If the first Ramzan started during the summer holidays, it would almost be 6:00am when most of us would go to bed after sehri. By 10:00am the humidity and Karachi heat would set the tone for the day. In between prayers, interspersed with reciting Quran, or sleeping, the goal was to maintain enough strength to last till Iftar. Waking up in a sweaty kurta, late in the morning, I was always tempted to brush my teeth but worried that I would swallow some water during a gargle rinse. I would soak my parched tongue with extreme caution as to not let any drop of water go through as I performed the wudu.
Along with a reverence for what this month offered, and a goal to spend it differently from the remainder of the year, was nowhere more obvious than in the kitchen. With Nanna, Bari Ammi, Ammi and Mami in the kitchen, we were blessed with new versions of Man-o-Salwa each day. I distinctly remember the joyful days with the presence of whole family of Mamoojan, Gauhar Mumma, Aslam Mumma, and Munir Bhaiya at the university home. The Iftar was a feast of flavors, and gratitude. We sat on the floor, a dastarkhwan (long table cloth placed on the ground) that could easily seat 30 or more with as many as 15 on each side. A family that large also has a large appetite but there was always abundance of food. Allah blessed us with baraka that somehow there was more than enough food to be sent to the workers, chowkidar’s family, anyone deserving, neighbors, masjid and any faqir that may happen to walk by. I recall the words of my dearest Ammi, “danay danay per muhar lagi hay beta, Allah nay usko tumhari rizq ka zarya banaya hay”.
Just after Asr prayers, the fervor in the kitchen would change pace. We had a small Bialleti blender that was Baji’s domain. It was mostly her choice and possibly whatever was available to produce lassi, mango shake, rooh afza with milk or my least favorite banana shake. Rooh Afza, Naurus or whatever sugary syrup was available would be the drink, but there was no equal to the ripened, soft, sweet khajoor that was the first of the morsel to break the fast. Rarely, there would be the “amori ka sharbat” charred, unripe, raw mangoes that were partially sour but mildly sweet, and nothing quenches thirst as it did. A cold glass of lemon sherbet, or mango squash just didn’t compare.
The anticipation of Iftaar would grow along with the thirst and hunger that had been kept in check throughout the day. Irrespective of any of our extended families, whether it was the maternal or paternal side, the quintessential iftar menu was composed of basic few ingredients. For some reason, deep fried food are the highlight of most iftar. Just after Asar prayer Bari Ammi, Nanna, Mami and Ammi would sit by each other. Either one of them would knead the dough, in a small aluminum trough. I would sometimes watch Appi join them. I envied and marveled at their skills. First the small dough balls (peyra) would be rolled, and then with the belan and takhta (rolling pin and board) they would make the most uniform circular discs of maida. They were all, very well versed with the art and finesse of preparing food. When they would cut the discs in half, each one would be almost perfectly symmetrical. Whoever rolled the peyra, would place the disc on tray towards Nanna or Mami, while they bisected the discs, and turned the half discs into a cone that would house the perfect amount of stuffing. This assembly line would produce the most elegantly folded, neatly tucked samosas that never opened up during the frying process. For me, the homemade samosa, stuffed with mildly spiced, salted qeema, coriander leaves, onions, thinly sliced green chilies, and slowly fried on a medium flame to the light brown soft crunch, was the highlight of Iftar.
Unarguably, channa is the king of all ingredients during iftar meals. Chana came in two varieties. Black “kala” chana and Kabuli chana, typically known as garbanzo, chickpeas, or gram beans is the light tan variety. During Ramzan, every iteration is available and then some. A certain outcome was aloo cholay, but it wasn’t the most sought out dish. The chickpeas flour “besan” is the batter for everything possible deep-fried as dumplings of sorts. Plain pakora (fritter) with onions and chilies, or just onions, battered potato pakora, Mirch (chilies) stuffed and battered and slowly deep-fried, battered spinach, battered spiced mashed potatoes, and baingany, the thin-sliced eggplant lightly battered and fried to perfection along with any other combination possible, makes its appearance at the dastarkhwan.
