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12 international iftar dishes to try this Ramadan

This Ramadan, break your fast with flavourful dishes from around the world, from South Asian snacks to sumptuous Levantine desserts.

By Natasha Amar
Published 9 Apr 2021, 17:14 BST
In Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and the Gulf, a favourite iftar dessert is qatayef, a ...

In Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and the Gulf, a favourite iftar dessert is qatayef, a crescent-shaped filled pastry.

Photograph by Getty Images

During Ramadan — a month of prayer, abstinence, self-reflection and benevolence, which this year starts on 12 April — Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, foregoing food and drink, including water, until the call to maghrib prayers at sundown. The daily fast is then broken with a meal called iftar, traditionally starting with dates and water. The dining that follows the prayers is a time to connect with one’s family, community and culture over cuisine that, in some households, is painstakingly slow-cooked, charcoal-grilled and baked to perfection using closely guarded family recipes. From hearty Moroccan soups and wholesome Bedouin-style stews to sugary Indonesian snacks, here are some of the world’s tastiest iftar dishes from around the world to try this Ramadan.

Read more: Understanding Ramadan's history and traditions

Iftar is a time to connect with one’s family, community and culture over home-coooked cuisine, sometimes using closely guarded family recipes.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Middle East: shorbat adas 

For many Muslims in the UAE, Jordan and Lebanon, iftar begins with a comforting bowl of steaming shorbat adas, or lentil soup, served with pitta crisps. Cooked with red lentils and spiced with turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, parsley and lemon (the exact combination depends on where you are in the Middle East), protein-rich shorbat adas quickly replenishes fasting stomachs. For added nutrition, cook carrots, onions and potatoes along with the lentils before blending the soup. 

2. Morocco: harira

Typically served with dates, this hearty soup takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘silky’. In Morocco, harira offers the goodness of lentils, chickpeas, meat and vermicelli in a rich, robust tomato soup that usually starts simmering in kitchens in the late afternoon. Its creamy consistency comes from tedouira, a thickening mixture of flour and water that’s added while stirring the soup. Every family prepares the dish differently, with some opting for rice over broken vermicelli, or beef over lamb; the balance of herbs and spices — cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, cumin, coriander, parsley, celery and ginger — varies too. Each spoonful packs a punch, making chebakia, a honeyed sesame cookie, the perfect accompaniment.

3. India and Pakistan: shami kebab

On Ramadan evenings in India and Pakistan, the air fills with the enticing aroma of succulent, cardamom-spiced shami kebabs, as locals gather around busy street stalls watching this meaty snack being prepared. The origins of these melt-in-the-mouth mutton patties are believed to lie in the Indian city of Lucknow, where they’re thought to first have been prepared for a toothless, gluttonous nawab (one of the area’s 18th- and 19th-century rulers). The lamb or beef, cooked with chana dal or Bengal gram, is ground and seasoned with garlic, ginger, cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves, cumin, mint, coriander and green chillies. Dipped in egg, the patties are shallow-fried until crispy on the outside and almost falling apart inside. They’re served with mint-coriander chutney, ketchup and onion rings.  

Read more: The Indian city of Lucknow, whose streets are alive with smoke and flame

Across the Middle East, iftar is a truly grand affair when there’s baklava for dessert.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. UAE: harees 

Emirati families seek nourishment in harees, an ancient and calorific porridge-like dish of lamb or chicken and cracked wheat, which you’ll also find in other Gulf countries’ cuisines. Wheat is soaked overnight before being seasoned and slow-cooked with bone-in meat for four or more hours. Then, the meat is deboned, shredded and stirred back in with the wheat. Traditionally, it would’ve been pounded with a large wooden spoon to create a distinctly glutinous consistency, but in many modern kitchens a food processor is used, considerably reducing both time and effort. To finish, the dish is topped with ghee and fried onions. 

5. Saudi Arabia: thareed

A Saudi Arabian iftar is almost certain to include thareed, a rich, filling, full-bodied stew of lamb and vegetables. Said by some to be one of the Prophet Muhammad’s favourite dishes, thareed holds great cultural significance in the region. To prepare the dish, lamb is cooked for over an hour, then added to potatoes, carrots and courgette and simmered in a tomato, onion and garlic paste, along with stock. Seasoned with turmeric, dried limes, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, red chilli and pepper, the stew is served on layers of drenched regag (a thin flatbread).  

