Monday, July 30, 2012

Finding Ramadan

As featured in The Egypt Monocle
My first Ramadan in Cairo after years away has rolled in and with it a slew of television shows crammed with farcical advertising that I don’t watch, extravagantly sweet desserts that I haven’t eaten and a generous spirit of camaraderie that has me puzzled as to where it annually disappears after the boisterous celebration of Eid.
Restaurants have asked their social media accounts to bombard those unfortunate enough to be following them with incessant updates on iftar and sohour menu rotation schedules along with everything in between: sugar, shisha and Ramadan tent reservations. In a month that is revered for the calm it brings, many instead go into overdrive, exhausting their bodies with food and fruity clouds of smoke.
Remembering the first Ramadan in Kuala Lumpur, I realize now that it was quite dismal. We missed our bustling city, our nosy people and the feeling of our energy plummeting after a heavy family meal. Being invited out for iftar or what they call “berbuka puasa” — literally “to open the fast” in Bahasa Melayu, an anxious wave undulated through me hinting that I was on foreign ground, that the Egyptian Ramadan traditions that had long been implanted in me were shaken.
This unfamiliarity eased as the years passed and we gradually fell into a not-so-Egyptian, not-so-Malaysian routine that suited our recent married-couple habits. We’d begin with a soup poured steaming into a mug then would sit in the humidity, looking out at Kuala Lumpur from our balcony on the 21st floor. A proper iftar was to follow two hours later, after the karkade and the tea with milk; and in this way, my body would not drag and would not crave a hazelnut-studded round of basboosa waiting in my dreams to be consumed in its entirety. My stomach had adapted and my traditions had been reset.
Coming back to experience the same Ramadan buzz, the hard sell that Cairo shoves at the fasting, I feel out of place. I now yearn for a smoking hot chicken tikka colored bright red for my eyes to eat too, a South Indian sambar for my taste buds to dance and to finish, a delicate roti gula, a sugary bread, similar in appearance and flavor to our local feteer.
In time, I will get reaccustomed to my original home. I will find my appetite for konafa and tiptoe to the fridge for secret spoonfuls of leftover rice but for now, I will accept iftar invitations with a smile and an inner desire to stay home until my mind wraps itself around the traditions that it has lost touch with. I will make rice that you might not be used to but it will, to me, signal the smells of a recently lost home. It’s good to be back Cairo, but in my home this Ramadan, I need to reinvent your flavors, taking ingredients in an Egyptian kitchen and giving them a little Indian twist to answer to my Asian cravings.
Tomato Almond Basmati
You’ll need:
1 cup of basmati rice, uncooked
2 tablespoons of ghee
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small onion, finely diced
½ cup of almonds, peeled and halved
Juice of half a lime
¼ cup + 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
1½ cup of water
1 teaspoon of sugar
½ teaspoon chilli powder
½ teaspoon of ground cumin
1 bird’s eye chilli, finely sliced
1 cinnamon stick, around 10 cm in length
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Rinse the basmati rice in cold water until the water runs clear then drain. In a separate pan, toast the almonds until golden and set aside.
In a medium heavy-bottomed pot, melt the ghee on medium heat. Add the cumin, cinnamon and chili powder and stir to combine. Add the garlic and onions and cook until fragrant. They should not get any color on them. Add the tomato paste and stir the contents of the pot together then add the rice, water, lemon juice, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a rapid boil and leave to boil for a minute. Lower the heat and cover. Do not disturb the rice or lift the lid for around 12 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave to stand covered for another 5-10 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving and top with toasted almonds.

1 comment:

  1. When I lived in Malaysia, Ramadan was about the only month I'd only eat Middle Eastern food... so it's funny you write about South Indian food during Ramadan. Totally not what I remember! I love your recipe though and will have to try it. :)


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