It is such a beautiful scene to behold! The old and the young, rich and the poor sharing their ‘Ifthar’ (breaking the fast at dusk) meal at the mosque and praying together shoulder to shoulder in rows. It brings tears to your eyes. The mosques get over crowded in the holy month of Ramadan when muslims all over the world observe the fasts for the whole month from dawn to dusk. It is the most joyful time of the year when families and friends gather to share their Ifthar meals and pray together at the mosque. A long day of fasting makes us realize what hunger is and we learn to appreciate the value of food and avoid wastage, hoping to practice it for the entire year. It also helps us understand the sufferings of the poor and the needy, and there’s lot of giving and sharing and practising of charity as much as possible. Observing fasting in Ramadan also means going through a process of self restraint, self discipline and self control, saying goodbye to our bad habits including overeating. It is a complete cleansing of our body, mind and soul provided we put our heart into it and follow it properly. Those who observe fasting in Ramadan in its true spirit get a feeling of inner peace and tranquility and a sense of overall well being.
We break the fasts with dates and water as per the prophetic tradition and after a short prayer, Ifthar meals are consumed. Special care is taken to prepare healthy, nutritious and easily digestible meals for Ifthar in Ramadan. Every country and culture follow their own food tradition in the month of Ramadan and there are particular foods served only for Ifthar in Ramadan which are not prepared at any other time of the year. I still remember the “Harira” my mom used to serve all of us for every single Ifthar in Ramadan. It is a nutritious, soothing and cooling sweet drink made with almond and millet flour sweetened with honey or sugar. A sip of this Harira with dates after a long day of fasting in summer is so refreshing, it awakens your senses and makes you feel energetic. Another traditional food for Ifthar not just prepared by my mom but also the whole community at large is the ‘Ganji’. It is prepared in every household in Chennai and in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in India. It is a wholesome porridge made with rice, lentils, meat, spices, fresh mint and cilantro. All the ingredients are stewed together in a pot and in the final stage it is garnished with grated coconut and chopped cilantro, then the tempering is added to impart a lovely flavour to it.
It is interesting to know the tradition behind the Ganji. It first started as a community affair when people contributed meat, rice, lentils, fresh mint, coriander and spices to the mosques in Ramadan and it was all cooked together in a big pot for long hours. The result was a delicious, wholesome and nutritious gruel which was served for Ifthar. It was an easy to prepare, healthy, nutritious, light on the stomach and easily digestible delectable meal for those fasting. Every body enjoyed it so much that it was followed as a custom in every Ramadan. What started as a custom on a regular basis, became a tradition in the years to come.
Ganji is prepared in almost every home in Chennai even to this day, but only in Ramadan. I still have memories of running to the restaurant an hour before Ifthar to get the piping hot lentil vadas to eat them with the ganji my mom made at home. The restaurant would always be crowded with people waiting for the vadas to come out of the frying pans. While waiting I would watch the vada maker combining chopped onions, cilantro and green chillies in the coarsely ground lentils and shaping the vadas into smooth rounds and then dropping them in a huge cauldron of hot oil. It was interesting to watch him mix, shape and fry the vadas so quickly and serve everyone waiting in a line.
Ganji has many variations. Though it is the same ingredients and same technique of cooking, everyone makes it differently by giving their own personal touch to it. In Ramadan, as it is a custom to share our ifthar meals with our neighbours, we used to relish and enjoy our neighbours’Ganji as much as we did our mom’s and they did the same.
Here in Canada, after a long day of fasting in summer, it is hard to eat anything for ‘Suhoor'(early breakfast before dawn in Ramadan) after a fulfilling and satisfying Ifthar meal. But eating ‘Suhoor’ is following the Sunnah of our Prophet who said, “Have Suhoor even if it is a gulp of water and best meal for Suhoor is dates. Eat Suhoor for in Suhoor there is a blessing”.
Ramadan is a month of blessings, seeking forgiveness and mercy from Allah, giving charity, bonding with families and friends and doing good deeds. It is not all about food, but a whole month of thankfulness to the Almighty for the food He has provided us. Every fasting soul recites a little prayer at the time of breaking the fast before the food touches his lips every single day of Ramadan:”O Allah! I fasted for You and I believe in You [and I put my trust in You] and I break my fast with Your sustenance.”