Ramadan is known to most non-Arabs as a month of fasting for Muslims. What is not so well known by these same people is that Ramadan is a month of fasting and feasting – every day. The fasting begins before sunrise; the feasting begins at sunset – every day for 30 days.
As with any holiday, religious or secular, Ramadan has special foods associated with it and the ladies in our neighborhood got together and made expanded-family-size amounts of sweets that might be the equivalent of making Christmas cookies in the West.
However, the real staple of Ramadan Ftor (break-fast) is a soup called Harira. Last year I found a recipe on Google and made a version of this soup for our Ftor Party that we had with our international group. We all thought it was delicious (and it was) but a comment from a Moroccan guest let us know that it was not his idea of what Harira should taste like. This year I found out why he had said that. The soup I made last year bore no resemblance to what I learned to make this year.
Last year’s soup was tomato based. This year, I learned that “real” Harira is made from a base of equal parts of cilantro, parsley and celery, all three herbs commonly sold year-round on every street corner. Harira does have some tomatoes and tomato paste in it but the predominant flavor is set by the three herbs. Along with spices, such as turmeric, cumin, pepper, cinnamon (and sometimes saffron) one adds a few lentils, a handful of rice, garbanzo beans and a little vermicelli. I learned this much from our friend Amina when we visited her in Tetouan in May. I began perfecting my Harira and freezing extra amounts just in case I did not feel up to cooking during Ramadan.
After three or four batches, I realized that something was missing – other people’s Harira looked thicker, creamier, silkier. How did they do that? Flour? Cornstarch? Beaten Eggs? One night I called in my friend Hannan and got across to her that I wanted to know how to make the Harira thick. She went right to work. Flour was the missing ingredient. She gave me a step by step lesson. Dang, I should have made a You Tube video! From then on, my Harira improved significantly.
When Ramadan began on June 18th, my freezer was nearly full of frozen quarts of Harira, B’sarra, Bean Soup and Potage, just waiting for a time when I didn’t feel like cooking. What I hadn’t factored into the equation was: The Great Soup Exchange!
As Tomas and I began to take our Ramadan gifts of dates, stuffed eggs and fig jam over to our neighbors’ houses and extend to them our Ramadan wishes, we began to receive back, literally, pots full of different versions of Harira, some with meat, some without, as well as bowls full and plates full of Ramadan sweets. As there were 10 of them and only two of us, there was much more than we could eat and the overflow went into the freezer. I began to see how a small minority of people actually gain weight during Ramadan.
About every three days – just as I was getting ready to heat one of my soups – our landlady, Fatima would magically appear at our door and hand us a cooking pot full to the brim with hot soup and often the home-baked bread to go with it. We began to eat soup at both meals (breakfast and break-fast) to keep up with the flow. I kept freezing the excess, resulting in my freezer being almost as fully stocked on Day 25 of Ramadan as it was before the holiday started. (See photo.)
I am NOT complaining, although the phrase “embarrassment of riches” sometimes comes to mind. This is the sharing quality of Ramadan, very similar to Christmas or Chanukah during which neighbors and friends exchange food and gifts.
The Great Soup Exchange has proved the adage that if you make sure your neighbors are fed, you will never go hungry. We could feed the world this way. Let’s consider it.