A date with Ramzan

Jul 21, 2013, 04:17 IST | Moeena Halim

Historians Sohail Hashmi and Mohsina Mukadam trace the cultural significance of food such as milk, dates and kheer during the month of Ramzan

Ramzan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims, ironically but inevitably gets us talking about the delectable goodies served up after the sun sets. In Mumbai, we associate the month with trips to Mohammed Ali Road, where we tuck in dripping-in-oil malpuas or kababs.

What is interesting though is that while many consider this a typical Muslim food, it might not stand true for those in Kolkata or Delhi. According to Delhi-based historian, writer and filmmaker Sohail Hashmi, it is difficult to categorise a certain cuisine as one belonging to Islamic culture.

“Food is primarily cultural and geographical. It has nothing to do with religion. There are traditional populations of Muslims going back to a thousand years or more in scores of countries all over the world. Beginning with Arabic-speaking areas, moving to the adjacent Persian-speaking regions, the Indian subcontinent (where Muslims speak so many different languages), and further east towards Indonesia, Malaysia and China, the cultural diversity of Muslims is as much as Christians. Just as there cannot be a fixed exactly same traditional meal for Christians, there isn’t one for Muslims,” he says.

Emphasising the importance of geography, he brings up the significance of milk for Indians observing the fast. “During Ramzan, milk stalls remain open late into the night in certain areas in Delhi because huge quantities of milk is consumed. It is considered to have cooling properties, and Indians prefer to have a lot of milk or yoghurt at both Sehri (before dawn) and Iftaari (after sunset). But this isn’t necessarily an Islamic practice. I can’t imagine that cattle are common in Arabia. The only milk they’d get is camel’s milk,” says Hashmi, adding, “Or take sevaiyan or sheer khurma as examples. This is a staple in the Indian subcontinent during Eid. But I would be surprised to see it served in Indonesia,” he adds.

Dr Mohsina Mukadam, noted food historian, points out that even the malpua has a lookalike Hindu cousin. “They are slightly smaller, and perhaps not all add in the egg synonymous with the malpuas served in Muslim neighbourhoods,” says the head of the department of History at
Ruia College.

However, religious belief plays a more significant role for the popular Phirni, a rice-based dessert akin to kheer. “While it is extremely popular among Muslims in Mumbai, especially during Ramzan, other Maharashtrians consider rice kheer to be inauspicious. The dish is only served on solemn occasions such as a shraadh. If it is served at other times, the rice is substituted with vermicelli,” observes Mukadam.

The only foods that can be safely categorised as Ramzan foods are dates and salt, believe both historians. “That is because dates have a ritualistic significance. It is mandatory to open your fast with a date, which contains large amounts of fructose which helps kickstart your digestive system,” concludes Mukadam.  

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