No, I am not a Muslim. I was raised Catholic. But I love Ramadan.
For those of you not familiar with Ramadan, it basically involves a month of prayers and fasting. And the fasting is pretty intense---no eating, drinking, smoking or sex from sunrise to sundown. It is all about personal discipline, obedience and being a good Muslim.
For me, it’s all about delicious Indian food.
You see, I work with quite a few Muslims. Most of them from Bangladesh. And all of them very nice and generous with their nightly feast---a community meal fondly referred to as Iftar. All of them are men. And all of them have wonderful mothers and/or wives who spend all day in the kitchen preparing glorious curried dishes that their husbands and/or sons pack up in Tupperware and bring into work to eat at the breaking of the fast. This year, Ramadan started around 7:00pm New York City time.
A few minutes before the appointed hour, the smell of curry and spice wafts out of the microwave and thru the kitchen of our otherwise American-themed restaurant. All of the Muslims working that night begin to scurry around the kitchen---opening Tupperware containers, setting the table, and chopping vegetables for the salad---the Middle Eastern version that involves no lettuce, but lots of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and the dressing a mixture of freshly squeezed lemon and spices. While this nightly ritual goes on, they begin to call the Iftar to my attention. Because somehow, I have become a part of their Ramadan.
My Ramadan feasting began a few years ago. One of the bus boys was eating his Ramadan feast alone in the kitchen. I made an innocent comment about the Indian food looking tasty, and next thing I knew, I had a huge plate of rice, goat meat, bread and some sort of coconut dessert in front of me. Sure, I’d eaten Indian food plenty of times before. But this was different. This was the equivalent of somebody’s Mom’s pot roast. It was amazing.
Last year, I noticed plates of Indian food suddenly beginning to appear before me.
“Is it Ramadan?” I asked with glee.
“Yes,” one of the bus boys replied, “Enjoy.”
Enjoy I did. Thank you Allah.
Of course, the Catholic guilt immediately began to creep thru. After all, they’ve been fasting all day. They haven’t even had a sip of water. And here I am eating their dinner. Don’t think I didn’t try to refuse. I’m nothing if not polite. But the Bengali’s explained to me that Allah gave them extra blessings for sharing their food. And there sure was a lot of rice and chicken curry. Well, okay. Twist my arm.
This year, I was immediately included in their Ramadan feast. There was always an extra plate and an extra chair. And all of my little Muslim boys immediately called me over to join in their feast. They know there’s no hope of converting me. They’ve heard me spout too much feminist propaganda to even try. And there’s no talk of Allah or The Koran. Only a discussion of how wonderful the food is. How delicious the feast. They do take the time to explain all the dishes and how they’re prepared. They also answer my questions about the holiday and the particular peppers used in the chick peas. And, for a few moments every night, I’m eating in the best Indian restaurant in town.
For those of you in parts of the country without a significant Muslim population, may I say---I feel sorry for you. I really do. The stereo-typical view of the Muslim as serious and brooding, is not what I know. In fact, I’ve never seen grown men giggle as much as these fellas do. Seriously. Giggle. My friend Kabir has the cutest laugh you’ve ever heard. And he giggles at virtually everything. If anyone ever pulled him aside at an airport, he’d probably start giggling. They wouldn’t know if he was an uncomfortable terrorist or just ticklish.
They all laugh constantly. Maybe it’s because they’re from Bangladesh. It’s not exactly Saudi Arabia over there. But here they are, fasting all day, and it’s 6:30 and they’re starving and they’re laughing their asses off watching me trying to interpret the Ramadan calendar---a chart listing all the dates and local times for each part of the fast.
“So, Iftar is the meal---and after that it says it’s time for Isha. What’s Isha? Dessert?”
Oh, how they laughed. Apparently, Isha is more prayers. They found this extremely amusing.
So this year, for Christmas, one of my managers gave me a copy of a book called “Bengali Cooking”. And, once again, the Bengalis laughed. Though they certainly don’t doubt my cooking abilities. A few times, during Ramadan, I even brought in a few dishes of my own. Of course, the meat thing’s a little difficult. Especially during Ramadan---it really should be halal. But I haven’t the slightest idea where one goes to buy halal meat. Instead, I opted for vegetarian dishes. I made one with couscous, zucchini and an apricot chutney that went over well. They also enjoyed my spicy green beans. And coconut macaroons are always a hit. After all, blessings from Allah or not---I just didn’t feel right eating all their delicious food.
And it’s amazing! I told the Bengalis that if they opened up a restaurant and sold this food---they would make a million dollars. It’s really that good. My favorite dish is the chick peas. The Bengali chick peas are slightly different from your standard garbanzo beans. They’re darker in color and about a third of the size. They even wrote the recipe down for me. It’s so simple. A little onion, a little pepper and some spices. Mmmm. I could eat it everyday. And all the curried rice and the thin breads that seem to be practically fried in something resembling a flavored lard---yeah, I know, lard doesn’t sound appetizing, but just think what it does to a pie crust.
At work tonight, I began skimming thru the Bengali cookbook---which is more than just a cookbook, but also a history of the country and its dishes. The author immediately explains that Bengali cooking is never really found in restaurants---why? Because, for Bengalis, it’s considered simple fare. It’s the sort of thing that is best served in the home. Something that involves love and care. Not the slapdash way food is generally prepared in restaurants. It needs time. And, according to the author, Chitrita Banerji, even restaurants in West Bengal and Bangladesh generally serve your standard Northern Indian dishes.
Bengali food, she explains, “…is not easy to reproduce on a mass scale, nor does it maintain its nuanced flavors after repeated heating or long hours in storage.” She also party blames the Bengalis themselves, for not realizing that the simplest dishes, tried and perfected over centuries, are suitable for more than just their daily meals. According to Ms. Banerji, they would never dream of serving their simple meals to guests---whether in their home or in a restaurant. It just wouldn’t be fancy enough.
As I skimmed thru the book tonight, I began asking questions. They were particularly helpful when it came to the hilsa---a fish. They were all eager to remind me that hilsa is The National Fish. If you mention hilsa, this is the first thing they will all say, “It is our National Fish!” This seems to be something they are extremely proud of---their National Fish. I’ve heard of the phrase “National Dish”, but never “National Fish”. If other countries have a National Fish, I don’t think any of them are as proud of their fish as the people of Bangladesh.
I hear about this damn fish all the time. In fact, I actually tried the National Fish this past Ramadan. It was good. It was fish---what can I say? It did have a lot of tiny bones you have to be careful to pick out---a fact they reminded me of this evening, should I attempt to cook their National Fish.
Frankly, I have no more idea where to get the National Fish than I have of where to pick up a case of halal meat. But I suppose I could give it a try.
“But be very careful,” they warned. “You have to cook the fish. Not like in American where you don’t cook the fish all the way. You must cook this fish properly, or it will make you sick.”
Maybe I’ll stick with the chick peas for a while. But I will definitely be making a trip to the Indian groceries in Jackson Heights soon.