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Chefs Anissa Helou and Nawal Alkhalawi Dive Into the Delectable Heritage of Ramadan Dishes

What Makes Ramadan dishes so special? Chefs Anissa Helou and Nawal Alkhalawi dive into the delectable heritage of the holy month.

ramadan dishes

Saudi chef Nawal Alkhalawi. Photo: Courtesy Nawal Alkhalawi

A time for spiritual cleansing and religious duty, Ramadan is when families come together to share food and blessings. Far more significant than mere dishes, meals become a symbol of love and generational traditions and an opportunity to welcome positive change. Ramadan, an opportunity for soul purification and religious observance, is also 30 days of family gatherings and culinary delights. Dishes are also eloquent ambassadors of heritage. From the UAE’s harees to Saudi’s tamees, Egypt’s molokhia, Morocco’s harira soup, and Lebanon’s fattoush salad, each country around the Arab world has its preferred star meal.

“There are several dishes that are quintessential to the month in the GCC,” says Anissa Helou, chef, teacher, and bestselling cookbook author. “Tharid is an absolute essential on the table as well as harees. Then you have kebab and chickpea flour fritters that are also part of the Ramadan spirit. Naturally, dates are always present on each table to break the fast. If you go to the Levant region – Lebanon or Syria – you would have the qamar al-deen (apricot juice), which is essential to break the fast.” A connoisseur of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and North African cuisines, Helou has dedicated a lifetime to the authentic documentation of each cuisine, whether through her books or her cooking school, Anissa’s School, in London.

ramadan dishes

Lebanese fatayer by Chef Anissa Helou. Photo: Courtesy Anissa Helou

Having traveled through the Islamic world for her book Feast: Food of the Islamic World (2018), Helou is an admirer of the contrasts as well as the meeting points bridging various foods. “I believe the connection between different cuisines during Ramadan can be seen in the relation between the satay in Indonesia and the kebabs in the Arab world,” she states. “Commonality can also be found in savory pastries like sambosa and fatayer. And of course, in most of the Arab world, dates are essential and they are present on all tables. Also soups, because you have to kind of ease your stomach back into eating. So, you need something smooth,” Helou shares. “I think the interesting thing about Ramadan in the Arab world and everywhere else across all Muslim communities, is the contrast between the day’s fast, which is harsh and kind of austere, and then the jolly nights, when all the families and friends come together. During the day, everybody is lethargic, they are sleeping, they are praying. Then all of a sudden sunset comes, and as soon as they break their fast and pray, it is a feast.”

Photo: Courtesy Anissa Helou

A steadfast advocate of the cultural resonance of recipes, Helou believes that kitchens are guided by tradition rather than innovation during Ramadan, with generational recipes preserved and followed year after year. “I personally do not think traditional Ramadan dishes have changed that much except in the hands of chefs, who are trying to modernize the cuisine. But in the hands of home cooks and regular families, dishes are made the same, year in, year out. The women buy their spices before Ramadan, they wash them, dry them, and every year the rhythm and the rituals are the same; unless there is a change in something such as supply because Ramadan does not come at the same time of the year, every year. If you are following seasonal produce, then tharid will change because it is not pumpkin season, for example, and then it will be made with different vegetables. But it will always essentially remain to be a ‘salona,’ which is kind of a loose stew with dry bread and meat and vegetables.”

ramadan dishes

Swordfish brochette by Chef Anissa Helou. Photo: Courtesy Anissa Helou

Celebrated for her reinterpretations of traditional recipes, chef Nawal Alkhalawi is a supporter of change, yet, when Ramadan dishes are in question, she prefers to adopt a moderate approach. “Change is the only constant, as they say. I believe that evolving and keeping up with the latest scientific research is just part of our story of evolution. It is important not to get stuck in old patterns and rules if they do not serve us anymore.” The Saudi chef adds with conviction, “I love these Ramadan traditions. Many of us look forward to this time of year to slow down and reset. I would not want to change our traditional food; it is a part of our identity, and I am so happy my children know and love the same food my grandmother knows and loves. It preserves the spirit of Ramadan.”

While her Ramadan table often features kubba in yogurt sauce, fatet batinjan, saleeg, jareesh next to the fundamental dates, soup and sambosa, the health, gastronomy, and nutrition coach and founder of seasonal restaurant concept Asfar Experience offers her own rendition. “I do add new dishes, like making a fresh variety of sambosa with pumpkin and flaxseed to make it more nutritious,” she explains. “The food on our dining table is certainly more health-conscious than average. My mother taught us to ‘eat the rainbow’ so we always have some sort of salad and vegetarian dishes on the table as well. The traditional Ramadan dishes are quite balanced and healthy if you eliminate the excessive frying, and just add some colorful vegetables. Most families are doing this now as awareness is on the rise.”

ramadan dishes

Sorrel salad by Chef Nawal Alkhalawi. Photo: Courtesy Nawal Alkhalawi

Guided by her knowledge, Alkhalawi wants everyone to keep their grandmother’s favorite dish on the table yet prepare it bearing in mind modern- day scientific facts. According to her firsthand experience, the chef theorizes that people are now more aware and conscious of which types of food are appropriate to consume after hours of not eating anything to maximize the health benefits of fasting and avoid heaviness. “While some Ramadan dishes are changing in the way they are made, the soul remains the same. It is exciting to anticipate these dishes from one year to the next.” On the other hand, Alkhalawi is acutely aware of the growing importance of efficiency. “People are getting busier, and they also have smaller households, not like grandmothers’ family houses. They are not making things that require a lot of labor such as warag einnab and shish barak. People are starting to order things that take a lot of effort. Also, they are preparing well before Ramadan to make all the sambosa and freeze it, thinking of new ways make it more efficient.”

Looking ahead, the sustainability aficionado is keen on encouraging every household to be more considerate of their daily consumption, of where their food is coming from, and realizing their impact on the larger scope of things. “What can I do within my home from a sustainability perspective, but also from the perspective of empowering the farmers in my own region and supporting local economy?” posits Alkhalawi. She adds to her point, “Why not do a bit of research to understand the crops that grow in your area and start supporting local farmers? In line with the spirit of Ramadan and giving back to the community, depending on local crops is not only good for your family’s nutrition but is a beautiful intention to adopt this month, and live by into the future.”

Originally published in the April 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

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