For non-Muslim tourists, Ramadan seems to be something to avoid like bad weather. In Muslim countries, everyone fasts, at least in public. Malls are wastelands, there’s nothing at all to do during the day in this unbearable heat. Everyone is hungry and grumpy. Working hours drop to 10 to 3, and sometimes nobody turns up to open the shop at all. Ramadan generates its own little off season, and all those who don’t want to fast stay safe and well-fed in their own countries until it is safely over. For the believers however, Ramadan is a string that draws them back to Islamic countries – it’s a time to be united with those of similar goals. Not only that, can you imagine fasting from dawn to dusk in Norway in Summer? No easy task.
But, I’m going to tell you that you should not avoid the Middle East at this time, even if you are a food traveller seeking fodder and cultural experience simultaneously. Ramadan becomes, in fact, one of the best times to experience regional cuisine. You just have to do it in the dark.
Like many Christian celebrations (Christmas, Easter, etc), Ramadan has become a period of celebration that has commercial appeal, and every single hotel or restaurant has jumped on the bandwagon. There are two words you will see in every brochure, hear in every lobby, and if you are muslim, possibly dream about under every sun-drenched minute, and they are Iftar and Suhoor.
This occurs just after sunset (Maghrib), and is the equivalent of breakfast. Yes, you break-fast just after 7pm. Traditionally it is dates and water or milk (the Prophet Mohammed broke his fast with three dates), similar to a small breakfast many of us would take in the mornings. One of my favourite bloggers, Arva Ahmed, takes us through the legitimate experience here, in a way that almost makes the most gluttonous of us all want to fast.
But that’s not usually what you’ll find when you attend Iftar. And yes, as a non-muslim, you can attend. Amazing, isn’t it, that you can celebrate the breaking of the fast even though you cracked five hours before, and five hours before that, and probably at several other intervals during your day (even if it was in a cupboard where nobody could catch you).
Iftar when it occurs at a restaurant is genereally fairly lavish. It starts after sunset, and most Muslims will not arrive still fasting – they will have broken their fast simply and prayed before arriving. And then, the feasting begins. It’s a little like a splash-up british weekend brunch (without the champagne) – the dishes range from salads through to whole baked animals, syrupy desserts and fresh fruits and vegetables. To be honest, a little fasting is recommended during the day, even for those not wholly committed, because there will be so much amazing food, you’re likely to hurt yourself if you don’t have an empty belly to start.
Anyone coming to the Middle East and observing Islamic culture would believe that this translates as second dinner. The hotels and restaurants all seem to serve Suhoor from around 9:30 or 10pm, usually with an a-la-carte menu rather than the feasting style meal of iftar. And I suppose, if Iftar is your breakfast, then Suhoor is your dinner. However, Suhoor is not usually eaten directly after Iftar, but in fact in the very early morning, just before prayers and the sunrise. For tourists however, or even for those who didn’t make it to Iftar, the hours have crept back into a more suitable restaurant-opening time.
What this means is that all those restaurants that would usually be open for lunch, but have to close during the day for the holy month now get to keep their doors open for a constant service – it’s just at night time. It also means that all those jetlagged Australians and Americans on a stopover to Europe can get up at midnight, walk around the souks while it’s a little cooler (trust me, you’re not doing that during the day at this time of year), and have a shawarma at 4am, then sleep in until the airport dash.
What to eat:
- Harira – this is a Middle Eastern lentil soup with tomato and coriander base, lightly spiced and usually slightly brothy with small chunks of beans, lentils and meat. It can however be quite creamy, depending on how much the chef has decided to puree the mix.
- Harees or ursiyah – a wheat (or for the latter, rice) dish that can resemble anything from soup to concrete. It should be somewhere in the middle, similar to a congee. It will usually contain shredded slow-cooked lamb or chicken. It’s a gentle, and some may say, bland, dish, that is very traditional during Ramadan, probably due to it’s ability to fill the belly quickly without causing digestive disorders.
- Sambousa or Sambousek – Filo pastry triangles filled with sweet spiced lamb or sometimes feta cheese. Just eat one or two – there is plenty more coming…
- Ouzi – this really just means spiced lamb with rice, but during Ramadan, it is so much more. It’s usually a whole lamb (innards included), cooked for 24 hours in a pit. Spices are sweet and fragrant – cinnamon will feature heavily, and will often be combined with nuts and dried fruit. It’s served with all its juices oozing onto a bed of rice, and it’s abloutely incredible. Just make sure you have good light if you don’t like offal, because you might end up with a bit of gizzard if you’re not careful. (leave it for those like us who class it as a delicacy)
- Khoresht Fesenjan – a Persian origin chicken stew made with pomegranate molasses and walnuts. Deep brown and gluey-looking, but delicious, usually slightly sour (some make it sweet) and gently spiced.
- Maqlouba or Maglouba – translates roughly as “upside-down”, and is a chicken and rice casserole similar in style to a biryani, but with tomato and more savoury flavours (plenty of cumin) and larger pieces of meat. Can be made with lamb and/or eggplant, depending on the origin of the chef.
