• Rashida Tayabali at her birthday, aged three. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Out of all the religious and cultural celebrations, I look forward to my Arabic birthday the most.
Rashida Tayabali, Presented by
Elli Jacobs

28 Sep 2020 - 12:09 PM  UPDATED 28 Sep 2020 - 12:09 PM

Arabic birthday celebrations are strictly reserved for family members, but on my 15th birthday, for the first time, I could invite my school friends to help me celebrate.

I belong to a Shia sect, originally from India. My ancestors migrated to Africa as traders while the British colonised Africa. I'm a fourth-generation Kenyan Indian and our food connects me to both culture and religion. 

My family has always placed huge importance on food on special occasions. It's a chance for us to stay connected to our roots and religion, despite not living in India.  

I was about five with my first memory. I would sit at my grandmother's feet and watch her make Indian roti in her kitchen. She would cover the first fresh ones in ghee and pass them on to me to eat. There was something very comforting about her gesture.  

As far back as then, I remember the special rituals around Eid where my whole family would gather to pray and eat.

Rituals are still an important part of Rashida's life.

During Ramadan festivities, known as Eid al-Fitr – the 'festival of breaking the fast' -, which lasts for three days, my maternal grandparents would create the most lavish feast. My grandma, Fatima, would make the most delicious paya curry with goat's trotters, cooked in a luscious tomato-onion curry. To accompany it was the most decadent warm, milk-based dessert, known as sheer khurma. It's cooked with roasted vermicelli, infused with cardamom and saffron and married with finely chopped pieces of pistachio, almonds and dates.

For Eid al-Adha, following the completion of Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca - my grandmother would prepare a whole-wheat jaggery pudding called malido, and a main dry-meat dish like kebabs or meat curry.

Traditionally, on the seventh night of a newborn child's life, we have a naming ceremony to celebrate the child's intended name. As a welcoming, we treat our close family guests to a sweet refreshment or ice-cream.

To honour our deceased ancestors, we get together three days after a family member's burial to eat in their memory over a simple dish including moong dal rice, and surkhi, a lentil soup.

Meet the Aussie mum who wants us to spread hummus, not hate
"I want to give people the opportunity to sit down and chat to me and my family over food and just realise that we're just normal, average people going about our lives like everybody else."

To celebrate the new year, we cook a semolina pudding accompanied with chickpeas cooked in tomato, Indian roti to go with curry, yellow lentil rice, and a meat dish like fried chicken. These are also the same foods we cook to celebrate Arabic birthdays.

I recall mum would begin cooking these elaborate dishes with our cleaners' help from early in the morning to prepare for the evening birthday feast.

What stood out for me was the semolina pudding cooked in ghee and the chickpeas in tomato sauce. I always looked forward to it. Surprisingly, I never liked legumes nor Indian sweets as a child, but there's something deeply satisfying about this combination. I would eat this hearty dish for days afterwards.

7 Indian desserts to enjoy with your chai
Our list of favourite sweet treats for that time of day: BYO chai!

During Arabic birthdays, which are based on the lunar cycle otherwise known as the Islamic Hijri calendar, the semolina cake is our birthday cake, with lit candles that we don't blow out. There's a belief that blowing out candles invites bad luck instead of creating light. That is reserved for the Western calendar birthday. We would then sit on the floor around a large plate and eat together as a family.

In my family, up to age 13, birthdays were reserved for close family members. A child is considered especially fragile in their first 12 months, so their first birthday helps elders mark an important milestone: that the child is finally considered better protected from illnesses and other dangers.

On my 15th birthday, which also marked a rite of passage from child into womanhood, I began wearing my religious dress (a burka). We had a big party at home. It was also the first time I could invite my school friends to help me celebrate.

That year, mum cooked slightly more modern Indian dishes because my friends came from different backgrounds. And while we did still sit on the floor to eat in the traditional way, we all had separate plates to eat.  

After that year, my birthday celebrations gradually dwindled and were no longer acknowledged – except for the semolina cake which was still symbolised my Arabic birthday.  

When I migrated to Australia in 2004 as an international student my mum and grandmother passed their recipes on to me.

Now living in Sydney with my family and two children, it's a chance for me to connect my children to their religion and family through food so they can know just how rich their history and backgrounds is.

"It's a chance for me to connect my children to their religion and family through food."

With their first Arabic birthdays, I followed the same traditions and menu. However, as life becomes busy, it's not feasible for me to cook all the dishes I had enjoyed. However, I do bake a cake.

Gradually, we have also taken on more western birthday celebrations. I bake a birthday cake, we blow out candles and sing the birthday songs on their English birthdays.

As a family, we still adhere to Eid food and celebrations. They are very important occasions for Muslims. They keep us connected to our religion and family back home.

These special foods add significant meaning to our religious and cultural traditions. They help signify the importance of the occasion without which celebrations would feel incomplete.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @ellijac.

Anjum Anand wants everyone to discover that Indian food is easy
"This is simple, healthy Indian food anyone can cook," she says.
Feels like home: An Indian dish that cures homesickness
Khichdi is the lentil dish that reminds Ahana Dutt of colourful festivities in Kolkata and conjures smoky mornings at Sydney's Firedoor restaurant.
The ultimate guide to making roti at home
Whether you want a flaky roti canai or Indian pocket that puffs, here's what you need to know.
Nadem’s lamb kabsa

Nadem’s kabsah – a fragrant rice and meat dish popular in many places in the Persian Gulf - is inspired by Arabic journeys along the Silk Road. When the Arabic people began travelling from the Middle East to Asia, they returned home with new spices, gradually adding them to their traditional dishes.

Fattoush salad with mint and sumac

This Arabic medley of vegetables is topped with crisp flatbread pieces.  

This patissier learnt to make incredible Arabic sweets at a refugee camp
Adam Liaw's visit to Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan shows that connecting to people through their food helps better understand the realities of the Syrian conflict.
Lebanese za'atar pizza (man’oushe bi za'atar)

Taking its name from the Arabic word for ‘engraved’ because of the indentations on the dough, this pizza is a breakfast favourite.