6. South Asia: samosa

A favourite across South Asia, samosas are typically filled with either mashed potato or minced meat and spiced with cumin, coriander and garam masala. While the potato version is enjoyed year-round everywhere, from the streets of Mumbai to the markets of Lahore, the keema (minced lamb) samosa — served with mint-coriander chutney and tangy-sweet tamarind chutney — is especially popular during Ramadan. Believed to have Persian origins, this versatile snack can either be fried or baked and lends itself to additional flavours and fillings such as feta, spinach or minced beef. Regional variations include the somsa of Central Asia and the sambousek of the Middle East.  

Read more: Anjum Anand’s tips for making the perfect samosa

The souks of Fez, Morocco. Here, iftar is welcomed over harira, a hearty soup whose name comes from the Arabic word for ‘silky’.

Photograph by Getty Images

7. Jordan: mansaf

With its Bedouin origins, mansaf is Jordan’s beloved national dish, without which festivities and social gatherings are incomplete. Tender, slow-cooked lamb is given a unique tangy flavour thanks to the use of jameed (balls of dried fermented yogurt), which are added to the stew in which the meat is cooked for several hours. The lamb and its sauce are typically served atop turmeric rice, with thin shrak bread underneath, and a garnish of pine nuts, almonds and parsley. While mansaf is traditionally served on a communal platter and eaten with one’s right hand, cutlery is also acceptable.

8. Turkey: Ramazan pidesi

As sundown approaches, locals line up at neighbourhood bakeries to take home freshly baked Ramazan pidesi, a round, leavened bread, whose smell fills the streets during the holy month. In Turkey, the fast is broken with this soft, warm bread served with olives, cheeses, butter and pastirma beef. Milk is added to the dough to make it soft, and when it’s risen, it’s glazed with a yoghurt-egg mixture and shaped by hand into round loaves. After a diamond pattern has been created on the surface, the loaves are topped with nigella and sesame seeds, and baked. To keep the bread soft, a tray of water is kept in the oven while preheating.

9. Nigeria: moi moi

This savoury, fluffy pudding made from pureed beans and packed with a protein-rich ingredient such as eggs, beef, fish or prawns is a favoured meal for iftar, from Lagos to Abuja. To make moi moi, peeled black-eyed peas or honey beans (which have a subtle sweetness) are seasoned and blended with Romano peppers, scotch bonnets, onions and water, before being combined with the cooked protein. The batter is poured into banana leaves, plastic containers or sealed ramekins and steamed in a large pot of water until it sets into a cake-like texture. 

Typically served with dates, Moroccan harira offers the goodness of lentils, chickpeas, meat and vermicelli in a rich, robust tomato soup that usually starts simmering in kitchens in the late afternoon.

Photograph by Getty Images

10. Levant: qatayef

Across Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and the Gulf, a favourite iftar dessert is qatayef, a crescent-shaped filled pastry. It starts out as a semolina pancake that’s cooked on just one side; it’s typically stuffed with cheese, such as akkawi or nabulsi, and crushed pistachios, hazelnuts, almonds or walnuts. It’s then folded in half, sealed, deep-fried and drizzled with sugar syrup. In other versions, the cooked pancakes are filled with clotted cream.  

11. Middle East: kunafa  

Across the Middle East, iftar is a truly grand affair when there’s kunafa for dessert. Hidden within the crispy, orange-gold crust of this pie is a soft, gooey interior of stretchy melted cheese. There are different ways of preparing — with national and even regional variations calling for either semolina dough, shredded filo pastry, or a combination of the two. Mixed with sugar syrup, water and ghee, the dough or pastry is layered with cheese — usually local, unsalted varieties — and baked until the crust turns golden. It’s finished off with a sprinkling of rosewater or orange blossom syrup, plus crushed pistachios and clotted cream.

12. Indonesia: kolak pisang

In Indonesia, the evening begins on a sweet note with kolak, a cooked combination of palm or coconut sugar, coconut milk, pandan leaves and fruit. Served warm or cold, the dish can include as many different fruits as you like, and quickly restores energy after a day of fasting. When sliced bananas are boiled together with the milk and sugar, the dish is known as kolak pisang. Sweet potatoes, cassava, jackfruit and sugar palm fruits can also be added.

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 17-18 July 2021 at London’s Business Design Centre. Find out more and book your tickets.

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