A traditional Uzbek Eid al-Fitr meal at Begim Uzbek Cuisine. Photograph by Jared Sych.

It may come as a surprise to non-Muslims that the holy month of Ramadan, when many Muslims spend daylight hours fasting, is one of our city’s biggest celebrations of food. It seems counter-intuitive, but the 29 or 30 days of fasting are a particularly food-focused time of the year within Islamic communities. Those who observe the fast — which shifts back by a little over a week every year in accordance with the Islamic calendar and falls on May 15 to June 14 this year — need to abstain from any eating, drinking, sex, smoking and even gum-chewing while the sun is shining. But once it gets dark, Calgary’s Muslim homes, Islamic centres and halal restaurants are full of family and friends sharing special meals and revelling in each other’s company. The holy month may be about self-control and regulation, but Ramadan is far from being a joyless (or non-delicious) affair. 
—By Elizabeth Chorney-Booth

 




 Ramadan Basics 

 

photograph by jared sych

Beef behari kabob and mango lassi from Zaika Biryani House.

 

Albert Elkadri, chairman of the Muslim Council of Calgary, estimates that about 80 per cent of Muslims in Calgary fast during Ramadan. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam — along with faith, prayer, charity and pilgrimage — but those who are less strictly religious or exempt from the fast because of age or health reasons may choose to opt out. 

“This is the month when Muslims take a step back from the daily grind and put more focus into the five pillars of the religion,” says local media personality Shiva Jahanshah who produced a short documentary about Ramadan in Calgary called Journey of Faith. “The purpose of it is to bring more perspective to what’s going on around the world and people who are suffering — what it’s like to be thirsty, what it’s like to be hungry. It’s very difficult to do and it’s kind of an hourly and [minute by minute] reminder of your faith.”

While going without food during daylight hours may not seem like it would be that difficult (who hasn’t skipped lunch before?), the real challenge for many Muslims seems to be giving up water for the whole day — especially when Ramadan falls in the summer months or for those with particularly demanding jobs, such as being the mayor of Calgary. 

“When, over the last few years, Ramadan coincided with the Stampede, I could easily have 20 to 25 public events in a typical day,” says Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who personally observes the fast. “For me, the hard part of that is standing outside doing a lot of speeches and wearing cowboy boots, and it wasn’t the not eating, it was not being able to drink water. That can be very challenging.”

 

 Breaking the Fast 

 

photograph by jared sych

Tabouli salad from Desert Pita & Grill.

 

After sunset, those observing the fast say a prayer and begin nourishing and hydrating themselves. Traditionally, fasts are broken with an odd number of fresh dates and some milk or water and then fasters indulge in what is known as iftar — the main meal of the Ramadan day, often enjoyed with family, friends or neighbours. Observers also rise early to hydrate and have a light and less-celebratory breakfast called suhoor before the sun rises in the morning. 

Since Muslim Calgarians come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and culinary traditions, there is no universal iftar dish that would be equivalent to a Christmas turkey or a Passover brisket. Also, since the observant need to get through 29 or 30 days of iftar dinners, every individual is going to celebrate in different ways throughout the month.

“As the world shrinks, people become more familiar with one another and there is more of an understanding of other cultures and religions,” says Yousef Traya, owner of the Bridgeland Market, who has been fasting during Ramadan since he was six or seven years old. “You’ve got everyone from people from the Middle East to punk-rock white kids who have converted [to Islam] observing Ramadan, so Muslims have global tastes. I grew up Lebanese, but I like to eat different things during Ramadan.”

Depending on one’s constitution, eating a huge amount of rich food during Ramadan isn’t necessarily a great idea. Despite being hungry at the end of the day, experienced fasters know that overindulging can result in stomach issues, especially in the first few days, or debilitating thirstiness the next day. 

“I like to eat bread and light foods like soup,” says Elkadri, who, in addition to his role at the Muslim Council of Canada, owns and operates the Desert Pita & Grill. “If you eat too much meat or rice you can get really thirsty. So usually, I’ll have some yogurt or salad. If you eat something salty, you’re going to be thirsty all day. Dates are traditional, but they also kill your thirst and curb your appetite and have a lot of fibre in them.”

That said, much more elaborate iftar dinners do go on throughout the city. Neighbours walk dishes representing the best from their kitchen (cooked with only their noses to guide them, as there’s no tasting allowed for diligent home cooks who spend the day preparing food) to the homes of other Muslims on their block. Families gather around traditional or simple meals, Islamic centres host meals and restaurants offer special meals and buffets timed to serve customers who come in to break their fasts. Desserts, like fruity Indonesian kolak, Middle Eastern stuffed pancakes known as qatayef and kunafa, a sweet combination of shredded phyllo pastry and cheese, are also, typically, a key part of a formal iftar dinner. 

“Desserts are very popular during Ramadan,” Elkadri says. “After fasting all day, you need a reward. The desserts we do are very appealing and very different than what you’ll find other times of the year.”

 

 

 The Final Feast 

 

photograph by jared sych

The pita pies at Village Pita Bakery are a favourite of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

 

After a full month of iftar dinners that so often include family and friends, by the time Eid al-Fitr, the celebratory feast that marks the end of Ramadan comes, many Muslims are ready to go back to their regular routines. Those who have spent the month dining on traditional Persian, Lebanese, East African or South Asian dishes with family are often ready to take a break from falafel or chapati and indulge in a more typically Western meal. Elkadri says that the line-ups at chain restaurants like Red Lobster, the Olive Garden and Swiss Chalet in Calgary neighbourhoods with significant Muslim populations often go out the door. Traya remembers a similar tradition from when he was a kid.

“All families have their traditions. My father used to take us to Phil’s Pancake House after prayers when Ramadan was over,” Traya says. “Now, I like to travel after I’m done fasting. I’ll go and enjoy some really good meals somewhere else.”

For others, Eid eating is steeped in tradition. Fareen Jadavji-Jessa, a local food blogger, doesn’t observe the fast herself, but her family does and they have long celebrated with a dinner centred around biryani (a mixed-rice dish) with other special-occasion treats like homemade samosas and, for dessert, sweet and sticky deep-fried jalebi. “We go for prayers and we always have a family dinner biryani and we always have jalebi,” she says. “It’s a celebration dish — so when people have babies or even if their kids start walking we celebrate with jalebi.”

While Mayor Nenshi admits that, thanks to his busy schedule, his iftar dinners tend to entail grabbing something quick on the way home from work, he does have an Eid tradition that he shares with his colleagues in the mayor’s office. “I love to go to a little place called the Village Pita Bakery in Short Pants Plaza in the southeast,” he says. “They have the best pita pies. I make sure on Eid I go there and get pita pies for the whole office.”

 

photograph by jared sych

Khoresht sampler from Atlas Specialty Supermarket & Persian Cuisine.

 

 Ramadan If You're Not Muslim 

 

Not Muslim, or Muslim-but-not-fasting? While Ramadan certainly is a sacred time of the year for your Muslim neighbours, co-workers and friends, there’s no reason to tiptoe around them while they’re fasting (though practicing courtesy and not flaunting the take-out you brought in for lunch is a good idea). Non-Muslims can participate in iftar dinners,  which must be served after sunset and can not include any pork, alcohol or other forbidden foods. 

“A lot of our non-Muslim customers will be hosting people for Ramadan and they’ll say, ‘Hey, can you help me out here? I’ve never done this before’,” Traya says. “They’ve invited their work colleagues over for dinner and don’t know what to make, and don’t know what they should or shouldn’t do, and we’ll help them out in those situations. You just have to be respectful. If you don’t know, ask.”

Charity is another pillar of Islam and those who can’t or choose not to fast may instead donate money to pay for meals at a local mosque or Islamic centre or to a food-based charity. The Calgary Food Bank participates in a nation-wide initiative called Give 30, which encourages supporters of all faiths to donate money during Ramadan. Since 2013, the Food Bank has raised over $17,000 through Give 30, in addition to other Ramadan donations not connected to that particular campaign. 

