My family’s relocation from Alaska to Morocco last year should have had me eagerly anticipating my first Ramadhan in a land of the Muslims. However, some technicalities like fasting while exclusively nursing a new baby, while being away from hubby – my constant fasting companion of twelve years – in the parching heat of a foreign country, with family members I didn’t know very well, were not encouraging me to get the holiday giddies. As was planned, my husband and eldest son returned to the States for work leaving me newly expatriated with our four younger homeschooled kids and not knowing what to expect for Ramadhan in Morocco.
“It will be easy. We make it simple,” insisted my sister-in-law, Khadija.
Not that I thought she was lying, but one cook’s idea of simple suppers is another cook’s nightmare of gastronomical endeavours. “We’ll have soup and pancakes,” she said. Now I really didn’t believe her. However, she was not kidding.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the center of our pre-dawn meal
was a burger and milk shake! I had seen heavy meat-based dishes
at countless lavish iftars but at suhoor? However, it certainly made
sense. Meat moves slowly through the digestive system ensuring
gradual release of energy throughout the day. Burgers may not
sound appetizing at four in the morning, but in prior years while
pregnant or nursing during Ramadhan, I had boosted my protein
intake with turkey sandwiches at suhoor. Therfore, for me, turkey
burgers were an easy enough adaption. I was happy to find
avocados on the side. However, those went in the shake! Similar to
using bananas in milkshakes, but with triple the potassium, avocados
also have more good fat than olive oil. Sweetened with a little sugar
avocado milkshakes are creamy, delicious, satisfying, and a common
treat in Morocco.
I learned that burgers may not be on every suhoor table in Morocco,
but another power-packed specialty called sellou likely is. Roasted
almonds, sesame and unbleached flour ground with sugar, spices
such as cinnamon and anise, and loosely bonded with smen
(clarified butter) makes sellou dense in calories, protein and good
fats – just like nutritional bars I had eaten in past Ramadhans. My kids
likened it to “granola” and naturally stirred it into their yogurt whereas
the local people prefer to drizzle honey over its crumbly texture. Our
family’s suhoor is balanced just right to satisfy and nourish us while
keeping shopping, planning and cooking to a minimum.
I sheepishly admit that while I was maintaining some kind of a quasiguest status, Khadija did nearly all of the cooking. She served soup
every night, alternating between harira, a Moroccan minestrone-like
soup, and askeef, a traditional Berber hot grain cereal served salty
with olive oil. Also just as Khadija had warned, we did have pancakes
every night. Again alternating nights between behrir – Moroccan
yeasted pancakes, and US traditional style, but never once was there
a drizzle of maple-flavoured syrup. Think of the pancake as the fresh
flipped bread, like crepe, tortilla, injera or roti. Khadijah’s pancakes
were served with spreads and toppings to appease both the sweet
and savoury tooth: spreadable cheeses, bananas, chocolate, fresh
fruit compote, jelly, natural peanut or almond butter, and melted
butter mixed with honey.
Normally my in-laws have rejuvenating juices with their iftar, but
because of the high sugar content versus low nutritional value of
juice I preferred to dilute it with water, especially bubbly, or used it
in smoothies. We agreeably switched to the latter – every iftar I made
smoothies or panaché, made from an abundance of local fresh fruits.
A few nights, I cheated by bringing home yummy looking things
from the bakery. In hindsight, the additions were truly a waste, both
of money and food. My in-laws’ rigidly simplistic and unfaltering
Ramadhan menu is so vastly different from the years of both
spontaneous and fastidiously planned feasting my family had
partaken in, both privately and amid Muslim communities in the
United States. However, there is an abundance of wisdom in the diet
based on decades of fasting experience and genuine nutritional
needs. When one’s niyah is to fast all day and complete the entire
recitation of the Qur’an during the nights, it is smart to eat like an
athlete training for a thirty-day marathon.
There are plans for two new traditions this Ramadhan. I will be doing
half the cooking, and instead of pancakes we will likely be making
bread puddings and frittatas since they can be slipped into the
oven and left behind in the hot kitchen while we go read Qur’an or
distract some little kids who keep demanding to know when we will
Brooke Benoit is an American artist and educator currently living in
Morocco. In the midst of other adventures, she is also experimenting
with new materials in the kitchen, such as slaoui, warqa and raib. She
has chronicled her expat experiences in The Hijrah Diaries for SISTERS Magazine.
This article originally appearred in the August 2011 issue of SISTERS Magazine–The magazine for fabulous Muslim women! And as planned, I am cooking this year and have added fritatas, bread puddings (croissant, raisins, bananas and chocolate!) and a Morning Glory cake to the iftar table on my nights.