Ramadan is a holiday observed by fasting, but when it's time to eat, the meals can be feasts.
No food or drink is allowed from dawn to dusk during the annual monthlong Muslim period of fasting, which began this year on the evening of July 19. Because of the way the Muslim lunar calendar is structured, Ramadan can take place in different seasons; this year it occurs in midsummer. So serving a variety of cool vegetable spreads is perfect.
The two daily meals of Ramadan are iftar, the break-the-fast meal served after sunset, and suhoor, the early morning meal that, according to the Sunna, a Muslim sacred text, is important to eat just before dawn.
In the Mideast, iftar often begins with water, juices and dates, as well as salads and other appetizers. There might be one or several entrees, such as lamb stewed with wheat berries, lamb kebabs with grilled vegetables or roast chicken served with chickpea-studded rice pilaf, followed by a rich dessert like baklava or kunafeh, a buttery, syrup-sweetened kadaifi noodle pastry filled with cheese.
In some households, suhoor meals are composed of the same kinds of foods as iftar; in others, there will be egg dishes or other foods that we think of as breakfast fare. To avoid exacerbating thirst during the hours of fasting, some cooks prepare suhoor food with little or no salt.
The most memorable Ramadan meals we've had, whether at Anadalou restaurant in Antakya in southeast Turkey or at Olive Tree restaurant in Anaheim's Little Arabia, began with a grand array of savory spreads and dips. To make these dips, cooks combine grilled, roasted, steamed or raw vegetables — eggplant, cauliflower, pumpkin, purslane, cucumbers — with yogurt, the tangy strained yogurt called labneh, tahini sauce or a mixture of these.
Try lightening classic baba ghanouj by adding yogurt to the grilled eggplant and tahini salad, and spicing it up with roasted poblano chiles and a red chile garlic relish. Blending yogurt with roasted zucchini and mint results in another cool, refreshing dip, a fitting complement to muhammara, a spicy walnut spread with hot and sweet red peppers and a touch of pomegranate paste. For a light-textured, creamy spinach dip, combine briefly cooked spinach with yogurt, sautéed onions, yellow squash and grilled sweet peppers.
Unlike typical American dips, these Middle Eastern salads are usually served on plates or platters, not in deep bowls, and are accompanied by fresh pita or other flatbreads, and not by chips or raw vegetable dippers. Their texture is between that of a spread and a dip. At serving time, many cooks drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle them with fresh herbs and semi-hot Aleppo pepper. When Ramadan falls in the pomegranate season, the fruit's bright-red arils are a favorite garnish. The traditional way to eat the salads is to use a small piece of flatbread to scoop up the spread.
Although these appetizers are fairly quick to prepare, they are so delicious it would not be easy to make them while fasting. Fortunately, they keep well in the refrigerator for at least a couple of days.
Naturally, not everyone breaks the fast with an elaborate meal. In Jerusalem's Old City, after the signal sounded that it's time to eat, we saw shopkeepers sitting on stools in the doorways of their stores eating stew with pita bread. In Istanbul, we joined a public iftar at which the government provided the meals. The vegetarian dinners included lentil soup, stewed vegetables, rice cooked with noodles, bread and syrup-sweetened cakes.
When we visited Urfa, a conservative Turkish city near the Syrian border where the hijab is a dominant women's fashion, people told us that they enjoy Ramadan because it is a blessed month. We enjoy Ramadan too — but because of the delicious food.
For Ramadan dinners and other events in Anaheim's "Little Arabia," you can check the Little Arabia Facebook page.
Faye Levy is the author of "Feast From the Mideast."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun