Ramadan nightly meals bring friends, family and nostalgia together – Advice Eating

My uncle used his bare hands to macerate limes and lemons with sugar in a stainless steel pot while the scent of orange blossom water wafted through the air. He prepared the lemonade that accompanied every Ramadan iftar. My grandmother passed comments to my mother and aunts—more salt, less heat, a different tray—as the heady aroma of caramelizing onions crossed with hints of roast chicken in the oven. Msakhan, large tabun bread with caramelized onions, fried chicken, sumac and pine nuts, was on the menu on the first night of Ramadan.

I grew up in Jerusalem, far from my ancestral village where my extended family still lived, in an interfaith household with a Muslim mother and a Christian father. Despite this, every Friday we went to my grandmother’s house, where the whole family would gather for dinner. During Ramadan, however, Fridays weren’t enough for me, so I found every excuse to sleep with my grandparents and cousins ​​for most of the month and soak up the magical aura that surrounded this sacred time.

Ramadan is a time of religious intention and restraint, a time to empathize with those who have less, to be grateful for our blessings, to focus on the spiritual world rather than the material, to pray, to give to charity donate and most importantly, to spend time with loved ones. If you live in the Arab world then the arrival of Ramadan is within reach – for Christians and Muslims alike. A cloud of calm descends, the rhythm of life becomes more leisurely, work slows down and food takes center stage. It’s no longer a meal on the table every night, but a feast of soup, pastries, salads, and multiple main courses. Dessert is served every night, often qatayef (semolina filled pancakes) or awameh (crispy deep-fried balls of dough soaked in sugar syrup), which suddenly pop up everywhere as shops announce Ramadan.

But it’s about more than festive meals. It’s about the family getting together almost every night and giving us something to celebrate. As it is also a time to be generous to others, families are often invited to dinner or invite others into their homes, making Ramadan one of the most sociable times of the year. The beauty of social gatherings is that they transcend religion. You invite your neighbors and colleagues, you welcome expats and acquaintances and you share in the bounty you get to enjoy.

Having lived more years outside of my home country than in my home country, Ramadan is the time of the year when I feel my strongest bouts of nostalgia. When I’m restless at night, I remember my aunt waking us up at 4am, putting on jackets or robes as she led us down the stairs and through the garden to my grandmother’s kitchen. There, the smell of fried cheese and sage tea would whet the appetite of even the sleepiest of us. We sat on a floor mat, warmed up on heaters, and ate suhur—the predawn meal meant to tide us over during a day of fasting.

The simplicity of this time is in stark contrast to the life I have chosen here in the US, where the pace of life is neither slower nor related to the arrival of the holy month. So it’s up to us who cherish Ramadan to keep its spirit alive. I remember as a kid I could count on my hands the number of times I actually fasted each year and still have the magic of the month alive for me. It was alive in the meetings, in the goodwill we had for others, in the generosity we showed, and most of all in the food.

So, over the past few years, I’ve found that even if I can’t replicate my childhood — and certainly can’t replicate the exact flavors of lemonade or msakhan from my grandmother’s kitchen — I can revive elements of that period in my friends’ home during the Month by showing my gratitude for those who have become like family in a foreign land and by introducing to our traditions those unfamiliar with the month and its food. In those welcoming moments and shared meals, I am reminded that I am now creating similar memories for generations to come. Most importantly, I recognize that community and ritual, no matter where in the world, are the colorful threads woven through the tapestry of life, lending it a sense of beauty and meaning.


If there is one dish that is exclusively Palestinian, it is Msakhan. The word “msakhan” simply means “heated” in Arabic and dates back to a time when Palestinian farmers would warm tabun bread with olive oil to extend its life and improve its flavor. Also included over time were caramelized onions cooked with copious amounts of sumac and fried chicken on top – all ingredients grown or raised by Palestinian farmers themselves. There are many ways to simplify or streamline this dish, but this traditional version stays the closest to me.

ingredients

For the chicken

4 skin-on-bone chicken thighs or breasts

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

1 teaspoon sumac

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon salt

For the flatbreads

½ cup olive oil

4 large onions, roughly diced

2 teaspoons of salt

1 tablespoon sumac

2 teaspoons ground cumin

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon cinnamon

4 taboon bread, 8 inches in diameter, recipe below (see note for simplicity)

To serve

4 tablespoons sumac

¼ cup pine nuts, toasted

directions

Preheat oven on 375 degrees Fahrenheit

Place the chicken in a large roasting pan and garnish with olive oil, spices and salt. Rub it well with your hands, making sure to get some of the marinade under the skin, then place the pieces skin-side up and place in the oven while you cook the onions. The chicken will take about 75 to 90 minutes in the oven to fully cook.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil, onions, salt and spices in a large skillet over low heat. Cook, stirring regularly, until onions are tender and fully cooked without browning, about 30 to 40 minutes. If the onions seem a bit dry or don’t release water when cooking, add water or chicken stock, ¼ cup at a time, and continue cooking. When done, remove from heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, check the chicken for doneness, Remove from the oven and let rest while you assemble the loaves. Pour any juices in the roast over the onion mixture and toss to combine.

Increase oven heat for grilling. To assemble, dip the edges of each loaf in the oil on the surface of the onion mixture, then lay flat on an oven tray or baking sheet. Place enough onion mixture on each loaf to completely cover it, but leave a border around the edge (similar to pizza). Sprinkle with sumac and toasted pine nuts. Continue with the remaining breads.

Take one or two flatbreads at a time, place them on a baking sheet and place in the oven to brown the crust and onions, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove, top each flatbread with a piece of chicken and serve.

Note: The nubbread is the most traditional bread for msakhan, but if you don’t want to bake it at home, you can substitute any other store-bought flatbread such as naan or flatbread. Just make sure it’s sturdy enough to withstand the weight of the onions and chicken.


Yield: About 4 large flatbreads

ingredients

550 grams all-purpose or bread flour plus extra for dusting

150 grams of wholemeal flour

2 teaspoons high-speed yeast

1 ½ teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling

300ml to 500ml of warm water

instructions

If mixing by hand, use a large bowl, add flour, yeast, salt, and sugar and mix until combined. Make a well in the middle, add the oil and 300ml water. Mix with your fingers and gradually add more and more water and knead until the dough comes together into a very soft, slightly sticky ball of dough. If the mixture feels too sticky, leave it on for 5 minutes, then come back and knead again. Repeat this once or twice until you have a very soft ball of dough.

Alternatively, combine ingredients Place again in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, starting with 300ml water and mix on medium speed. Gradually add more water as needed until the dough comes together into a very soft ball. The dough should be a bit sticky, but it will be very soft and fluffy, so use plenty of flour when shaping and spreading.

Form the dough into a ball, rub all over with oil, Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or cling film and set aside until doubled in size. Once the dough has risen, gently tap down to release the air bubbles. Divide into 4 equal portions, shape into a ball between floured palms and place on a well-floured work surface. Leave to rest for about 15 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat the oven 500 degrees Fahrenheit (or its highest temperature.) Place a 10- to 12-inch cast iron skillet upside down on a rack in the oven to heat.

Take a piece of dough and flatten it and cover it with more flour. Flatten with hands on floured work surface and stretch to about 5 inches in diameter. Sprinkle with some flour, flip and continue to flatten until you have a circle about 8-10 inches in diameter.

Make indentations all over the bread with your fingers. This will prevent the dough from rising and forming a pocket.

Bake until the bread develops a very light golden surface, about 5 minutes. Turn and place in the oven for another minute. Remove from the oven and place on a towel-lined baking sheet to cool. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Store at room temperature for up to a day or freeze for up to several weeks.

Leave a Comment