The kabuli chana may be popular in other households, but the desired variety in our home (and every bihari home) was the kala chana (smaller dark brown variety), that for the life of me I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t called bhoora (brown) chana. Perhaps because it would get darker as it was prepared. Ghughni, is a spiced kala chana prepared in a thick stew like consistency that is eaten with the raw, shelled, split chana (chana dal) soaked to tender crunchiness, mixed with a perfectly balanced combination of mint leaves, salt, lime and ground black pepper. This would be an essential accompaniment to gughni. The left over gughni would become the ideal pairing for plain boiled rice (bhaat). The kala chana soaked and deprived of air for 48 hours or so would sprout inch long strands of new shoots and it would be stir fried with a bit of salt and pepper as an additional course. Once in a while the green chana would be used for making qabuli (rice pilaf), but that was served for the dinner after Iftar.
The wok was the most used cookware and though most of the food was deep fried, I rarely saw any spillage of oil. Nanna, Bari Ammi, Mammi, Ammi and all my khalas (if present) were the epitome of patience when it came to cooking. Additionally, the masoor dal would be soaked throughout the day, and then milled on “sil batta” grinding stone, into a paste with perfect grainy texture that would produce a crumbly yet moist sensation with each bite. Sometimes, these fritters would be a blend of different daal (pulses), and each one maintained its own unique flavor. Often enough, the besan dumplings would show up as dahi phulki. There was“aloo dum” , sliced boiled potatoes in a dip of yogurt, ground up red chili powder and salt.
The next essential entrée was a fruit chaat (fruit salad) which was mostly sliced banana, guava, grapes, mangoes, pomegranate arils or anything else that was in season. The kala namak, black pepper, red pepper, ground up unripe-dried-sour mangoes, and sugar all combined with lemon or citrus with a zest that created a concoction that elevated the flavor of each fruit. I never liked the oranges in the fruit chat and thankfully neither did other family members. If in season oranges would be present as peeled, seeded, thinly sliced, sprinkled with salt and pepper. This was enough to offset the spicy, sweet, tangy flavor of the fruit chaat. I loved the flavors and textures but most of all, I loved the company of the beloved family members who made this meal an expression of love. It was impossible not to have one of my older bhaiya remove a samosa from the next plate, or take the pakora from my plate while I would go to get sherbet or water. Such was the right of passage in a family where the love for food, love for each family member, and love for the Creator, fueled our appetite. As the sun would slowly decline on the horizon a likely dispute on the timing of breaking the fast would ensue. Regardless, the first sound of the gurgling loudspeaker from the masjid, even before the call of Allah O Akbar and the dearest baray bhaiya would go for the khajoor. The joy of breaking the fast was only amplified with the joy of being together for this occasion.
Before anyone could reach a point of satiation, the preparation of Maghrib prayers would begin with Mamoojaan or Papa leading the prayers. Haris bhaiya was always the first to call the aqama as we would all stand shoulder to shoulder to thank the Almighty for the blessings of the day. This ritual would become the norm for the next 4 weeks as we worked on our transformations and personal growth. No one gave lectures or sermons, but we learned by watching the actions of our loved ones. Those precious moments were eternally blessed by the presence of my elders and are carved into my memories.
As the month progressed, we would anxiously prepare for the arrival of Lailatul Qadr. Someone had told me that you won’t hear the stray dogs bark on the morning of the real Shab-e-Qadr, as the angels would come down to your home, so I would stay alert, hoping that I would be the one to solve which night was the most blessed one. Such is a childish notion of salvation. I revered the dua Papa would hold by the Fajr prayer after the 27th night. His hands would tremble and voice would break into a teary plead that Allah may forgive all of us for our sins and digressions. That we continue in the right path and direction, and that our future generations remain steadfast. As I look to my next generations and pray for mine, and their salvation, Papa’s words resonate with each passing Ramzan. May we continue the legacy of our ancestors and create our own that follows the calling we are here for. Ameen.