The new crescent moon on Feb. 10 marked the beginning of the Muslim observance of Ramadan.
For a month, Muslims around the world abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex between dawn and sunset. An exercise of empathy and compassion, Ramadan helps people identify with the problems of the less fortunate.
Refraining from all foods and liquids, including water, is a challenge to the body. The evening meal after each day of fasting should be filling, without putting a strain on the digestive system.
"There are no hard-and-fast rules about what to eat for 'Iftar,' the evening meal," says Fouzia Hassan, of southern Indian origin, "but as the prophet Muhammed always broke his fast by taking a dried date or two with water, many of us follow his example."
Dried dates boost glucose levels in the blood, providing quick energy.
Lentil soup and yogurt drinks are other common choices for breaking the day's fast. Besides providing sugar for energy, the juice is recognized as a soothing lubricant for the digestive system.
"We Indians and Pakistanis prefer a thin yogurt drink flavored with mango or some other fruit," says Mr. Hassan.
"The hardest part of fasting is not the lack of food but going without water," says Elhamy Kamel, an Egyptian-American executive. "After we perform the evening prayer, we initiate our meal with a nutritious brothy soup."
Lentil soup is the favorite across the 21 nations of the Arab world, and with good reason: Each portion of lentil soup has 25 grams of protein. Rich in phosphorous and potassium, it also provides fiber.
Classic red lentil soup is aromatic with fresh herbs. Regional adaptations add spices, rice, pasta and vegetables. The soup is so easy that it almost prepares itself; the red lentils don't need soaking.
Yogurt also is a favorite everywhere. Believed to calm an acidic stomach, yogurt appears in many forms: the lassi, an Indian mango drink, and a similar Turkish one flavored with garlic and salt; in creamy chicken soups; in a refreshing mint cucumber salad; and in sauces bursting with tender morsels of lamb or stuffed pasta.
"Shish barak," small Syrian meat-filled pastas, or dumplings, in a cilantro-yogurt sauce over rice, are easy to prepare with store-bought fresh tortellini.
Dumplings in yogurt sauce
Makes 4 servings
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
L 2 rounded tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 1 1/2 cups water
2 cups plain yogurt
salt to taste
6 ounces fresh beef-filled tortellini
cooked white rice
Saute the garlic in butter for 2 minutes. Stir in cornstarch water. Add yogurt and whisk, stirring in one direction only, until sauce begins to thicken and comes to boil. Lower heat and simmer 2 or 3 minutes, continuing to stir in the same direction. Add salt, adjust seasoning.
Boil tortellini according to package directions; drain, drop into yogurt sauce. Garnish with cilantro and serve immediately with white rice.
Per serving: calories: 339; fat: 12 grams; cholesterol: 49 milligrams; sodium: 391 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 32 percent.
Classic red lentil soup
Makes 4 servings
8 cups water
1 pound meaty lamb bones, fat trimmed
1 1/2 cups red lentils, washed
1 small onion, chopped (optional)
1 stalk celery, minced
1 serrano chili, seeded and minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
garnish: minced parsley or cilantro; lemon slices
Place all ingredients except garnishes in a large saucepan and bring to boil. (I like to saute the onion lightly in a bit of olive oil, but this is not necessary.) Reduce heat, cover and simmer 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Stir occasionally to keep lentils from sticking.
Taste and adjust seasoning. More water may be added if you prefer a thinner soup. For a thicker broth, uncover the pot and cook it a bit longer to reduce the liquid. Garnish and serve with fresh lemon juice.
Turkey: Add tomato paste, cooked rice or bulgur, mint and paprika.
L Kuwait: Add cooked rice, garlic, cumin and ground coriander.
Gulf States: Add chopped tomatoes, cooked fettuccine noodles, loomi (dried lemon, available in import food stores) and Gulf curry spices (or any Indian spice mixture).
Iraq: Add tomato paste, turmeric and cumin.
Saudi Arabia: Add chopped potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and cumin.
Egypt: Add chopped tomato, additional garlic, cumin and red pepper.
Libya: Add tomato paste, chopped potatoes, carrots, onions, cumin and cardamom.
Morocco: Add tomatoes, carrots, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, saffron and chickpeas.
Lebanon: Add chopped leeks.
Syria: Add cooked rice.
Per serving: calories: 307; fat: 4 grams; cholesterol: 25 milligrams; sodium: 364 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 10 percent.
Mango yogurt drink
Makes 4 servings
3 cups plain yogurt
1 cup water
3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1/2 mango, bottled or fresh (about 1/2 cup; may also use mango juice)
Whirl ingredients in a blender. Add more water, if desired, for a thinner drink.
Per serving: calories: 152; fat: 6 grams; cholesterol: 23 milligrams; sodium: 80 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 32 percent.