Food and ritual go hand in hand. Think about the Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter meals you and your family enjoy, with their wonderfully strict lineup of dishes. Or the structure that religion brings to eating: Hinduism’s vegetarianism, the Jewish kosher diet, Catholicism’s fish on Fridays. Or even the orchestrated drama of haute cuisine, with its precise parade of fancy courses and tableside preparations.
Though it’s little understood in the West, one of the world’s great food rituals happens every year throughout the Muslim world. During Ramadan, the entire culture (with the exception of the very young or the very elderly) partakes in a daily fast, from sunrise to sunset, consuming no food or drink, in order to purify themselves and intensify spiritual ties. The fast culminates in a nightly feast in which family, neighbors, and visitors sit down together to nourish themselves—a well-appreciated reward for their abstinence.
For this issue, Saveur contributor Anissa Helou traveled to the United Arab Emirates during Ramadan, and broke fast with meals taken in tents on mosque grounds, in homes, at a cultural center, and even on the street. As I read her descriptions of the dishes and the ways in which they were prepared, I recalled the years I lived in Indonesia when I, too, sometimes fasted for Ramadan. I thought about the cooks I know there, and how their food is all the more amazing for the fact that they cannot taste while they are preparing it. During Ramadan, a cook must rely on her senses: the smell of a spice in a simmering pot of rice; the look of oven-roasted shrimp, plump and pinkish; the way dough feels in her hands. It’s a feat that highlights the discipline and sheer creative force behind this time of fasting, when one’s routine relationship to food is transformed into something newly conscious and meditative. It honors the soul while denying the body’s yearnings.
With everyone participating, there’s also a feeling of love for community. At the end of the day, as you ease back into eating—with a few dates, perhaps, if you’re in Abu Dhabi, or a palm sugar—laced drink if you’re on an island in Indonesia—and then sit down with everyone else to revel in the food and the sustenance it brings, there is nothing left to feel but joy.