September 03, 2010

Cooking Vegetarian Iftar for Ramadan

The day of glory has come: after a month and a half of kitchen hopping in Croatia and Bosnia I have got one at my complete disposal for a day to create a vegetarian dinner for a friend. The trick was that the dinner was to be an iftar, an evening meal breaking the day fasting during the Holy month of the Ramadan.
Spiritual Origins
Since the beginning of Ramadan which found me in Sarajevo I had been fascinated by the variety of festive dishes of all nationalities served throughout the Holy month for iftar. So I have convinced Mehdi, a (or shall I say, THE?) Moroccan foodie in Istanbul to risk it with me when I come and get a proof that a vegetarian fare can fill a hunger after a day of fasting. The deal was that I would cook a vegetarian iftar and do the fasting for that day too.  

To get started on my research I had pout together a round-up with a mind-blowing collection of mouth-watering photos and recipes with the vegetarian Ramadan specials from around the world. I had also read in the Ramadan and fasting to understand the rationale, routines and customs. What still remained a mystery to me was how women do their shopping and cook the meals during the fast: it seemed that with no opportunity to taste the food you are making and severe hunger you must be a very skilled cook with quite a stamina to spend hours for food shopping and preparing the evening meal.

On the day of the presumable glory and celebration of the human spirit rising high above the physical needs I woke up feeling miserable. My day was born to the sound of rain and voices of the people and vehicles occasionally passing by the backstreet: I felt home-sick, discouraged and hungry. I was late for my morning yoga practice too. It felt like not getting up at all - I was embracing that illusion that if I didn't take an effort to start the day the rest of the world would not either and the day would not start at all. I wished!.. 

So this was my regular relocation sickness that invariably kicks in after a first few days at a new place and knocks me down to bed, to my most coward thoughts and to the previously hidden corners of my conscious. It was not easy to leave Sarajevo as after the three weeks there I got to feel rooted into the place: I got to briefly work with a very talented vegetarian chef and hone a range of skills from parsley chopping to wine glass polishing, I got to know people who would invite me to their houses and home towns, I even had got my vendors for cheese, figs and vegetables - my Bosnian staples. Life was not bad at all if not economically viable. But then the time had come to get headed for Istanbul - my most favorite city in the world for which I had been saving so many plans and cravings. 

Once I have arrived with all the experience and ideas gathered throughout my Balkan travels I found an initial alienation or even awkwardness that happens between the long-distance lovers when they eventually meet up. The warmest welcome from Mehdi, my friend and a wonderful host at Ahmet Efendi Evi, made me feel a looked-after guest and I have assumed the comfort of a familiar  role. Yet I have not come to be a guest this time and the thoughts have started a wild dance: Have I come to the right place? Have I gathered the courage good enough to accomplish the planned? Maybe better stay in bed today..and tomorrow.. But hey, I have created all this buzz on the facebook when announced my plans to make a vegetarian iftar. Plus I have been planning a blog post about the experience. But also... well, I appreciate when Mehdi introduces me to his guests and friends as a food blogger and photographer but it was high time to give him a bullet-proof evidence that I actually cook well too. These thoughts have quite sobered me and got me going: a yoga practice, a brave no to the breakfast and I am off into the rain and the grocery shopping.

Hungry Cook
Large supermarkets are definitely alive and kicking in Turkey as people have less time for shopping. However unlike in some other countries they hardly affect business of the specialty shops as the Turks are too smart about their food not to appreciate the places that sell the best in class produce. Every time I visit Turkey I make sure to embrace the experience of visiting a range of the specialty shops instead of loading your car trunk with the finds from Carefour or Migros. In each neighborhood you find a bustling market with the specialty shops clustering around: as I stay in Sultanahmet I head out to the market near the Yeni Camia just outside of the Spice Bazaar. This time I have got a block of pungent goat cheese from one vendor and a pack of marinaded black olives from another one, I have bought huge moist dates from a shop selling dry fruits and nuts, then I headed out for the freshly ground clove and ginger and a bottle of rose water from a spice specialist; I have spotted a guy with a small stall featuring plump purple figs and I have got a kilo of those. Finally I invaded a greengrocer and have stocked up with tomatoes, small cucumbers, red bell peppers and bunches of aromatic parsley, dill and mint. Wow, I felt so good about knowing where to go for best ingredients, throwing in a few Turkish words in the conversations and getting the best ingredients for my vegetarian iftar.

Meanwhile I was thinking how easy it was to keep fast on a rainy day: abstaining from food till the dawn is really not a big deal but coping with the thirst may become a real struggle on a hot summer day. Couple of times I've noted an unpleasant sensation of the dry throat but as I was really pre-occupied with my shopping mission the feeling had gone away quickly. Once again I've figured that our body is self-regulating system: as you get hungry you get some saliva that moistens your month and curbs your thirst. You just need to properly hydrate yourself during the iftar and suhoor (pre-dawn meal) to carry on throughout the fasting day.

