donating portions of proceeds to local Muslim foundations and organizations, such as Kitchener Masjid, as well as to a Go Fund Me page that is collecting money for a young child with a serious and rare health issue.

"Families usually get together during Ramadan, but with pandemic restrictions we wanted to do something so people can feel a bit better," said Jawad Ghabra of Shawerma Plus, whose special is a "festive tray" that includes fattoush salad and falafel.

Whatever the dish, the foods and fasting that are part of Ramadan coalesce in an over-arching mindfulness to which both Jamali and Al-hendi allude.

"We don't eat from sunrise to sunset, so when you finally get that chance to eat, it gives you a humbling feeling," Al-hendi said.

"You get to enjoy things that you've been craving all day, and it makes you realize the blessings you have which you might take for granted when you're not fasting."

Ramadan Mubarak!