- Mujaddara – rice and lentils with savoury spices (like cumin, garlic, bay leaf, again will depend on origin of chef), brown lentils and topped with sweet crispy fried onions. Sometimes has little threads of vermicelli noodle.
- Salad – generally avoided as those breaking the fast tend to head for the richer dishes. However, expect all the standards – fatoush, tabouleh, roca and white cheese, za’atar and haloum, and plenty of raw salad vegetables including radish, which is vital if you want to aid your digestion.
- Qatayef – dessert, served in singular pie form crumbly light pastry, stuffed with white cheese that really just tastes and shares the texture of burrata. Soaked in a cardamom, rose and saffron syrup, and often sprinkled with ground pistachios. Also look for Kunafe, which is sliced from a large flat pan in wedges. Same syrup, same cheese, but topped with crunchy vermicelli-shaped crumble.
- Umm Ali – an Arabic Bread and Butter pudding, but more delicate than the British versions, often made with pastry rather than bread, and flavoured with rose, cardamom and pistachio. Sometimes sprinkled with cinnamon or nutmeg.
- Muhallabiya – creamy rice dessert, usually served cold. The rice is ground and so the texture is more like a custard. Pure white, flavoured with rose and pistachio.
- Dates – there will be plenty on offer, particularly as the season has started early this year, so there may be some fresh ones to try. Also expect to find size and shape, colour, and tastes that vary from caramel to molasses to plum.
What to drink
- Jallab – a rose, grape molasses and date concoction, deep red, and resembling grenadine. Served with nuts (usually pine nut or almond) on top.
- Tamar hind – translates as “Indian date” and is, you guessed it, a tamarind drink. Usually sweetened and made with water, lemon juice and rosewater. Slightly sour.
- Kharoub – or carob, is a watery, chocolatey flavoured drink, found only rarely.
- Sahlab – or Salep, a milky hot drink made with the tubers of Orchid roots, and flavoured with orange blossom, nuts, and/or dried fruit
- Qamar eddin – a drink made from sheets of dried apricot paste, usually with added orange juice.
- Lemon juice –not pure lemon juice, but sweetened and slightly dilute like an old fashioned lemonade. Fabulous for the digestion, and very refreshing. Sometimes flavoured with chopped mint.
- Karkadeh – Cordial made from dried hibiscus flowers. Can be sweet and innocuous, but ususally slightly sour, intense, deep and floral.
Where to go?
For small budgets:
- Al Ibrahami Palace – this Pakistani buffet restaurant in Karama near Burjaman is known by Pakistanis in Dubai as being one of the best. Their Iftar Buffet is a measly 59AED.
- If Iranian is your thing (and they really do make the lamb the best), then try Danial in Al Mazaya (65AED) or Abshar in Jumeirah (60 for Iftar, 110 for full buffet)
- Step up in price just a little at Aroos Damascus, in Al Rigga for Syrian cuisine with a cult following. 70AED. Try their Shakria – lamb in yoghurt. Yum.
- Arabian Courtyard – Very well priced at 75AED served in their Al Khaimah ballroom and out on the terrace (It’s a small ballroom and the AC conveniently drifts out into the open area). Most of the classics and some added Indian flavour. There’s live grilling and chaat stations (yummy balls of fire and sweet and sour tamarind), and those who can’t get through the night without a drink can pop into Sherlock Holmes next door afterwards.
- Barjeel Guest House in the Heritage Village is the tiny sister of the Arabian Courtyard. If you want to dine in traditional Emirati Style, then this would be your best bet. Also super-cheap at 75AED all inclusive.
- Al Hallab – for a Lebanese themed iftar at around 100AED, and plenty of traditional dishes.
For glutton muffins:
- The H Hotel – Arcadia Lounge will have a sumptuous buffet including Ramadan beverages. The plus is it’s all done under the eye of consulting celebrity chef Silvena Rowe, so expect a few twists. There will also be a combination of traditional and contemporary Arabic entertainment throughout the night, and even a kids majilis. 180 AED
- Asateer Tent at Atlantis is the big shebang. This place holds 850 people, so can get fairly busy, especially if the hotel is full. Food is always exceptional in this venue, so expect to be spoiled. 185AED including free valet parking.
- Bab Al Shams have Iftar offerings at Al Forsan (inside) and Al Hadheera (outside – eek! But I guess it is less humid in the desert, and they do have fans everywhere), and both are probably worthwhile (175 and 195AED respectively), but for me, the pick is the Suhoor platters (complete with manakish) and the flickering candles and Arabian view at Sarab rooftop lounge. They have fans, but if it gets too hot, you can always toddle inside.
