Sunday, 22 August 2010

Iftar - the breaking of the Fast

During my recent short trip to Morocco I remember bitterly regretting not having organised a meal in an 'ordinary' family home (not that it's an easy task, but the world of couchsurfing stretching far). We were travelling during Ramadan; when the gruelling test of no eating or drinking (or sex..) is rewarded by the mini-feast of Iftat in the evening. Iftar happens just after the sunset, surrounded by your family, very much akin to our Christmas, and lasts good couple of hours. This is unless you are a single man and then you go to a nearby cafe. I was yearning to experience Iftour in a 'proper' home setting.

Harrira, dates and preserved lemons - a traditional Iftar.
Photo thanks to

It was not until the very last evening, in the small mountain town of Azrou, that I realised that to experience Iftar we did not have to search for an idealic family environment. Finding a simple caf, packed with local Moroccans who for various reasons did not have home to go to, was a great way to see the ritual - and participate in it.

The preparation for the evening meal starts at about 3-4 o'clock in the afternoon when (mainly) women go out shopping for food at numerous markets. Single men go out to buy some ready-made provisions for their solitary evening meals at the market stalls. You can almost touch the anticipation in the air, it increases and speeds up as time approaches the long-awaited break-fast. The atmosphere thickens with people's hunger and smells of cooking.

Counting minutes before Iftour, the meal breaking the fast.

At around 6pm the air turns still, as if in anticipation for a storm. People's bloods starts to run slower, hearts slow down, everyone's eyes are on their watch. The prayer normally takes place about an hour or so before the Iftar, and so you see men leaving the mosques with solemn eyes, perhaps contemplating their spirituality, perhaps their rumbling stomachs. Those dining outside their homes - young unmarried men, businessmen in-between cities, some widowed women - find a place to eat long before the fast is broken. Putting together your meal in such public surroundings is as much of a ritual as making a 3 course meal at home, even if it only means shelling your egg, sprinkling cumin on it, or stirring hot harissa into your soup. You can almost count seconds by the flow of blood pressure running through your ears...

And then it happens, a loud whisper floats through and above the punters in the cafe - you can eat.

The humble Iftar offering: a boiled egg, dates and Chbakiyya.

The traditional Iftar meal almost always consists of Harirra, a thick soup of chickpeas, tomatoes, sometimes lamb and vermicelli. Guidebooks all claim that accompanying the soup with dates is authentic, perhaps, but I have not seen anyone eating their soup with dates. A splash of green olive oil, a chunk of flat bread is all the bowl of very hot soup needs.

Most people actually start off by a drink - a yoghurt drink sold in recycled plastic bottles by women from villages. Or just a can of coke. Then goes a hard-boiled egg, seasoned with cumin. Then the soup. The meal is finished by a glass of very sweet mint tea (which is made with black or green tea leaves by the way, not just hot water and herb) and Chbakiyya, a 'tressed' pastry - a coil of flaky pastry soaked in sugar syrup.

Finishing off the feast: mint tea and Chbakiyya.

..We started our break-fast together with the others in the cafe, but finished it later than others, enjoying the rare sense of feeling part of the proceedings, this quiet, almost sneaky sharing of the tradition that we would not normally be privy. Infiltration of a different kind.

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