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 Where to Eat During Ramadan 

 

Atlas Specialty Supermarket & Persian Cuisine

Specializing in Persian dishes such as rich khoresht stews, kabob wraps and fresh salads, Atlas is a busy spot during Ramadan, offering light soups to help observers gently break their fasts in addition to its regular menu. 

100, 1000 9 Ave. S.W., 403-230-0990, atlascalgary.com

 

Begim Uzbek Cuisine

Calgary’s only Uzbek restaurant, Begim serves halal dishes such as a rice pilaf called plov, beef-stuffed peppers and chak-chak, a fried-dough dessert, which is an Eid favourite. 

4413 17 Ave. S.E., 587-353-4413

 

The Casbah Restaurant 

Another busy choice for family iftar dinners, this Moroccan restaurant offers a finer-dining take on halal cuisine with savoury bastella pastries and tagine stews.  

720 11 Ave. S.W., 403-265-9800, casbahrestaurant.ca

 

The Desert Pita & Grill

Run by Albert Elkadri, chairman of the Muslim Council of Calgary, this friendly café serves shawarma, falafel and mezze, with a special sunset buffet and complimentary dates for Ramadan. 

3912 17 Ave. S.E., 403-248-6688, desertpita17.com

 

Five Rivers Indian Cuisine 

This northeast restaurant serves Punjabi-style Indian food as well as North American-style pizza. Vegetarian menu items are prepared and cooked in a separate area with specially designated knives, utensils, pots and pans and cooking oil.  

11 Castleridge Blvd. N.E., 403-258-1111, fiveriversindiancuisine.ca

 

Indonesian Kitchen

Drawing from Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern and European cuisines, Indonesian food employs flavours of hot peppers, coconut, lemongrass and turmeric. Visit the adjacent market to create an Indonesian iftar dinner at home.  

3917 17 Ave. S.E., 403-272-7234, indonesiankitchen.org

 

Zaika Biryani House

Biryani is an iftar and Eid standard and Zaika serves up several varieties along with halal curries and fresh naan. During Ramadan, the restaurant adds several extra items to its already popular buffet. 

3220 5 Ave. N.E., 403-457-2525, zaikabiryanihouse.com  

 

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 Food Markets for Ramadan 

 

Bridgeland Market

This welcoming community grocery store attracts people of all religious and cultural backgrounds, including those who observe Ramadan. Since owner Yousef Traya fasts himself, the market is a good place to find fresh dates and other iftar-worthy items. 

1104 1 Ave. N.E., 403-269-2381, bridgelandmarket.com

 

Calgary Produce Market

With a vast selection of halal meats and other ingredients used in Indian and Pakistani cooking, this store also features a take-out counter in the back serving up curries, biryani and desserts. 

4774 Westwinds Dr. N.E., 511, 403-275-2414, calgaryproduce.ca

 

Green Cedar’s Food Mart

An International Avenue mainstay, this neighbourhood grocer caters to a number of cultural backgrounds with imported spices, tea and other foodstuffs from the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa, as well as an array of halal meats and other deli items.

4710 17 Ave. S.E., 403-235-9983

 

Jimmy’s A&A 

Both a shawarma shop and a small market, the Jimmy’s location in the northwest is open until 10 p.m. (8 p.m. on Sundays), making it perfect for those looking for quick iftar takeout. The shop also sells Middle Eastern spices and ingredients like rosewater. 

1401 20 Ave. N.W., 403-289-1400, jimmysaanda.com

 

Nile Supermarket

Specializing in items of interest to Calgary’s East African community, the Nile Supermarket is also home to a bakery and café, serving up Somali specialties like hearty stews and malawah, a sweet pancake. 

4002 17 Ave. S.E., 403-244-1909

 

Village Pita Bakery

This Mediterranean bakery has been around for 48 years. It sells made-to-order pitas and desserts and has a market with imported pantry items. It's also where Mayor Naheed Nenshi goes on Eid to get pits pies for his office.

255 28 St. S.E., 403-272-0330

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This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Avenue Calgary. Subscribe here.