- Ritz Carlton DIFC – it’s one of the more expensive around, but there’s a couple of highlights. Firstly, you can dine outside in their Ramadan Garden, which is air conditioned. Yes, you read that correctly. Secondly, they have a swathe of the traditional goodies including a fatteh station (toasted pita, tahini and chick-pea dish). But they also have a twist – Arabic Sushi, prepared by their Osaka-experienced chef Ron Pietruszka, who is injecting some health and light in. Chicken shawarma with pickles as a maki-roll? Sounds interesting. 225AED
- Madinat Jumeirah have plenty of options, and offer a booking of six for the price of four with Mastercard. If there are less than six of you, then you can just take the 20% off deal with the same credit card. The big one is Arboretum, a very traditional setting in tent-style buildings around the Al Qasr pool. 190AED before discount
- The Ramadan Majlis at Dubai World Trade Center is fairly well priced for a grand-scale offering at 135AED. Traditional foods and Shisha served. They also serve Suhoor all the way through to 4am on the weekends.
If you want something more culture than vulture:
- Iftar at mosques is generally for Muslims, however you would never be turned away if you are not. Please remember to dress respectfully, and you may join, in most cases, for a free meal (it will be very basic – probably just bread, dates and water). The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi welcomes all cultures as can be read in attached article, but you will find that nearly every mosque has a Ramadan tent erected. Be discreet, ask before entering, try fasting yourself, and you will probably be welcome.
- The Sheikh Mohammad centre for Cultural Understanding (otherwise known as SMCCU) offer a cosier gathering. You can share the whole tradition of breaking the fast with them in one of the heritage houses, followed by question and answer time. I’ve done breakfast with them, and suing that as a guide believe this could be quite a treat. 135AED
- For something a little out of the box, contact the Malaysian consulate, and see if they are still doing their Friday Iftars. Blogger friend Arva had plenty to rave about last year (link here).
Some tips for the uninitiated
- Eating during the day – this is prohibited for all Muslims (except a few exemptions like children, the aged or infirm, pregnant or nursing mothers), and in public, it’s also prohibited for everybody else. This includes anything that may go in the mouth, so water, chewing gum and even smoking are taboo. If you are caught, you can get arrested for this. However, the chance of this happening is very low, as most will be offended rather than downright disgusted by your behaviour. Police will probably let you off with a warning as long as you are genuinely surprised and promise to refrain from further gobbling in front of starving people.
- Expected behaviour – This is a very holy time, and so you are expected to behave with due respect. All those little laws that are relaxed during the year will be a little more strictly enforced. If you walk around the malls with a tank top and short shorts on, expect to be snarled at. If you are in a traditional area of Dubai, e.g. around the Naif souq, or in other emirates, particularly in smaller towns, you may even get spat at or arrested. Absolutely no canoodling in public, and expect to spend a night in the slammer if you’re a bit too drunk.
- Booze – Surprisingly, you can still get alcohol at this time of year in many Muslim countries, and this is definitely the case in Dubai. However, most venues will remain dry until around 8pm, and will definitely stop service before the sunrise. Liquor stores remain open, but in some cases hours are reduced.
- Restaurant openings during Ramadan – Most restaurants will serve food from 8pm to around midnight, with many staying open until just before sunrise during this period. This will definitely be the case in Malls – you cannot even get a coffee during the day, but they will have extended opening hours at night (usually until 12 or 1am). There are some exemptions, which you will find in subtle areas, usually with a black curtain drawn around, or with entry restricted to back doors.
- International hotels will usually have at least one restaurant serving breakfast and lunch, and will continue to offer room service all day.
- For cafes, try Shakespeare’s (Safa and Arabian Ranches), More Café (Gold and Diamond Park), Lime Tree Café (Jumeirah and Al Quoz) 1762 Deli (DIFC and Jebel Ali) and Make business Hub in JBR.
- For something more substantial, head to the DIFC, which seems, as a free zone, to have more flexibility (Gaucho, Roberto’s and Zuma all remained open for lunch last year).
- There are also other free zones to head for: JAFZA (where 1762 is in Jebel Ali), Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Healthcare City, Media City, where you will find most outlets open.
- Take-away outlets are also open, and it is possible to buy food from supermarkets and other food outlets, however you will have to take food to a private place to consume it.
And finally, your Ramadan Glossary
- Ramadan – also known as Ramazan, the 9th month in the Islamic calendar, when it was believed the Quran was given from heaven to the Prophet Mohammed. All Muslims that have reached puberty, male and female, must participate in fasting during Ramadan from dawn until dusk. More info here.
- Suhoor – also called Sehur and Sahari, translates as “of the dawn”. Also refers to the very early morning meal.
- Sawm – the fasting time (daylight). Nothing is to be taken by mouth, including water. Thoughts and actions are also to remain pure.
- Maghrib – sunset.
- Iftar – breaking of the fast. Also a splash-up buffet
- Laylat al-Qadr – believed to be the night when the Quran was first revealed. Every second night for five nights at the end of Ramadan. The most holy time of the holy month.
- Zakat – charity. Because all deeds committed during Ramadan are more handsomely rewarded than at other times of the year, you will find quite a bit of this going on. This can range from providing meals to strangers, donating clothes and money to the poor or providing whopping great tips to struggling waiters and cabbies.
- Eid al Fitr – the celebration at the end of Ramadan. This is like our Christmas – non-stop partying, public holidays, gifts. Just no big fat dude in red creeping down the wind tower.