Thursday, November 20, 2003
On November 25, the world''s more than one billion Muslims will celebrate Eid al-Fitr, one of Islam''s most cherished holidays.
Eid al-Fitr literally means "Festival of the Breaking of the Fast" because it signals the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan. Ramadan should conclude this year on Nov. 24, depending on when the full moon is sighted. Local weather conditions, such as cloudiness or fog, can postpone that sighting, which can lead to Eid al-Fitr being celebrated on slightly different days from region to region.
Nadia Wasfy, a native of Egypt now living in Monterey, explains that one must have an understanding of Ramadan to appreciate Eid al-Fitr. Ramadan commemorates Mohammad''s receiving of the Koran, the Islamic holy book. Observing Ramadan is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, along with proclaiming that there is no God but God, and that Mohammed is his prophet; praying five times a day; giving alms to the poor; and making the haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
During Ramadan no food or drink is taken between sunrise and sunset. Wasfy says that children, pregnant women, and the elderly or ill are exempted from fasting. Able-bodied adults who cannot observe the fast usually give money to the poor in lieu of abstaining from food.
In Egypt, Wasfy tells me, Muslims observing Ramadan rise around 3:30am so they can eat before sun-up. Breakfast can be fried meat with rice, but the typical dish is ful, Egypt''s national dish. This is like a hot, pureed hummus made with fava beans, olive oil, lemon juice, and cumin. According to Wasfy, people like to eat this during Ramadan because it fills the stomach and digests slowly. This is especially important when Ramadan takes place during the long days of summer.
At nightfall in Wasfy''s childhood home, family members would break the daily fast by drinking orange juice or eating chicken broth with pasta. Then there would be a meal of chicken or meat dishes (but no pork, which is proscribed by Islamic dietary law) and vegetables like green beans, okra, peas and potato slices stewed in tomato sauce seasoned only with salt and pepper. Another favorite dish was soup made with the Egyptian green called melokhia, which resembles spinach, but gives a glutinous texture to the stew.
When I ask Wasfy if Egyptians prepare a big meal to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, she says that a month of fasting shrinks the stomach, so celebrations tend to revolve around cookies and tea. Everyone receives new clothes and children receive money from their relatives. After a light breakfast, family members go to pray at the mosque wearing their new clothes. After the sermon, everyone wishes one another "Eid-Mubarak" or "a blessed Eid."
In Egypt, a family usually gathers at the home of a grandmother, or an eldest brother or sister. Plates of holiday cookies and tea appear. Everyone drinks black tea with mint or milk, the latter a legacy of the British colonial presence in Egypt.
The French legacy in the country manifests itself in the name of Wasfy''s favorite cookies--petits fours, which in Egypt are butter cookies topped off with fruits or chocolate. Batons sales, another French contribution to Egyptian cuisine, means "salty sticks," and that''s what these are in miniature form. Wasfy also likes to make very light confections called "Marie biscuits" for her Eid al-Fitr goodie trays.
The Eid cookies par excellence according to Wasfy are Ma''Amoul, translated as "stuffed tartlets" in Claudia Roden''s A Book of Middle Eastern Food. Technique is everything in preparing these decorative cookies. They are basic round butter cookies with uniform dents made around the edges by a fork. Sugary, stewed dates top them off, making them look like Brown-Eyed Susans.
Wasfy says it is customary to take plates of the cookies to friends'' homes to share the festival joy. Although alms are given during Ramadan, Wasfy disagrees with those who say that fasting during that month is a way to make Muslims remember the sufferings of the poor. Since the poor are also expected to fast, she argues that Ramadan is a way for all Muslims to become more spiritual. Personally she says she finds Eid ul-Fitr joyful, because she has done her spiritual duties during Ramadan: exercising self-control by observing the fast, and practicing spiritual introspection through prayer and reading the Koran.
Now that she lives in the United States, Wasfy''s job requires that she work during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, but she still observes the holiday by calling her relatives, making cookies, and then sharing the cookies with her co-workers.
Cookies transcend all cultural boundaries, it seems; I may just open Claudia Roden''s cookbook and whip up a batch of Ma''Amoul.