The festival of Eid al-Fitr (literally “the Celebration of the Breaking of the Fast”) marks the conclusion of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month where restraint and discipline must be practised. The rituals of Ramadan are a spiritual and a physical cleansing; the act of fasting cultivates the qualities of gratitude, generosity and empathy.
But Ramadan is equally synonymous with feasting. Iftar – the meal with which Muslims break their fast – is an occasion for eating rich foods and indulging in the naughtiness of deep-fried snacks after a day of restraint. In Bombay, Ramadan means brisk business for purveyors of delicacies like meat-stuffed samosas, pakoras and brightly-coloured coils of jalebi. At the end of each day families gather around the table, and once the sun sets they can at last break their fast, a ritual which draws them together and renews their bonds.
Finally, Eid al-Fitr is declared upon the sighting of the new moon; the occasion is welcomed with joy after a month of austerity. The morning begins with communal prayer at the local mosque. Families proudly don their specially-made new clothes; children compare their finery. Girls show off henna patterns on their hands and the pretty bangles chosen to match their clothes. Families give money or gifts known as Eidie to children. And of course, there is food. Lots and lots of food.
Every family has its own traditions and specialities, treasured recipes handed down through the generations. Preparations start days in advance, each dish prepared with love and care. The tables at Eid luncheons groan under the weight of sumptuous rice dishes, aromatic with whole spices and studded with meat, kormas whose gravies are rich with cream or yoghurt, nihari (slow-cooked lamb in a silky gravy), roasted meats, vegetables and lentil dishes.
These feasts last for hours; returning for seconds, thirds and fourths, every family member is helpless to resist the draw of their favourite dish. And after a month of fasting, the joys of feasting in daylight cannot be curbed. Finally, once the platters are picked clean, the meal is concluded with an array of rich desserts like slow-simmered kheer (rice pudding) and dhoodh seviyan (a milky pudding of vermicelli) with a scattering of blanched almonds, perhaps anointed with silver leaf.
Perhaps the most celebrated delicacy eaten at Eid is Haleem, a rich traditional dish of lamb, cracked wheat and lentils, cooked for many hours and pounded. The reverence in which Haleem is held brings the joy of Eid out of the home, into the community and beyond. It evolved from the Middle Eastern dish Harees, a thick savoury porridge; Harees became Haleem thanks to the influence of Aga Hussain Zabed, owner of the Madina Hotel in Hyderabad and a member of the same Irani community which founded the legendary cafés in Bombay. As the popularity of the Haleem grew, the Hyderabadi chefs most skilled at preparing it gained national reputations, and spread their speciality across the country. Today, it is famed across India for its rich flavour; the complex cooking process means it is usually enjoyed at feasts and celebrations – and especially at Eid.
I am always struck by the comforting unity of Eid customs – the gathering of family, the new clothes, the giving of gifts, the generosity of spirit and of course, the plentiful food. The devotion with which families prepare each Iftar feast, the care taken on each sumptuous dish for the Eid table, the extra jalebi sneaked onto the plate however much you protest that you’re full – these are all tangible expressions of love.
And at its heart, Eid truly is a celebration of love, and of togetherness. This Eid, as every other, I am looking forward to celebrating at home with my family and most beloved friends, and preparing a grand feast for them. Food is love. Both must be given freely.
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