Jun 072016
 

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Today is the first full day of Ramadan in many parts of the world. The timing of events according to Islamic and Jewish calendars is always a bit tricky for me because this blog uses the Gregorian calendar as its baseline. Not only are Islamic and Jewish calendars lunar rather than solar, making them mesh badly with the Gregorian calendar, but the calculations of when days begin and end is also different. The Gregorian calendar uses midnight as the changeover point, but the Islamic and Jewish calendars use sunset (using several different definitions). Then there’s the question of whether certain times and dates for events are local or universal. You may recall, if you read the post, that Bahá’í’s, who use a calendar similar to the Islamic one, have fixed all their times and dates to local times in Tehran. This practice won’t work for the Islamic calendar because the faithful need to know prayer times in their local times, otherwise their whole daily routine would be thrown off. There is also the slightly arcane, but endless, debate as to whether times based on phases of the moon should be determined by astronomical charts and calculations, or by actual observations.

What this all comes down to is that I cannot exactly pinpoint for you when the Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins (and ends). Without going into a whole song and dance about it I can tell you that today is the first full day of Ramadan in northern Italy, where I currently live, hence the first day of a month of fasting. Although Ramadan began yesterday at sunset, fasting does not begin until sunrise today, and will go on for a full lunar cycle.

The Islamic calendar is fully lunar, unlike the Jewish calendar which is partly lunar and partly solar. Lunisolar calendars, such as the Jewish calendar add intercalary days every so often to make sure that they stay reasonably close to the Gregorian calendar, whereas the Islamic calendar does not. Over time, therefore, Ramadan falls at different times of the solar year, moving back in the Gregorian calendar about 10 or 11 days each year. This year (2016) is especially difficult because the faithful have to fast during daylight hours, and in the northern hemisphere this month sees the longest days of the year, including the solstice. Australian Muslims catch a break, on the other hand.  The closer you live to the equator, the less this is a problem from year to year, but the closer you live to the poles, the more it matters. In my neck of the woods Muslims must finish eating and drinking well before 5 am and cannot resume until somewhat after 9 pm.  I am not Muslim, so this is not of concern to me, but I have friends and relatives who are, and they have already anticipated a trying month.

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Ramadan ( رمضان) or Ramadhan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and the month in which the Quran was supposedly revealed to the Prophet. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The month is spent by Muslims fasting during the daylight hours from dawn to sunset. According to Islam, the Quran was sent down to the lowest heaven during this month, thus being prepared for gradual revelation by Jibreel (Gabriel) to the prophet Muhammad. Therefore, Muhammad told his followers that the gates of Heaven would be open for the entire month and the gates of Hell  would be closed. The first day of the next month, Shawwal, is spent in celebration and is observed as the “Festival of Breaking Fast” or Eid al-Fitr . More about that in one month (assuming that I am posting in early July, which is in doubt at this point).

Islamic fasting involves more than just abstaining from eating during daylight hours. Throughout the duration of the fast itself, devout Muslims abstain from certain actions that the Quran has otherwise allowed, including eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse.[Quran 2:187] This is in addition to the standard obligation, generally observed by Muslims, to avoid that which is not permissible under Quranic or shari’a law at any time (for example, ignorant and indecent speech, arguing and fighting, and lustful thoughts). Without observing these standard obligations, fasting (sawm) is rendered useless and is seen simply as an act of starvation and nothing more. Fasting should be a motive to be more than usually benevolent to one’s fellows. Charity to the poor and needy in this month is especially beneficial.

If one is sick, nursing or traveling, one is considered exempt from fasting. Any fasts broken or missed due to sickness, nursing or traveling must be made up as soon as the person is able, and certainly before the next month of Ramadan. According to the Quran, for all other cases, not fasting is only permitted when the act is potentially dangerous to one’s health – for example, for those who are  elderly, and women who are pregnant, or nursing. They are permitted to break the fast, but this breach must be made up later. However, the question of what those suffering a permanent disease should do has not been fully resolved. One view is that they can waive the obligation to fast if advised by a medical expert. In this case some hold that they can provide a poor person with a meal for each day of fasting waived. Nonetheless, such a delinquent person must be willing to fast when healthy if at all possible.

Some important historical events during Ramadan are generally believed to include:

1 Ramadan, birth of Sayyid Abdul-Qadir Gilani

2 Ramadan, the Torah (Tawrat) was bestowed on Moses (Musa)

10 Ramadan, death of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid – first wife of Muhammad

12 Ramadan, the Gospel (Injil) was bestowed on Jesus (Isa)

15 Ramadan, birth of Hasan ibn Ali

15 Ramadan, In the Ottoman Empire, the sultan presented trays of baklava to the Janissaries in a ceremonial procession called the Baklava Alayı

17 Ramadan, death of Aisha bint Abu Bakr – third wife of Muhammad

18 Ramadan, the Psalms (Zabur) were bestowed on David (Dawood)

19 Ramadan, Ali bin Abu Talib was struck on the head by a sword

20 Ramadan, the Conquest of Mecca by Muhammad

21 Ramadan, Ali bin Abu Talib died due to injuries he sustained by a sword

Laylat al-Qadr is observed during one of the last ten days of the month (on an odd night). Muslims believe that this night, which is also known as “The Night of Power,” is better than a thousand months. This is often interpreted to mean that praying throughout this night is rewarded equally with praying for a thousand months (just over 83 years i.e., a lifetime). Many Muslims spend the entire night in prayer. Sects differ as to the most appropriate night, the 23rd and 27th being the two most popular.

