I and millions of others have been counting down to this day, and finally it is here: from sunset this evening, it will be the first of Ramadan*. Whoop! I always get gasps from non-Muslims when they hear what it involves (no food or drink from pre-dawn until dusk, including water): how do you survive?, is a common question. I can understand the surprise: Ramadan has fallen in the summer months for the last few years, which means that in London, fasting days last on average around 17-18 hours. This means waking at around 2am to eat and drink, then pray and sleep, and ending the fast at around 9pm. This sounds like madness to one unaccustomed to it, but there is a deep camaraderie and awareness of community in knowing that you are not alone: when I spot another Muslim in the tube carriage, the chances are they will have also woken up, bleary-eyed, at 2am to eat whatever needs minimal cooking, glug lots of water, and try and get some sleep afterwards. It is also the one month of the year where my family and I will eat breakfast together without fail. I love the connection that this brings with people I know and love, and also the many I don’t know but also love, for we are on this adventure together.
This year, Ramadan is both a destination and a journey. What on earth does that mean? Well, it is a time of both spiritual and physical cleansing as you refrain from food, drink, uncharitable and mean-spirited behaviour, and in that respect I have been looking forward to it, even counting on it to make up for my many short comings over the past year. In terms of wellbeing, since New York I have been on pretty wobbly ground as my resolution to cleaning up my diet has been all but evaporated into the land of good resolutions never realised (right now, I am blaming it on the limiting connotations associated with the words ‘clean’ and ‘healthy’. I don’t want restriction, my inner child cries!). I have been planning for it over the last few weeks, and I have a strategy (more on this…).
With regards to the journey of Ramadan, it always is. Without fail, it always teaches me something new, brings to the fore an understanding of myself and humanity which I had not previously seen, and allows for more dedicated reflection on my relationship with God. It often brings me insights and lessons relevant for that point in my life, and I love that. However, I have learned that I have to be open to receiving those insights, and part of that for me is letting go of food for a month. The foodie in me gets a little panicked in the days immediately leading up to Ramadan: I have spent the past week fighting off FOMO, and wondering how many places I can eat out at before tonight. And then I feel guilty about why I’m thinking about food when I should be looking forward to this month of reflection and worship. And then I realise that one of the joys of Ramadan is hidden in exactly that conflict: giving up something that you love for a month so you can give thanks for having it at all. It’s the month where I can put my gourmandaise (the ever-ravenous part of me) to sleep. And invariably my mind always turns to those who don’t have this to look forward to, and to that I have a little Ramadan project that I will be undertaking…I will be posting on that later!
And although Ramadan is about self-restraint and not eating, there are traditional specialities that I really look forward to as a way of celebrating this month. Fried snacks like samosas and pakoras are really popular (I won’t be able to resist my mum’s samosas…), but all street food is perfect for the evening meal, because it’s light, relatively easy to make, and lots of fun to share and eat! This includes chane chaat (spicy chickpeas in yoghurt and chutney), fruit chaat (spiced fruit salad), dahi bhalley (my favourite! Fried daal dumplings soaked in a sweet/sour yoghurt sauce and smothered in chilli and imli chutney), falooda (a sweet dessert drink – a bit like bubble tea – made with rose flavoured milk, vermicelli strands, basil seeds and ice cream – legendary! And more…
So, it is an annual ritual for my family to discuss the best way to approach Ramadan: the Strategy. Some of the hot topics for discussion are:
- Do we eat a heavier meal in the morning, or in the evening? It would be unwise to do both within a 6 hour window, including sleep
- What do we eat for hydration, or to avoid dehydration?
- What kind of meals do we eat in the evening to avoid sleeping on an empty stomach?
- How do we time our evening so eat at a reasonable time, pray, do other things we need to do etc?
My personal strategy I’ve visualised is:
- Wake up 45 minutes before the fast starts, so I have plenty of time to drink water, make some food, take vitamins etc
- Eat oatmeal as my morning staple. Soak the steel cut oats the night before, and cook off in the morning. An alternative breakfast (misnamed for this month, it should be called ‘startfast’) suggested by my mum is yoghurt/labneh with cardamom seeds and roti (baked, unleavened flatbread – traditional Pakistani food) – apparently it keeps you hydrated
- Drink lots of water (not an issue, I’ve always done this)
- Be ready to eat evening meals straight after the sunset prayer, so before 10pm. This means preparing the meal before sunset. This will be salads, stir fries, fish, the occasional barbecue (the pizza oven will be arriving just in time…!)
- Go as ‘clean’ as I can to detox my system. This means minimal or no wheat, dairy and sugar
- No coffee
I really wanted to write ‘no ice cream’ here, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. So that’s the plan. And I’m going to be a lean, detoxed, rejuvenated, rebooted human being by the end of it.
What is probably going to happen is:
- We’ll wake up about 15 minutes before the fast starts, panic, and drink lots of water. If I’m lucky I might manage a smoothie.
- At fast breaking time (sunset), general confusion will ensue. It will take about an hour before we’re all collectively ready to eat, and then we’ll have a protracted discussion about what to have, because we won’t have prepared anything beforehand. We’ll sit down to eat at about 11pm
- Read the above paragraph on street food. That will replace/supplement my salad
- Because we’ve eaten so late, I might decide to stay up until the next fast starts, and while I’m awake…
- …I’ll eat ice cream. And maybe a chocolate. Or two. And write.
Whatever happens, it will be a unique experience that will bring me closer to my family, and connect me with many strangers who may be having the same discussions in their homes at the start of dawn and as the sun sets.
While the sun is out, I’m off to have my final daylight ice cream…
*Potted explanation of Ramadan: it’s is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, and, because it’s a lunar calendar, it moves forward by around 10 days every year (so it’s starting earlier this year than it did last year). Ramadan is more synecdochally known as the month of fasting, for all observing Muslims around the world will fast for the entire month from before dawn until dusk, refraining from food and drink (including water), as well as other ‘earthly pleasures’ such as smoking and sexual intercourse, and behavioural wrongs such as backbiting, lying (we should’t be doing that anyway, but think of this as a physical and spiritual reboot). It is also known as the month in which the Quran (the holy scripture for Muslims) was revealed, and is a very popular month for charitable giving and helping those less fortunate. It is one of the five pillars or fundamental faith practices of Islam, and is commanded by God in the Quran in several verses (such as 2:183-187).