There are about one and a quarter million Muslims in Israel, and most of them will observe the holy month of Ramadan, which this year begins on the evening of the 29th of July (Islam follows a lunar calendar, in which the months gradually move around the months of the Gregorian calendar). The fasting begins at sun up and lasts until sundown, when the evening’s feast begins. Israeli and Palestinian Muslim cuisine are similar to the cuisines of neighboring Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and to a lesser extent, Egypt, although it has its own distinctive dishes and variations on regional delicacies. For example, the hummous tends to have a stronger lemon flavor instead of the heavy tehina flavor that you find in Egyptian hummous.
Traditionally, the fast is broken by eating a couple of dates, for a quick burst of energy, followed by a cold drink, such as tamarind, which is soaked in water the night before, then strained, sweetened and mixed with rose water and some lemon juice; or Qamar El-Deen, which is made by soaking apricot leather in hot water, mixing it in a food processor or blender, and chilling it before serving.
Soups are served after the long day of fasting, and these help provide the necessary liquids to rehydrate the body. The most popular soups are those made with lentils, vegetables, or freekeh, which is cracked green wheat. Various salads, such as baba ganoush, Arab salad, and hummous are also served at the beginning of the meal.
During Ramadan, unlike the other months of the year, meat is consumed in relatively large quantities. Festive Palestinian chicken dishes such as Musakhan and Makloubeh are served as a main course. Date, walnut and pistachio-filled biscuits, such as Makroud and Mamoul, are served to close the meal and washed down with sweet mint tea.
Partly because I live next to three of the largest Arab towns in Israel, and partly because I lived and studied with Arabs from various countries and like their cuisine, I decided to borrow some of the culinary experience of Ramadan and make a couple of typical dishes at home.
For a starter, I made an Iraqi lentil and meatball soup, which is almost a meal in itself, especially when Ramadan falls in midsummer.
2 medium onions, minced
500g (1 pound) ground beef or lamb or both
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1 teaspoon salt plus salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon allspice
2 tablespoons olive oil
10 cups homemade chicken broth
1 pound brown or yellow lentils
55g (about 2 ounces) angel hair pasta
2 carrots, finely diced
Juice of half a lemon
Preheat an oven to 200C (400F), and line a baking pan with parchment paper. Place half of the onions and the ground meat, parsley, bread crumbs, salt, pepper and allspice in a medium-sized bowl. Mix the meat mixture thoroughly, and form into balls the size of walnuts. Place on the baking pan and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the meatballs from the pan and drain on a paper towel. Set aside.
Meanwhile, pick any stones from the lentils, place in bowl, cover with cold water, and drain.
In a large pot, sauté the remaining onions in olive oil over medium heat until golden. Add the chicken broth and bring to boil. Add the lentils and the carrots to the soup and simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes or until the lentils are almost tender.
Break the angel hair pasta into the soup and add the meatballs. Simmer slowly for another 5-10 minutes or until the lentils and noodles are cooked, adding more chicken broth or water as needed. Just before serving, squeeze some lemon juice into soup.
Mr BT and I wish all of our Muslim friends: Ramadan Kareem!
For more Ramadan recipe ideas, see: