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Celebrating Ramadan The South Florida Way: 'Every Family Has Its Own Touch'

Red Lentil Soup Recipe For Iftars During Ramadan
Courtesy: Noor Taraben
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Noor Taraben, a Broward County dietician and nutritionist, cooks a red lentil soup when her family breaks fast during Ramadan.

The coronavirus pandemic stripped down traditional Ramadan rituals to Zoom calls and socially distanced prayers, but some aspects remain the same — including traditional foods passed down through generations.

When Sana Ullah celebrates Ramadan, she misses mango season in South Florida the most.

The juicy fruit reminds her of the time spent with Bengali family and friends back in Broward County.

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"It's not just home in the sense that it's Bangladeshi food, it's home in the sense that it's South Florida and that it's accessible," Ullah said.

This week marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a period of introspection when millions of Muslims worldwide pray and fast from dawn to sunset.

It's a religious custom for every Muslim to break their fast with dates and milk. As for the rest of the meal, that decision is left up to the individual family. For Ullah, it's not Ramadan without mangoes.

A Good Mango Is Hard To Find

They play a major role in her family's iftar, the daily meal during which Muslims break their fast.

She moved to Washington D.C. where she works as a program officer in storytelling for National Geographic. When she tried buying mangoes at her local Trader Joe's, it just wasn't the same.

"I called my mom to laugh about it," she said. "No one's going to get it here. No one's going to understand why these mangoes are terrible."

Now that Ullah lives away from family, several communal rituals have become ones in isolation.

"It's not just home in the sense that it's Bangladeshi food, it's home in the sense that it's South Florida and that it's accessible."
Sana Ullah

"It's not so much of the memories, it's just like the feeling of community and family and just knowing that mangoes are just always something we enjoyed together," she said.

Before the pandemic, Ullah was accustomed to praying and breaking fast with people at the local mosque where Muslims of all nationalities and ethnicities would bring their cultures to the table.

For the first time, Ullah had a virtual Ramadan with just her immediate family last year. Even though it was hard to keep distance from friends and family, it's a time she'll cherish forever.

"I finally got to have my own traditional meals at home and have our own type of memories that I can associate with Ramadan and my family, which did not include one hundred other people," she said.

This year, she took a different approach toward celebrations. Ullah decorated her home with string lights and an LED moon lamp on her window sill. And this time she ditched the Zoom iftars. Instead, she invited her vaccinated neighbors, Muslim or not, to take part in an outdoor meal.

Paying Attention To Piyaju

Bengali Piyaju or Red Lentil Fritters
Courtesy: Iesha Ismail
Piyaju is a red lentil fritter dish from Bangladesh. It has a crispy shell and soft warm center that is mostly eaten as a snack.

Mangoes also make an appearance at Iesha Ismail's house as an iftar staple. Although, the fruit is a complement to one dish that ends up on the table every year.

The Ismail family loves a good piyaju, or lentil fritter.

"I think it's just been the one consistent food that's always been there since my childhood," Ismail said.

The crunchy exterior paired with the the soft, warm center transports her to Bangladesh where she would get street food.

"When you bite them, they're super crispy on the outside, which I find amazing because it's not like it's breading or anything, it's just lentils," Ismail said.

They're versatile and easy to make, but Ismail has never had to make piyaju from scratch by herself. The nuances and specific steps needed to make the dish have lived in her periphery. It's partly because her mom takes charge in the kitchen when making then fritters.

"Yeah, we're stuck at home with family, but how much do we pay attention to in the time that we have with them?" Ismail said.

Life at home during the pandemic has magnified the smaller details.

"I think that's definitely a consequence from being at home during COVID and just wanting to pay a little more attention to the things that moms have always done," she said.

PIYAJU RECIPE

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound red lentils
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon coriander
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
  • 1-2 green chilies, chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • Neutral oil for frying

Steps

  1. Soak red lentils in water for 3 to 4 hours
  2. Drain out water, grind lentils in food processor
  3. Add in chopped onions, green chilies and spices and mix them together.
  4. Heat oil
  5. Drop in heaping tablespoons of the mixture into frying pan, let fry for 3-4 minutes on one side, then flip and let fry for another 3-4 minutes

Red Lentil Soup For The Soul

Red Lentil Soup (Syrian)
Courtesy: Noor Taraben
As an added twist, Noor Taraben will squeeze lemon juice into the red lentil soup she makes for her family during Ramadan.

