posting ramadan 2013: cooking in diaspora // art blog dubai

an important tenet of ramadan is the fast. this activity is heralded by the fastee's ascension out of bed before sunrise and onto the dinner table for the meal that will sustain them throughout the day.[1] the time frame for this activity, the sehri, in the midwest, is usually before 4a.m. eastern standard time. after this meal, the fastee performs ablutions i.e., wadhu, followed by prayer. the fast lasts till sundown and is culminated by its break, the iftaar. in this activity, participants of the fast come together at a meal. one can choose to complete their fast at the mosque, at home or at work, therefore, the location, number of individuals and relationship to the participants can vary. those involved are usually family or fellow members of the mosque, but such is not always the case, depending on where the fast has been completed, one can be alone too. growing up relatively isolated in the midwest, created a more secularized space of celebrating ramadan. it also allowed me more solace and reflective time to cognize about the activity of fasting. although there has been more south asian immigration to the northwest suburbs of chicago, in my upbringing there was a lack of the community’s presence. my parents were not involved in the community due to their status as new immigrants. when we came to america, they struggled to make ends meet. this had ramifications on the way in which i participated in culture. for individuals who want to participate in culture, extended community and/or family provide a point of access and such is the case for most in living in diaspora. my family, in such a geopolitical displacement, gives me access to engage in the cultural activity of ramadan. an experience i would not be admitted into without them.

the participation in the act of the fast, to me, is a privilege – this includes the food. in the realm of its cuisine, pakistani iftaari food cooked by my father allows me to participate in a larger cultural production, to be present within ramadan. especially, for ramadan, he makes dahee baray chaat (figure 1: yogurt dish with plain basin pakora [fried dough] garnished with tomato, onions, garam/hot masala and imlee/tamarind chutney on the side) and dahee bhallay (figure 2: yogurt dish with plain basin pakora[fried dough] garnished with garam/hot masala and imlee/tamarind chutney on the side.)

figure 1
figure 2

he also makes ganjee (figure 3: when translated from urdu to english, it has two different meanings, one being someone with a bald head, the second [pictured here] is a stew of lentils, shrimps [meat optional] and whatever else one has "lying around".) my grandparents are originally from chennai/madras, south india and in their household; ganjee was a traditional food made specifically for ramadan. ganjee can be compared to a south asian version of the american "gumbo".[2] finally, bondays, traditionally made with mashed potato balls dipped in besan/gram flour and deep fried. pictured here (figure 4) are bondays with [my father’s own variation] spicy fish, potato with keema/minced meat and coconut & okra stuffing with imlee/tamarind and pudeenah/mint leaves chutney.

figure 3
figure 4

for dinnertime during ramadan he makes all my favorites, haleem (figure 1: spicy chicken, split chick peas and lentils garnished with a spritz of lemon juice, dried, fried onions, coriander, thinly sliced garlic, green chili and my personal addition, garam/hot masala) and nihari (figure 2: spicy beef stew topped with garlic, coriander and lemon juice.)

figure 5
figure 6

as you can ascertain by figure 5 and 6, i am a big connoisseur of spicy food, not only for its flavor but also for its memories. this food makes me feel closer to a culture that i have been displaced from. no matter where one is geographically located, food has the power to make someone feel as though they are part of a culture. i can consume a little bit of pakistan between america’s apple pies and french fries.

recipes are passed down, from one generation to the next adding on to established memories with new ones. to my father, the memories of these dishes are of his mother, who encouraged his interest in culinary arts and taught him how to cook. whenever he makes besan vegetable pakoras he always mentions that he was never able to master a besan/gram flour roti recipe. it is one that “he always tries to perfect but can’t get it to taste like hers.”

there is no true authentic ramadan experience, like proust’s memories attached to madeline cookies, we all have memories attached to a particular moment in a specific location that makes us long for that experience. for myself, the celebration of ramadan is not complete without my father’s cooking. the consumption of food makes this occasion momentous and allows me to link to a history and culture, though removed, i am still a participant of.

ramadan kareem, ramadan mubarak,

best wishes from chicago.

[1] fastee is someone who fasts, can also be called faster.

[2] from merriam webster, gumbo is “a soup thickened with okra pods or filé and containing meat or seafoods and usually vegetables.” <merriam-webster. "gumbo about our definitions: all forms of a word (noun, verb, etc.) are now displayed on one page." merriam-webster. merriam-webster, n.d. web. 22 july 2013.>”

published in art dubai blog.