Monday, October 10, 2011

End of Ramadan-ish Dinner, Starring Persian Fried Chicken!


Swiss Chard Falafel with Tahini Sauce
Tomato, Pomegranate and Sumac Salad
Zucchini Montabel
Persian Fried Chicken
Pilaf with Chickpeas, Apricots and Pistachios
Muhammara, Deconstructed
Roasted Figs and Peaches with Brooklyn Grange Honey

When I moved to New York City fifteen years ago, I had never heard of Ramadan.

The first time I had heard of it was when I was working as a waiter at Union Pacific restaurant (the ageless Rocco DiSpirito was its celebrated chef.) Family meal was going to be served a half an hour later than usual during a few weeks in November and December, and we were instructed not to clear food away until after the "Muslim dudes" had eaten. When I asked why the entire prep staff were suddenly eating separately, a very helpful restaurant lifer said, "Because it's Ramadan."

Um, ok.

The following year, I was working at Babbo when Ramadan began, but unlike at Union Pacific, just a few of the prep staff were Muslim. This time I just asked one of the guys what was up. He kindly explained the month-long, daytime fast, only eating at sundown. I remember thinking that it was kind of hardcore, fasting for an entire MONTH, and it made me glad to be Episcopalian...

Two years later, I was living in Astoria, eight blocks from Steinway Street, or "Little Cairo." I moved in during the middle of Ramadan, and I had gone to Steinway Street looking to buy a tart pan or some bullshit. I came away wondering why everyone had been crazy rude to me, and I couldn't understand why. It wasn't until the following year, when Ali from Kabab Cafe explained to me that, as Ramadan wore on, people might start to get a bit... touchy towards the middle of the day.

Got it. They were hungry.

Photograph: Marjory Collins 1943©
As someone who wishes they had been raised in more of a culinary tradition, I always enjoy immersing myself in those of different cultures. It's the food version of dress-up.

Keeping tradition is important. It gives us all a sense of belonging and perspective, and being part of something larger than yourself makes us understand that we are a part of the continuum. Culinary traditions also help us understand politics and social change; Which countries traded with/were influenced by/occupied by whom, etcetera.

A great example of the interplay of food and culture is how Italian-American cuisine differs from regional Italian cuisine, mainly because that when Italian immigrants came to America they suddenly found themselves in the land of plenty... Surrounded by MEAT! Italian immigrants incorporated American produce and ingredients into their traditional cuisine, and added more meat to pasta. Meat in sauce. Every kind of meat! Spare ribs! Pork! Veal! Sausage! Meatballs!  This isn't the same cuisine that you find in Italy, simply because the ingredients weren't available for working class people in the same abundance.

But, back to Ramadan, the Islamic month of daytime fasting (no eating, and also, no smoking or sex) which is broken with nightly feasts after sundown. After the sun sets, you can smell cumin, garlic and spices all over Astoria. I woke up one morning in late July thinking of Persian Fried Chicken, and realized that this would be the perfect occasion to whip out this showstopper. Who needs more inspiration than that?

Karl recently brought home the "Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume" cookbook by Silvena Rowe, and this meal had many recipes inspired by it. I won't lie, I had mixed results, but for recipe ideas, this book is fabulous.