Red lentil soup is the go-to meal for Noor Taraben's two children. After she got married, she knew that she wanted to introduce her children to traditional meals from Syria.

"I remember their eyes lit up and it was such a cute experience because I was afraid they wouldn't like it because it's new, it's lentils — you know, kids get picky," Taraben said. "But I think it was the aroma, the flavors, it's soothing."

Taraben is a dietician and nutritionist based in Pembroke Pines, so understanding picky eaters is part of her job.

"They have this trait in them that if they don't know what it is, they're not going to eat it," she said. "So, that means involving your kids in the process."

From chopping onions to squeezing lemons, her children get a chance to participate.

"That's something of an experience that I want my kids, being in the states, to know that they have that connection with their origin place where they they've never visited, " she said.

Taraben also likes to make this hearty soup because it's high in proteins and fiber, which is a more healthy way to break fast, she said. Fried foods, Taraben says, are not ideal to eat for an iftar.

"Tradition, family ties. It's beautiful. This is part of Ramadan — getting together around the table, sharing food, sharing foods with the needy as well with the poor — but not in a way to harm ourselves for sure," she said.

Taraben recommends air frying or baking foods as an healthier alternative. She also encourages mindfulness. Take small but intentional bites that encompass all the senses.

"The purpose of Ramadan is that we eat to nourish, so that we are able to do our night prayers and we're able to reflect."

RED LENTIL SOUP RECIPE

4 to 5 servings
Prep time: 10 minutes, total time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of dried red lentils
  • 4 - 5 cups of unsalted beef stock
  • 3 tbsp of uncooked rice
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup of chopped carrots
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp dried safflower
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Optional: Sliced lemons

Steps

  1. Wash your lentils in warm water, rinse till water comes out clean. Set aside.
  2. Prepare your vegetables. Chop onions, carrots and mince garlic.
  3. Start by sautéing your onions in olive oil for two minutes. Add in your garlic and chooped carrots and sauté for an additional five minutes, or until onions are translucent.
  4. Add in beef stock and leave to boil.
  5. Once boiled, add in your lentils. Leave to boul together for five to seven minutes until lentils open. Add in your seasonings.
  6. Use immersion blender to blend all together until cream. Enjoy with a squeeze of lemon juice!

Take A Pause With A Pakora

Pakora, spiced fritter
Courtesy: Afifa Khaliq
Afifa Khaliq fries pakoras with onions and potatoes for her iftars.

It's not often that Afifa Khaliq can press pause on the day's hustle. Ramadan offers a moment of stillness and quality time with her family.

She cherishes moments gathered around the table, passing a plate of pakoras. That's a spiced fritter.

"We have so many family jokes and laughs about this dish when we all sat together around the table to break our fast," she said. "You know, that that makes it so special."

It's not about just not eating or drinking anything. It's a constant reminder to us of what kind of human beings we should be.
Afifa Khaliq

It's not hard to make the pakoras, but she warns that it's easy to over salt. Since Khaliq was still fasting, when she spoke with us, she couldn't taste what she was cooking. She says it's critical to use the senses.

"There is absolutely no other way than experimentation and getting your flow right," Khaliq said.

It's like a blank canvas. Once the batter, made of gram flour, reaches the right consistency, anything can be added. Khaliq typically likes to put spices, potatoes, spinach and onions into the mix.

"It's kind of a dish that is different from family to family, right? It's the same recipe, but every family has its own touch," Khaliq said.

Food is personal and it's intimate. Khaliq's 6-year-old son is too young to keep fast but he wanted to give it a try for the first time this year.

"That also gives us an opportunity to talk to him about the real value of Ramadan. It's not about just not eating or drinking anything," Khaliq said. It's a constant reminder to us of what kind of human beings we should be."

PAKORA RECIPE

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup gram flour or chickpea flour
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp coriander seed
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 medium sized onion
  • 1 potato

Steps

  1. Mix all dry ingredients together with water till it has pancake batter consistency.
  2. Slice one medium-sized onion
  3. Chop one medium-sized potato into small cubes
  4. Mix them well into the batter.
  5. Let it rest for 10 minutes
  6. Fry the batter into small bite-sized pieces

*South Florida has plenty of food traditions year round, but we'd like to know what dishes end up on your table. Tell us about them and then share the recipe (or two if you've got 'em).