Festive spirit

A Sri Lankan Eid: A time for family, friends and food

The Lankan Eid table is a confluence of the historical and cultural elements that have influenced the island's palate.

Every year unfailingly during Ramadan, I remember an incident which occurred a few years ago in Delhi. It was my first Ramadan away from family and the comforts of home and the experience of a new country and fasting alone brought with it a heavy sense of solitude.

Suhur, the meal eaten in the morning to fortify yourself before a full day’s fast, was often leftovers from dinner or a bowl of Maggi. By the time classes at university were over and the sun set, I was too tired to have anything other than dates and water to break fast. Sometimes, few of us would meet to break fast together – but this was peak summer, our class schedule was a heavy one laden with assignments and these meetings were rare.

I was running errands with a friend one evening when the sun began to set and the time to break fast edged closer as we wearily sought a place to eat. We settled at a table in a café nearby, awaiting the call of the azaan when the owner approached us and inquired if either of us were observing the fast. Upon hearing that that we were, he insisted that we break fast with his family. Our protests were waved aside, the menu plucked from our hands and we were ushered into an inner room where his family and relatives sat.

Picture a table with white ceramic bowls of apples, grapes, pineapple, dates and oranges. Plates of pakoras and samosas, jugs of fresh juice and a few Middle Eastern dishes completed the table of treats. Now, picture the astonished gratitude of tired, homesick students who observed an otherwise austere Ramadan.

A warm welcome

The family was warm and welcomed us into their fold unhesitatingly. This generosity of strangers was overwhelming and left a lump in my throat. Years later and now back home in Sri Lanka, this incident remains etched on my mind. It’s a perennial reminder of one of my favourite aspects of the month of Ramadan – the sharing, camaraderie and generosity that the season brings along with the deepening of spirituality. It sounds trite but it’s true – there are few things more beautiful than moments of shared humanity.

There are two festivals observed by Muslims annually. One is Eid-ul-Alha in the month of Haj and the other, Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. The month of Ramadan is observed according to the lunar calendar and Muslims around the world begin to fast, refraining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. A month for spiritual stock taking, Muslims are expected to engage in self-reflection, give to charity and develop their faith. Ramadan is especially important because it is considered one of the central pillars of Islamic faith.

For a month where food is meant to be an afterthought, there’s a curiously relentless commercial emphasis on food around Colombo with all-you-can eat iftaar buffets and numerous meal deals, which are perhaps antithetical to the core tenets of the month, diminishing its significance. The crux of the month is its emphasis on the renewal of spirituality. The denial of desire, food and water is expected to cleanse both body and mind and foster self-control – perhaps this why fasting is a common thread across many cultures and religions.

Ramadan contains special significance for Muslims as it is believed to be the month in which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet. Thus, praying during the month carries added weight and at night, people congregate for taraweeh nightly prayers during Ramadan.

When the last few days descend (considered to be the holiest of the month), the mosques in Colombo slowly fill up. As Ramadan comes to a close, preparation for Eid begins and a sense of anticipation blurs the final days. Being away from home brings an augmented appreciation for the family rituals and companionship that the festival heralds.

Memories of Eids past

Now back at home in Sri Lanka, I also find myself reminiscing about memories of Eid as a child and how parts of it have imperceptibly changed over the years. The house is cleaned from top to bottom, family crockery and dishes brought out from the recesses of cupboards and new clothes laid out. On the day of Eid, families congregate at the mosque for morning prayers and the rest of the day is spent relaxing with family and friends and visiting relatives.

While food remains on the side-lines during the fast, on the day of the Eid festival it steps into the spotlight. The Sri Lankan table for Eid is very much a confluence of the island’s historical and cultural influences that have tinged its palate. The omnipresent and beloved watalappan, is a nod to the island’s Malay influences. Bowls of the steamed, spiced custard are often distributed among neighbours to reciprocate the plates of kevili (sweetmeats eaten during the Sinhala-Tamil New Year) and Christmas treats which arrive during the rest of the year.

Meanwhile samosas, faluda and kunafa (strands of pancake batter layered with meat) are believed to be of Arab origin and dishes such as biriyani (piece-de-résistance of the Eid lunch, laced liberally with ghee, hints of saffron and studded with meat) and sweets such as gulabjamun, burfi and jalebi point to Indian origins.

A few days before the festival, my grandmother, mother and aunt would begin the laborious preparation for the sweetmeats – no store-bought sweets for them. Years ago, relatives would descend to help make the sticky-sweet, deceptively simple looking muscat which my grandmother is unduly fond of. The brightly coloured sweet is made out of wheat flour, nuts, a lot of ghee and even more sugar and isn’t going to win any prizes in a food beauty pageant with its thick, oily texture. It also requires a tremendous amount of patience and remarkable upper body strength to remove the gluten from the flour and patiently watch and stir a heavy bottomed pan for an hour or two until it solidifies.

Homemade delicacies

In one corner of the kitchen, dough would be thinly rolled out and cut into diamonds for palaharam which would be twisted into knots, fried and coated in a sugar syrup. Palaharam was a personal favourite and while helping to make it, I would surreptitiously sneak a fistful to snack on, when I was younger. My mother would fill egg moulds with colourful sanja (a type of jelly made with agar agar or Ceylon moss). Her specialty, however, was a dish we referred to as thakbir – delicate sheets of pastry glistening with ghee, layered with dates, pumpkin preserve and nuts and then coated with a sugar syrup and rose water. My aunt’s specialty was a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth gnanakatha – all of which had to pass the inspection of my grandmother’s discerning eye.

With families gently unravelling because of migration, and time and work schedules taking precedence, the preparation for festival is perhaps less abundant but no less enthusiastic in most households. Instead of sweating over a pan, we more often quietly succumb to convenience and pick up a few store-bought sweetmeats but old family recipes are still dusted out once a year to take their rightful place at the Eid table.

Ramadan is always eagerly anticipated in the Islamic calendar. In one sense, it offers the best of two different worlds – fasting is a chance for inward reflection and a renewal of one’s spirituality, while its culmination and the festivities of Eid helps strengthen outward ties and offers a chance for collective celebration and connecting with family and friends.

A blessed Eid Mubarak to all.

This article first appeared on The Sunday Times.

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