Ok, shopping was easy. As I got back to the kitchen I reviewed the menu to prepare the ingredients and organize my working space. The meal would include the dates to break the fast, soup, salad, main course, a bought desert and a non-alcoholic drink to enjoy throughout the evening - the idea is to have a rather longer meal and be kind to your body that has been starving the whole day and can easily freak out if you feed everything it has been craving for at once.

Vegetarian Iftar Menu

Succulent Medjool Dates
Roasted Red Bell Pepper Soup with Dill
Fattoush Salad with Sesam Bread (Simit)
Couscous with Caramelized Onions and Figs
Milk Desert with Rose Water and Nuts
Moroccan Mint Tea

I have been adventurous enough to include the recipes that I have not tried before as a part of the challenge. The red bell pepper soup was a pure improvisation: I love the taste of the roasted red bell peppers so I pureed them, added lemon juice, olive oil, sprinkled with fresh dill and sent to a refrigerator to cool down. I played around fattoush by adding sesam bread instead of pita and parsley dressing instead of pomegranate. For the couscous I've used the recipe from a cooking class I did in Marrakech and I cooked in a couscoussier, a proper vessel of two pots what come on top of each other and the upper one has holes in its bottom to steam the couscous; what I twisted though was the the regular caramelized onion and raisin garnish and I played with onions and figs instead. I have figured I would never beat the Turkish dessert makers with the centuries of family traditions so the rose-water pudding called gullac was bought rather than home made. Also as I got a large bunch of mint but not too many lemons to make a lemonade the resort was to make Moroccan mint tea to accompany the meal: the key trick for making such tea is to press the fresh mint leaves down in the kettle so that they are covered by the the boiling water: that way they don't burn, become brown, or unpleasant in taste.

As you cook without tasting food you attach more importance to the other aspects beyond taste - such as aroma and texture: I knew the couscous would not get wrong as long as the broth I was steaming it over was aromatic and the couscous was wet and crumbly. I have also realized that cooking without tasting makes you more organized in the kitchen - you can't lick your fingers after you clean a dish or fix something liquid and you gotta have a towel hanging out of the pocket to whip your hands. Interestingly enough, you get better with chopping as you cant just eat out the unfortunately cut parts of a carrot - they are better be cut finely or trashed. It also occurred to me that it may be easier for a woman than to a man to fast in the traditional settings when she spends most of her day fussing around food: that way you don't feel deprived and sort of in control of the eating time even though you basically organize yourself to get food on the table by the dawn.
As the calls for prayer from different mosques fill in all the frequencies we are all set and ready to start the dinner by eating dates, drinking a glass of water and offering a prayer. -Where is the soup? - Mehdi asked  
-Here it is! - I pointed at the tiny glasses filled with a scarlet paste inside.  
-Ah! - Before I knew he headed out to the kitchen cupboard and came back with salt, pepper, walnuts - he seasoned the soup with all that and fetched a piece of bread from the fattoush salad, tiered it into smaller ones and threw in the soup too. I was left speechless with the realization that the soup was rather a "miss" and I still have got a long way to go to learn combining ingredients and textures. As I got to try mine - tasty but too plain indeed. The fattoush salad was wonderful though and the amount of parsley and olive oil seasoning was just right. Well, in the spirit of constructive criticism Mehdi suggested olives and walnuts could have been a nice addition too.   
- If I don't add salt and pepper to my food it is good, - he still complemented. Few cups of Moroccan mint tea later we got to couscous: placing on the plate some couscous then carrot, squash and parsley from the broth, caramelized onions and a grilled fig on top. Well, the grilled figs may have been a cool idea yet the presentation did not work as they wrinkled soon after I took them out of the oven. Plus despite my stubborn determination to grill figs I figured the raw ones could have given the dish a richer texture and flavor. As we were eating I realized that there were no more comments from Mehdi. Eventually he announced (yes, it was for the record, Mehdi) that impressively enough I had managed to get the taste just right. I was happily tucking away a bowl of güllaç. So as the Lent comes I would be expecting no less than a proper Lenten borsch to be cooked for me, huh?

2 Responses to Cooking Vegetarian Iftar for Ramadan:

Magda said...

What is that red thing in those small bowls. Is it roasted bell pepper soup? It has an amazing color and looks really really fabulous.

Olga Tikhonova said...

Madga, you've guessed it right! Thanks: I've figured that when spiced up and served in small glasses a cold soup makes a wonderful appetizer.

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