• Lamb adorns our table on the first night of Ramadan. (Nihal Abed)Source: Nihal Abed
Nothing compares to breaking your fast alongside friends and strangers alike.
Nihal Abed

12 Apr 2021 - 12:26 PM  UPDATED 12 Apr 2021 - 12:31 PM

"Not even water?" is a close second to the number one question people ask when learning what fasting means during the Islamic month of Ramadan. The number one question is of course, "How will you cope without coffee?" It's a good question. One that I continue to ask myself every year as Ramadan nears.

When I was younger, I would hear older people in the Egyptian community talk about their excitement as Ramadan approached. Yes, it's a special month of prayer and observance, but the excitement was confusing to me. I very much enjoyed eating when hungry. 

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Ironically, in many homes, the rituals in anticipation of Ramadan revolve around food preparation. My mum would research the grocer that stocked the seasonal ingredients she needed to recreate the Ramadan feasts she remembered from Egypt. They sold rose hips for the sweet iced tea called 'karkadeh', dried yellow dates that she'd soak in milk to impart their perfume, and the lamb that we'd eat on the first night of Ramadan.

My mother would marinate the lamb in seven spices and pomegranate juice and leave it to cook gently for several hours. However, my absolute favourite would be the litres and litres of ruby red pomegranate juice that would wash away the day's thirst. The arrival of no less than 10 boxes of pomegranates in our kitchen signalled Ramadan in our home. My mother would clear her schedule and the table, and together she and I would spend the day extracting the red seeds from each pomegranate.

My mum would tell me an old tale about each pomegranate containing a single seed from heaven. It motivated me to stay focused and hunt for the heavenly candidates from each fruit. Many years later I realised this was one of my most special memories because it was a time for me to have my mother, her stories and her laugh all to myself. 

Pomegranate juice
Fresh pomegranate juice, a staple in our home during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Year after year, all my aunties and uncles were giddy with Ramadan anticipation. And I became really skilled at feigning it.

It wasn't until I experienced Ramadan in Egypt that I found the piece of the puzzle that I'd been missing. Ramadan in Egypt is electric. The streets come alive at night. Food vendors, street markets, aromas, lights, pastries, the odd lady reading palms, and the melody of the calls to prayers echo off ancient buildings.

Cairo mosque
Calls to prayer from multiple mosques including Al-Hussein Mosque near the Khan El-Khalili bazaar in Cairo.

Muslims believe that their good deeds are multiplied during Ramadan and that includes feeding others. Displays of unbridled generosity are very common during the holy month. Community feasts are set up in alleyways where strangers sit side by side at sunset eating food prepared by people they've never met. 

Iranian Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr captures that moment of fasting and sharing beautifully: "Food and drink which are taken for granted throughout the year reveal themselves during the period of fasting more than ever as gifts of heaven," he says.

It wasn't until I experienced this that I finally understood that the older generation in Sydney craved a sense of community as they observed this special month. They wanted to recreate those memories in their new home.

"It was up to me to create annual traditions and food memories around Ramadan for my children. I wanted them to taste, smell and touch Ramadan."

It's not easy to explain to a new generation in words why something matters. I realised that it was up to me to create annual traditions and food memories around Ramadan for my children. I wanted them to taste, smell and touch Ramadan. Each year I source the same rose hips that my mother did. My kids love to smell the dried flowers and to run their fingers through them as the flowers soak in water and release their deep red colour and flavour.

So we clear our schedule and table so we can search for the pomegranate seeds from heaven. We save some of the pomegranate juice to marinate the lamb and fill my home with the same sweet and savoury aromas I remember from my childhood.

My kids don't mind that they have red stained fingers for several days after making pomegranate juice or karkadeh. These special Ramadan memories are being tucked away safely in their hearts and minds.

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