If you have spent the last month of Ramazan foraging for food among the heaps and piles of traditional and not so traditional snacks and delicacies available on the streets of some of Mumbai’s older places, I am sure you now have your experience have had Iftaar filling. As the paradoxical month of fasting draws to a close, and dare I say the nocturnal gluttony is drawing to a close, I thought that, as the culmination of this much consuming festival, celebrated not only by the pious but also by the devourers, I would talk a little about Eid-ul-Fitr itself and try to bring attention back, from the vermilion tandoori on skewers, fluorescent green kababs and chrome yellow malai tikkas, the samosas, seekhs, rolls, bheja, gurda, kiri and kaleji and the smoke, coals and noisy tawas of Mohammed Ali Road and Bohri Mohalla.
Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of the holy month of Ramazan, a time when Muslims reflect and abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset. The end of the fast is heralded by the first sighting of the new crescent moon and is a cue to start the celebrations with lots of candy. This is why Eid-ul-Fitr is also known as ‘Festival of Sweets’ or ‘Sweet Eid’ in many parts of the world.
In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Afghanistan, no Eid is complete without Sheer Kurma. Literally translated as “milk with dates”, since pure milk in Persian means and kurma means dates; this rich and creamy age-old candy is an Eid favorite in our part of the world. It’s made with vermicelli, condensed milk, sugar, dates and, depending on the country you’re from, pistachios, almonds, and raisins. The dish is then flavored with rose water, saffron or cardamom powder. Some call it “seviyan” or “semai”.
In other Islamic countries such as Turkey, where Eid is celebrated with as much enthusiasm as the subcontinent or the Middle East, sweets are typical of their region. Sweets such as Turkish Delight or Lokum, a gummy candy made with sugar and cornstarch, are said to have originated 500 years ago during the Ottoman period. The chewy yet soft candy is flavored with rose water, orange, orange blossom water, pomegranate or lemon, and the privileged indulge themselves by adding chopped pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts or dates. The candies are then sprinkled with caster sugar. I can really sit alone and eat a box full of Turkish Delight.
But my favorite sweet from that region is the baklava. My love for puff pastry bursts with unbridled enthusiasm when I get my hands on a well-made and freshly made baklava. It’s a delicate candy made with layers of crispy filo dough that is interspersed with a sugary spiced nut mixture, layer after layer, and the whole thing is then baked and soaked in fragrant sweet syrup made with honey. This method and recipe, although perfected by the Ottomans in the 15th century after invading Constantinople, the origins of this pastry can be traced back to the ancient Assyrians, who made unleavened flatbreads with chopped nuts in between as early as the 8th century BC. laid, soaked in honey and then baked in a primitive wood oven.
In Levantine cuisines such as Syrian and Lebanese, Ma’amoul is a common Eid sweet, especially in Lebanon, where just before Eid, women, with their neighbors, sisters, cousins and relatives, meet to make these cookies for everyone. It is essentially shortbread, usually filled with dates. The end result is a crumbly, floury cookie that is filled with pistachios, almonds or walnuts, but needs to be kneaded well with semolina and flour to get the fragile crumbly texture. This melt-in-your-mouth pastry is very popular in the Middle East and can almost always be found on an Eid table.
If you like a Goan Bebinca then you will love the Indonesian Lapis Legit. Like a Bebinca that is made with flour, butter and eggs and then cooked in layers, the Lapis Legit contains Indonesian spices such as cardamom and cloves. Also called Kue Lapis, this is a colorful version made with rice flour, coconut milk, tapioca flour, and sugar. A traditional sweet from the legacy of the Dutch occupation in Indonesia, this cake is a must during Eid-ul-Fitr and Christmas celebrations.
I’m going to end this lavish sugar rush for Eid with two classic sweets from the Balkans and Morocco.
A bit like a deconstructed apple pie, Tufahija is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most famous sweet dish and is an Eid special. Very popular in neighboring Balkan countries such as Serbia and Macedonia, some believe that the Tufahija (like everything else) originated in Persia and was introduced to the locals in the Balkans by Ottoman invaders. The Tufahija is made from cored apples, filled with walnuts and cooked in syrup. Once stewed, the apples are individually coated with syrup and topped with whipped cream.
Eid mornings in Morocco start with a big bowl of Aseda. As in most other North African countries, this Bedouin-inspired dish is a staple. It is a modest, frugal dish, considered to be one of the Prophet’s favorite dishes, especially eaten on Eid-e-Milad, his birthday. You can find versions of it in almost the entire Maghreb region, as well as in Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Basically it is a modest thick porridge made of semolina, water and salt. Some, of course, add butter and honey or date syrup to make it richer and more festive.
It’s amazing how food plays such an important role in any occasion, be it religious, festive, gloomy or one of prayer and reflection. I look at it a little differently because food itself is my prayer and religion.
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