x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

1,001 Arabian bites: Celebrating with the senses

Attitudes to food can be altered after a month of fasting, but, despite there being no traditional dishes for the holiday, eating and Eid go very well together.

After a month of family-style favourites, many Eid dishes are straight-forward, wholesome servings of meat and vegetables cooked in spices.
After a month of family-style favourites, many Eid dishes are straight-forward, wholesome servings of meat and vegetables cooked in spices.

As the month of Ramadan draws to a close, a flurry of last-minute arrangements surrounds Eid al-Fitr, the festivity of purification that signifies the official end of the fasting period. Today, after being placed on hold by my travel agent, I clicked through the staggering succession of open tabs on my web browser, revealing mostly food blogs. To the soulless soundtrack of periodic voice-overs, I idled over photographs of brilliant coral egg yolks erupting on to flaky, steaming buttermilk biscuits.

Ours is a culture of abundance; a species of abundance. Among the things that separate humans from other mammals is that we are able to revel in the ability to be playful all our lives. An even more basic tenet of culture is that it tends to flourish when all our basic needs are met. Most of the world's greatest works were not written and created by hungry and weary philosophers and artists, but by those who had the luxury and the privilege of plenty.

It's natural, during Ramadan's final push, to seek out some clarity - or some great food photography, at the very least - in an effort to distil the substantial and sometimes subliminal challenges of Ramadan into their essential components. At the moment, I'm a little hungry, so this process involves making a list of the meal rituals I miss the most while fasting: sloppy breakfasts, informal snacking, solitary meals, socialising while cooking for leisure, and the unceremonious construction of sandwiches. These things define my day and my diet during the other 11 months of the year.

What if fasting were viewed as an opportunity rather than obligation? Unlike other forms of fasting, Ramadan is all about form over content; it isn't an object-focused state of mind. Muslims tend to identify readily over spiritual constructs rather than spiritual fine print, and awareness can often feel like a race between mindfulness and ruminating, where the former is the good guy and the latter is the pathological one. But only with mindfulness can one be aware of one's environment so that gratitude may follow, and only with mindfulness can one assess and then simplify the habits that determine one's consumption. In the end, this has much less to do with adhering to the laws of Ramadan than it has to do with its meaning and message.

After a month of user-friendly family favourites served family-style, I don't long for challenging bistro fare and complicated trifles. Instead, I crave foods that are spare and wholesome; austere, spartan dishes like Padrón peppers sautéed with olive oil and sea salt, sliced tomatoes with balsamic vinegar, plain yogurt, bread toasted over an open flame and slices of melon, heavy and ripe. Sacrifices are generally not made for Eid al-Fitr celebrations, but lamb and goat are still a fixture on regional tabletops. Dates, which are eaten throughout the day, maintain special status in my arsenal of favoured ingredients; like many Emiratis, I eat them in one form or another every day and never seem to tire of them.

When I happen to have some leftover lamb lying about, I make a cheat's barbacoa. Barbacoa is a Mexican dish of lamb or goat steamed until tender, slow-cooked over an open fire, or covered with leaves and cooked in a pit dug in the ground. The best barbacoa features fork-tender shreds of rich, juicy meat. Though the lamb is traditionally stewed with onions, garlic, tomatoes, jalapeños, lime juice, herbs and Mexican spices, any richly flavoured shreds of yesterday's lamb or goat will do. For breakfast, I like to spoon the hunks of lamb onto corn tortillas to make tacos, and then garnish them with chopped coriander, slivered onions, pico de gallo or another piquant salsa, and either sour cream or crumbles of mild cheese. There really aren't any traditional Eid dishes, in part because the lunar calendar ensures that Eid will always fall earlier in the year by the Gregorian calendar; this prevents a seasonal association with Muslim holidays. Early on Eid morning, I'll pull out a box of dates and a few sticks of butter, then get to work baking my favourite dessert of all, a date-studded sticky toffee pudding, which I prefer to have as a morning snack or to cut into individual size portions for giving out to friends.

Ingredients 1 cup (115g) dark, sticky Emirati vacuum-sealed dates, preferably Khalas variety 1 cup (115g) plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 1/4 cups (300ml) boiling water 1/4 cup (30g) unsalted butter, softened 2/3 cup (85g) granulated sugar 1 large egg, lightly beaten Seeds of one fresh vanilla pod Vanilla ice cream (optional) Caramel Sauce 1 stick (115g) butter 1 cup (115g) packed light brown sugar 1 cup (240ml) heavy or whipping cream Hearty pinch of sea salt Method Remove pits from dates and chop them roughly into quarters. Place in a small bowl and add the boiling water and baking soda; set aside. Preheat oven to 175°C (350°F). Butter a 25cm (10in) round or square baking dish. Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl. Beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy; beat in egg and vanilla until fully incorporated. Now, gradually beat in the flour/baking powder. Fold the chopped dates into the mixture until blended, then pour into the prepared baking dish. Bake until pudding is set, which will take about 35 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. To make the caramel sauce: Heat stick of butter in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat until it is melted and beginning to brown and smell nutty. Whisk sugar into butter and stir occasionally into a rollicking, foaming boil, stirring constantly while the sugar mixture darkens over a couple of minutes and begins to pull away from the side of the pan. Once this happens (if it doesn't, give up after three minutes and soldier on), remove from heat, wait five minutes. Finally, whisk in the cream, add a good pinch of salt, and store in a glass or porcelain container. To serve: Preheat the grill. Spoon about half of the sauce over the baked pudding and spread evenly on top. Slip the baking dish under the grill for a minute or so. Serve in dessert bowls drizzled with caramel sauce and a generous helping of vanilla ice cream. Recipe adapted from Marie Simmons for the Food Network.