You can find any number of Ramadan recipes online. There are no special limitations on what one can eat beyond the regular prohibitions against eating certain foods such as pork, or drinking alcohol. But if you are not going to eat or drink at all during daylight hours it is as well to plan carefully the pre-dawn meal (suhur) and the sunset meal (iftar). Suhur must sustain you through the day, and iftar must not weigh you down before bed. In the evening, dates are usually the first food to break the fast; according to tradition, Muhammad broke his fast with three dates. Following that, Muslims generally adjourn for the Maghrib prayer, the fourth of the five daily prayers, after which the main meal is served. Sunni and Shia traditions vary on this point.

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Social gatherings, many times in a buffet style, are frequent at iftar. Traditional dishes are often highlighted, including traditional desserts, and particularly those made only during Ramadan. Water is usually the beverage of choice, but juice and milk are also often available, as are soft drinks and caffeinated beverages. In the Middle East, the iftar meal consists of water, juices, dates, salads and appetizers, one or more main dishes, and various kinds of desserts. Usually, the dessert is the most important part of iftar. Typical main dishes are lamb stewed with wheat berries, lamb kebabs with grilled vegetables, or roast chicken served with chickpea-studded rice pilaf. A rich dessert, such as luqaimat, baklava, or kunafeh (a buttery, syrup-sweetened kadaifi noodle pastry filled with cheese), concludes the meal.

Baklava is good to serve because of its long association with Ramadan. It is not difficult to make, although I’ve usually bought it from pastry shops because they often make it as well, or better, than I can make at home. It is normally prepared in large pans. Many layers of phyllo dough, separated with melted butter and vegetable oil, are laid in the pan. A layer of chopped nuts—typically walnuts or pistachios, but hazelnuts are also sometimes used—is placed on top, then more layers of phyllo. Most recipes have multiple layers of phyllo and nuts, though some have only top and bottom pastry.

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Before baking (180 °C, 30 minutes), the dough is cut into regular pieces, often parallelograms (lozenge-shaped), triangles, diamonds or rectangles. After baking, a syrup, which may include honey, rosewater, or orange flower water is poured over the cooked baklava and allowed to soak in.

Baklava is usually served at room temperature, often garnished with ground nuts.

In Turkey, baklava is traditionally made by filling between the layers of dough with pistachios, walnuts, almonds (parts of the Aegean Region) or a special preparation called “kaymak” (not to be confused with kaymak). In the Black Sea Region hazelnuts are commonly used as a filling for baklava. The city of Gaziantep in southeast Turkey is famous for its pistachio baklava and it regards itself as the native city for this dish, though it only appears to have been introduced to Gaziantep from Damascus in 1871. In 2008, the Turkish patent office registered a geographical indication for Antep Baklava, and in 2013, Antep Baklavası or Gaziantep Baklavası was registered as a Protected Geographical Indication by the European Commission. In many parts of Turkey, baklava is often topped with kaymak or, in the summer, ice cream (milk cream flavor, called “kaymaklı dondurma”).

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In Armenia, paklava is made with cinnamon and cloves.

In Iran, a drier version of baklava is cooked and presented in smaller diamond-shaped cuts flavored with rose water. The cities of Yazd and Qazvin are famous for their baklava, which is widely distributed in Iran. Persian baklava uses a combination of chopped almonds and pistachios spiced with cardamom and a rose water-scented syrup and is lighter than other Middle Eastern versions. Azerbaijani pakhlava (made with walnuts or almonds) is widely eaten in Iran, especially in Iranian Azerbaijan.

In Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestine, baklava is prepared from phyllo dough sheets, butter, walnuts and sugar syrup. It is cut into lozenge pieces.

Here is one of hundreds of recipes. Normally you buy the phyllo dough frozen. Choice of nuts, flavorings, etc. is entirely up to you. I’ve given a few choices.

Baklava

Ingredients

For the baklava

1 lb walnuts, almonds, or pistachios, coarsely ground, plus more for garnish
½ tsp ground cinnamon, or to taste
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 lb unsalted butter, melted
16 sheets phyllo dough (thawed), cut in half

For the syrup

3 cups sugar
8 oz honey
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice or rosewater

Instructions

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350° F.

Combine the nuts, cinnamon, and breadcrumbs in a bowl.

Brush a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with some of the butter. Layer 10 pieces of phyllo in the dish, brushing each piece with butter before adding the next (keep the remaining dough covered with a damp towel).

Sprinkle a quarter of the nut mixture over the dough. Layer 4 pieces of phyllo on top, brushing each with butter before adding the next; sprinkle with another quarter of the nut mixture. Add 4 more phyllo pieces on top, brushing each with butter, then add another quarter of the nut mixture, 4 more pieces of phyllo with butter, and the remaining nuts.

Layer the remaining 10 pieces of phyllo on top of the nuts, brushing each with butter; brush the top piece with extra butter. Cut into the baklava to make strips, about 1 ½ inches wide. Then make diagonal slices, about 1 ½ inches apart, to create a diamond pattern.

Bake until golden, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Bring the sugar, honey, and 1 ½ cups of water to a full boil in a saucepan over medium heat and cook, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the lemon juice or rosewater and boil 2 more minutes. Then let the syrup cool slightly.

Pour the syrup over the warm baklava. Let the syrup soak in, uncovered, at least 6 hours or overnight.

Garnish with extra nuts.

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