The Ramadan food Utica's Muslim community prepares – Utica Observer Dispatch

Soukaina Saboula and her family have finished grocery shopping and are preparing for Ramadan, the month of fasting and reflection for Muslims worldwide.
Beginning Saturday, April 2, families such as Saboula’s will fast from dawn until dusk for 30 days. While the celebration is a time for fasting and reflection, it also is about family and food — halal, or Islam-approved food, of course.
Utica’s Muslim community includes people from Burma, Palestine, Bosnia, Somalia and Yemen. While all of them fast during Ramadan, they celebrate it differently and put different foods on their tables. 
During the month of Ramadan, Saboula’s family will get up around 3 a.m. and start preparing the suhoor, the meal before fasting. Before sunrise, they normally eat dates and oatmeal with honey and olive oil. A prayer follows the meal, and people either go back to bed or prepare for work or school, she said.
Families break their fast at sunset with a meal, or iftar, with light foods such as dates and water or with m’smen, a traditional flat bread with honey and olive oil. Afterward, people pray and then have a bigger meal such as chakchouka, a dish with tomatoes, peppers and onions cooked with eggs on top, Saboula said. People also have tea and chebakia, a fried pastry made of dough strips coated with honey and syrup.
Haneen Alsaad, a Palestinian refugee born in Iraq, hasn’t visited her family’s home country due to war conflict. However, she makes traditional Palestinian dishes to remember her heritage, especially during Ramadan. One of those foods is maklouba, which consists of meat, rice and fried vegetables. The name translates to « upside-down » in Arabic because the pot is flipped upside down.
Alsaad’s family also prepares addas soup or lentil soup, combined with hummus, beef, chicken and biryani. For dessert, people will have qatayef, which resembles a folded pancake stuffed with walnuts, cheese and custard.
Part of Amsal Memić’s work as imam of the Bosnian Islamic Mosque is to organize Ramadan weekend community dinners with its more than 400 members. It always is a special time, Memić said, with families visiting each other and preparing food for their community. The biggest celebration is Eid-al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan.
Burek, or Bosnian or Turkish pie with cheese, meat and potatoes, is one of the popular dishes at the mosque’s dinners. Another dish is ćevapi, minced meat, usually sausage, which is grilled inside bread. 
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Memić said some members also prepare halva, similar to fudge, made with sweet butter, walnuts and sugar mixed together. It is a sweet dish that some Bosnians make for special occasions, he said.
« It’s like a guest coming to visit me, » Memić said. « We paint our house, we clean the house and the mosque as if we’re expecting a special guest because we know how special that month is and the rewards for any good deeds are. We are all excited for the coming of Ramadan. »
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has more than 130 different ethnic groups, one of which is the Rakhine people from the Rakhine State on the western coast, where Utica resident Mya Kyaw is from.
While a majority of Rakhine people are buddhists, some practice Islam, like Kyaw. The region was part of British India and has a strong Indian influence on Rakhine cuisine, religion and culture. Haleem, a stew with meat, peas, cilantro and lemon is one of those Indian-inspired dishes adapted to Burma, Kyaw said. It is popular during Ramadan because it takes time to prepare and contains a lot of nutrients, which are needed when fasting, she said. 
« The first week (of Ramadan) is always difficult because, you know, the first week you aren’t used to it yet, » Kyaw said. « You’re praying and you hear your stomach growl so it’s kind of willpower between your stomach and your will to keep fasting. »
Ramadan is « always a good time » because the family gets together, said Ahbir Nagir, a Utica resident from Yemen.
Nagir and her family typically break fast with small appetizers such as sambosa dipped in a Yemeni sauce called hawq, made with spicy peppers, tomatoes or cilantro. Afterward, people will pray and then will return to have a bigger meal usually vegetable soup, followed by roasted chicken and rice. For dessert, Yemeni families have satot, a mix of bread, scrambled eggs and milk with honey that have an oatmeal texture, Nagir said.
When fasting from dawn to dusk, praying, and not swearing, Muslims believe they will cleanse their spirits, said Tom Facchine, imam of the Utica Masjid of the Muslim Community Association of Mohawk Valley. 
« The whole essence of Ramadan is to not only cleanse yourself but also to feel how the poor feel and what they go through, » Nagi said. « Because seeing is believing. »
This year will be the first Ramadan in two years that will have community gatherings, prayers and dinners at the mosque, Facchine said. Eating together helps people be mindful of others, he added.
« Ramadan is like the best team-building exercise, » Facchine said. « It seems crazy, but when you go through it and you know that other people are going through it too, it’s like you’re in it together, team-building through adversity. »
Maria M. Silva covers food, drink and culture in the Mohawk Valley for the Observer-Dispatch. Email her at [email protected].

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