x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Savour all you want at iftar, but try to clear your plate

Iftars are tasty affairs, but as the holy month comes to a close it's worth remembering that Ramadan should never be a time where both waist and waste increases.

Families, extended families and friends gathered to break fast. Despite the restaurant being full to over capacity there was no animosity, no snarling, and no berating of table staff. A genuine, if rather ineffable, sense of community hung in the air. Fasting had not only reawakened people's gastronomic appreciation, but at some level it had also heightened their appreciation of our shared humanity.

There is an Afghan proverb that goes something like: "the cure for tooth ache is to set fire to the house". The idea being, big problems distract us from relatively trivial issues, thereby affecting a cure. In some subtle way I think fasting achieves the same end. It's harder to be overly upset about trivial slights or dissatisfied with ones' lot in life when you're weak from hunger and thirst.

Once the fast is broken, for some people there is also the gift of spontaneous savouring. Psychologists define savouring as the conscious intentional act of focusing our full attention on the pleasurable qualities of an experience.

Generally the act of savouring will amplify and prolong pleasurable experiences, also rendering them more memorable. This makes savouring an important psychotherapeutic concept, especially since anhedonia (a diminished ability to experience pleasure) is one of the two defining symptoms for major depressive disorder.

Ramadan, iftar dinner in particular, affords a routine opportunity to practice savouring skills, especially the savouring of little things generally taken for granted, like water. Imagine getting the same buzz from a tall cool glass of H2O as you might derive from a brand new BMW X6.

Sometimes, though, too much savouring can be a bad thing.

Along with being affordable our iftar restaurant was also a buffet specialist - all-year-round they operate an all-you-can-eat-buffet. This place is so specialised they've totally dispensed with menus, a la carte is not an option.

But the idea of an all-you-can-eat-buffet does have its disadvantages. For one it seems to encourage over consumption, even gluttony. For some people the all-you-can-eat prefix is taken as a statement of challenge. Plates are heaped and re-heaped with gravity-defying mounds of meat, as well-fleshed diners stress-test their stomachs.

Perhaps as we become increasingly health conscious the concept of an all-you-can-eat-buffet will seem as alien as a smoking section on a plane, or in a hospital ward. Maybe the all-you-can-eat concept will give way to a futuristic all-you-should-eat buffet. This buffet might use body scanners to perform anthropometric calculations and then warn diners as they approached their caloric quota.

Eating disorders aside, the real issue for me at my Ramadan iftar was not how much food people ate, but rather how much food people wasted. One table of six diners left behind enough food to comfortably feed a party of 20. This was sadly not the exception, but rather the rule.

We stayed long enough to watch staff clear up, and any illusions we harboured about the leftovers being used to some good end were shattered as we watched huge quantities of perfectly good food unceremoniously binned. It was hard not to juxtapose these images with those of the famished presently suffering in the Horn of Africa.

We began discussing ways in which we might be able to reduce the wastage associated with what we were now terming the all-you-can-waste-buffet. One suggestion was to add a clearance tax, payable only if the table in question was littered with uneaten food. Then there was the carrot-approach, offering a clean-plate discount, 10 per cent off for diners with clean plates.

Neither is likely to work but there is no denying less waste ultimately translates into a better bottom line for the eatery, not to mention a small contribution to environmental sustainability. Ramadan, and fasting in general are beneficial on so many levels it seems a shame that there can be such a rapid degeneration into wasteful excess so soon after breaking the fast.

There is a well-known and often repeated verse from the Quran pertaining to dining: "Eat and drink but waste not by excess". It's wisdom worth remembering as the holy month comes to a close.

Ramadan should never be a time where both waist and waste increase.


Justin Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology at Zayed University