Muslims throughout the world are observing the holy month of Ramadan, fasting from the break of dawn until sunset each day.
While the emphasis is on prayer and piety, breaking the fast in the evenings is a time to socialize with friends and family around the table.
"Because we don't eat for the whole day, when it is time to break the fast, we like to eat different styles to make it more interesting," said Erum Shaikh, a pre-kindergarten teacher at the Al Rahmah School in Catonsville.
The Islamic faith encompasses a wide range of nationalities, so the food served during Ramadan includes dozens of ethnic varieties. Islamic cuisine can be based on Pakistani, Egyptian, Indian or even Chinese recipes.
"The food has to do with cultures, but not the faith itself," says Nihad Awad, executive director of the D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Before sitting down to Turkish kebab or a Pakistani lamb curry casserole, however, most Muslims break fast with a nutritious snack.
Shaikh likes to serve a milk drink mixed with ground nuts to her husband and two children when the sun sets during Ramadan.
"As soon as we break fast, we need something energetic," Shaikh said. "This tastes like a flavored milk."
Many Muslims break fast with a drink of water and a few dates as millions of pilgrims do in Islam's holy city of Mecca during Ramadan.
"You cannot imagine the number of people - Germans, Americans, Saudis - two million people," eating the same food, said Sadig Malki, a political science professor at King Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. "It's the unification of the same God."
The snack is followed by the fourth prayer of the day, called the Magrib, and recitations from the Koran.
After prayers, it is time for the big meal, often with friends and relatives. While the food doesn't completely replace the calories lost during the day, the meal is designed to make up for some of the lost nutrients.
Traditionally, the meal begins with appetizers like eggplant fried in a batter made from chickpea powder. This dish, known as pakora or vegetable fritter, can be made with virtually any vegetable, but potatoes, onions and eggplant are frequently used.
Masooda Anavi, who operates the cafeteria at the Islamic Society of Baltimore in Catonsville, makes pakora and many other dishes for the hundreds of people who come to the center to break fast each night during Ramadan.
Anavi learned her recipe for pakora in Pakistan from her grandparents. Her preparation yields something akin to the Southern hush puppy. "This is a very easy recipe," Anavi said. "If you have a guest and you want to serve them tea and coffee, you can make this in 10 minutes. It smells good, tastes good and it is fresh."
For dinner, a favorite Ramadan dish Anavi serves is biryani, a chicken-and-rice dish cooked with the spice mixture masala.
Arab dishes substitute lamb for chicken, and Egyptians tend to use pasta, not rice.
Many associate Islamic cuisine with lamb dishes. Indeed in Turkish cultures, the lamb kebab is a quite popular Ramadan dish.
Kazan restaurant in McLean, Va., for more than two decades has been serving Yogurtlu Kebab, a 700-year-old Turkish dish of lamb served over pita bread and a yogurt dressing. "This is very popular," manager Ayhan Uzun said. "They used to cook this for the sultans in Turkey."
Makes 4 to 6 servings
the parts of 1 whole chicken
1 medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons masala
2 cups plain yogurt
2 cups basmati rice
DRESSING (ON THE SIDE):
1 teaspoon cilantro
pinch of salt
1 cup plain yogurt
Rinse chicken and place in baking dish. Mix together the onion, garlic powder and masala into the yogurt. Spread mixture over the chicken. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
While chicken is baking, cook and drain the rice. When chicken has baked for 30 minutes, remove from oven and spread the rice over the chicken. Cover again and bake an additional 15 minutes.
Make dressing by mixing together the cilantro and salt with the plain yogurt in a bowl. Serve on the side.
Makes 6 servings
1 pound leg of lamb, cut into 1-inch chunks
about 2 cups olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 pita pockets
1 clove fresh chopped garlic
1 cup plain yogurt
Marinate lamb for a half-hour in the olive oil. Fry in skillet heated with a little olive oil. After 10 minutes, remove the lamb and throw away the olive oil. Return the lamb to the skillet, this time using the butter. Cook for an additional 12 minutes.
Slice the pita bread and fry it in a little olive oil in a separate pan for about 5 minutes.
To make the dressing, add the fresh garlic to the yogurt.
Serve by putting the pita bread on the plate and the yogurt dressing on top. Add the lamb last.
Erum Shaikh's Flavored Milk
Makes 4 servings
1 tablespoon of pistachios
1 tablespoon of pine nuts
4 cups whole milk
4 tablespoons of sugar
Grind the nuts until powdery and add to the milk. Add sugar and stir.
Makes 12 to 14 pakora balls
1 cup water
1 cup chickpea powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 green pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon cilantro, fresh or in a paste
Add water to chickpea powder. Add salt, ground pepper and green pepper, onion and cilantro. Mix ingredients and form batter into 2-inch balls and fry in olive oil in a skillet for about 5 minutes.