Many cultures have different traditions attached to Ramadan and these include certain dishes that are always served during this month, and Algeria is no exception. Chorba (soup), bourek (a kind of samosa) and salad are the basic requirements, along with a ‘jew-ez’ which is a stew type of dish, and ‘laham lahalou’ which translates into ‘sweet meat’ and consists of prunes, sultanas, apricots cooked in a syrup along with meat, although a lot of people nowadays dispense with the meat altogether. Then there is the ‘kalb el louz’ (heart of the almond) which is an almond based sponge like cake steeped in syrup, and ‘zalabia’ (Jalebi) which is flour based batter deep fried in rings and dripping in syrup.
We used to eat these Algerian dishes in England for our first Ramadan months together, but as time went on and the children grew, and most especially since we moved to Algeria and the lunar based month has fallen in the summer, our meals have become very different. We start off the month with the traditional dishes, but after a few days of chorba nobody wants to see the stuff again, the bourek usually lasts a bit longer before it, too, falls by the wayside to reappear again at the end of the month, and the ‘jew-ez’ is only occasionally served. I serve the ‘laham lahalou’ with prunes only as it helps with the digestion and only 4 of us like it anyway. We do buy in ‘kalb el louse’ and zalabia but only in small quantities throughout the month.
Instead we eat a bit of this and a bit of that – roast chicken, potato salad, roast potatoes, escalope fried in breadcrumbs with chips and salad, chicken pie in white sauce in pastry, or chicken in a curry sauce, cocas, fajita, pitta bread, lasagne (single layer), pasta, trifle, tiramisu, etc. etc. and whatever takes our fancy. There are some dishes that are too heavy after a long day of fasting and most especially when it’s very hot as it was this Ramadan and those of the last few years.
One would think that you could eat mountains after a long day of fasting but in reality it’s not possible, unless you like feeling bloated and sick. We have always broken the fast with milk or water and dates, and, for me, once I’ve broken my fast with milk and dates I lose what’s left of my appetite.
For a month of not eating there can often be a huge emphasis on cooking and food, which, of course, is not what Ramadan is all about. There is also a lot of tradition surrounding the month with some people having to eat certain dishes wherever they are. As an outsider not brought up in these traditions it can be easy to be dismissive about them, but living away from the country in which I was brought up I can understand why some people, especially those living abroad, insist on these dishes – it’s a taste of home and a reminder of happy childhood memories not that much different to those of us who grew up with Christmas and roast turkey dinners.
There is also the fact that, as mothers, we have the responsibility to enable our family of varying ages and needs to fast each day by providing them with the sustenance they need to keep going throughout the month, and so swopping recipes is a great way to do this. The hardest Ramadans for me were, by far, those when I had small children and I couldn’t just go and have a rest or nap when I needed one, because funnily enough, it’s not the hunger that defeats you but the sheer exhaustion. I am so fortunate now that I have older children and especially two daughters who have started their own tradition of sitting down just before Ramadan and writing out a rough menu for a couple of weeks, and then we divide up the jobs so that not one person is in the kitchen all day. Also, I think that my children will grow up with a very versatile approach to eating in Ramadan as we don’t stick to one or two dishes and there are no ‘have-to-have’s in our menu.