10 things to know about Ramadan

From suhoor and iftar to feasting at Eid, food journalist Mars Elkins-El Brogy shares what you need to know about fasting and mealtimes during the month of Ramadan.

Bowl of dates with Arabian lantern and jug on wooden table

Observed by millions of Muslims worldwide, Ramadan is an interesting mix of austerity and celebration. For those who are observing it, it’s nil by mouth from when the sun rises, so it’s very important to eat and drink wisely to avoid dehydration and maintain energy levels throughout the day.

Ramadan: 10 things to know   

1. Fasting happens during daylight hours

Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar and begins with hilal, which is the Arabic word for crescent or “new moon”. This happens in the ninth month of each lunar year. But because the lunar cycle steadily moves backwards, Ramadan falls earlier and earlier each year – moving back 11 days each time. 

Bowl of tabbouleh topped with salmon

So during the summer months, days are hotter, making fasting more difficult. With daylight being longer, it means fasting for around 17 hours for people living in Europe – even more in places like Greenland and Sweden. This is why salads are a popular side dish when fast is broken, as they contain fruits and vegetables with high water content to help replenish all the water that’s lost while fasting during the day. Think something like tabbouleh that has refreshing cucumber and tomatoes as its main ingredients.

2. There are two main meals eaten during Ramadan

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. During this month, two main meals are eaten, daily. They are called suhoor (served pre-dawn) and iftar (served at sunset). Suhoor should be a hearty meal to provide the energy throughout a day of fasting. It ends when the sun rises and fajr or morning prayer begins. Some choose to sleep rather than prepare food and eat during suhoor.

Bowl of muesli topped with berries and yoghurt

However, having a list of quick and easy-to-make dishes for suhoor is useful, such as homemade muesli oats with dates and berries or Egyptian egg salad – this salad contains slow-burning superfood fava beans, also known as ‘foul’, which are rich in fibre and protein. Other protein-rich ingredients such as almonds, chickpeas and cheese also feature on the standard suhoor menu.

3. Dates are traditionally the first thing eaten at iftar

Bowl of dates

In adherence to how the Islamic prophet Muhammad broke his fast, a handful of dates followed by a glass of water are consumed before Maghrib (evening prayer) and the main meal. Soaking dates in milk overnight is a Middle Eastern iftar favourite. Some would eat dates followed by fruit or yogurt, which helps to kick-start the body’s metabolism after a day’s worth of fasting. 

4. Hunger-busting drinks are a big thing during Ramadan

These beverages are not only cooling, they also contain a lot of fibres, protein and antioxidants. In the Middle East, there is jallab (a sweet drink made from dates, rosewater and carob, usually served with pine nuts and raisins) and khoshaf (another sweet treat made of boiled dried fruits like apricots, plums, figs, dates and raisins and flavoured with rosewater). Malaysia and Singapore have millennial-pink bandung, which is a rosewater-flavoured milky drink.

Some ingredients may be difficult to get, so why not incorporate smoothies as part of suhoor or iftar? They’re equally refreshing, rehydrating and full of natural sugars, vitamins and minerals.

Red berry smoothie in a glass

5. Fasting during Ramadan is a must, but there are ‘loopholes’ 

On top of keeping thoughts pure, Muslims are required to abstain from eating, drinking and refraining from extra pleasures such as cigarettes and chewing gum from sunrise to sunset each day. However, there are some instances in which a fast can be broken. According to the Quran, those who are unwell and/or taking medication, elderly, travelling, pregnant or breastfeeding, as well as children under the age of puberty, can forgo fasting – especially if it will negatively impact their health. A fast can also be broken if a woman is on her period. In all these cases, those who broke their fast can make up for the missed days of fasting.

6. Despite the daily fasting, Ramadan is actually notorious for being a month of weight gain

The fasting and low activity levels during the day often give way to binge eating at night, which can result in slower metabolic cycles that may cause the body to store fat instead of burning it. Not only that, iftar meals are quite heavy and traditionally high in carbohydrates. So in order to maintain a healthy weight throughout the month, Muslims are encouraged to drink plenty of water, eat a diet full of fruits, veg and protein, and really try to wake up every morning for suhoor.

Lettuce, egg and tomato salad with beans and tahini dressing

7. Check local laws if you’re travelling during Ramadan

Although it’s not mentioned in the Quran, there are Islamic countries that have made it illegal for anyone – regardless of their belief – to eat, drink, smoke and even chew gum in public during daylight during Ramadan, to support Muslims who are fasting. Those seen as breaking the code can be penalised, either through a hefty fine or imprisonment.

These days, efforts are being made to accommodate people who are not fasting, and some establishments have closed-off sections where non-fasting people can eat and drink discreetly. However, it's best to check the laws in each country about their approach towards Ramadan if you’re going on holiday during what Muslims regard as a holy month. Also, most restaurants in Islamic countries will be closed during the day and will only start operating after sunset.

8. Iftar traditions vary in different countries

In some places, people keep it small and simple, and some will host iftar at an elder’s home like a grandparent or uncle. In other countries, such as the UAE, iftar is a feast with several courses. Dishes include traditional soups such as lentil, cream-based vermicelli and roasted tomato soup.

Sliced baklava on a wooden board with a glass of water

Other quintessential Ramadan dishes include various baked proteins (cooked tagine-style), as well as stuffed vine leaves, roast meat and kebabs. Desserts during Ramadan tend to be pastries soaked in honey syrup, such as baklava and kataifi (a similar treat to baklava made with shredded filo pastry).

9. Ramadan is known as the month of giving

During this time especially, Muslims will engage in charitable acts such as donating food and money to those in need. It is an almsgiving known as zakat, which is one of the five pillars of Islam along with fasting.

10. Eid marks the end of Ramadan

Lamb, squash and apricot tagine in a large pot with couscous on side

Eid al-Fitr, which means ‘feast of breaking the fast’, is a three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. This begins when the new moon is sighted, and Muslims rely on news of an official sighting of the new moon rather than looking at the sky themselves. This also means that Eid dates differ around the world, although they are a day or two away from each other. It’s a massive event in the Islamic calendar – think Christmas and Easter Sunday combined.

Muslims celebrate with families and friends, and large meals are prepared. In some households, the women of the house gather in their kitchens to make special sugar-coated cookies, known as Eid cookies or kahk, which are served during breakfast.

Are you observing Ramadan this year? Let us know if we’ve missed anything in the comments…

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