Moroccan-lentil chickpea soup.
Moroccan-lentil chickpea soup. (Mark DuFrene)

As a child growing up in Yemen, Mohamed Aboghanem would stay up all night during Ramadan in anticipation of his mother's bint al sahn, a warm, brioche-like treat dotted with black cumin seeds and drizzled with honey.

"Just the smell would make us so excited; it didn't matter that it was 4 o'clock in the morning," recalls Aboghanem, chef and owner of Saha, a hip Arabic fusion restaurant in San Francisco.

Aboghanem may equate bint al sahn with his family's Ramadan celebrations, but he makes it year-round. Who doesn't love honey cake? Or lentil soup, or rich, slow-simmered dishes for that matter? These classic Middle Eastern dishes -- and their modern twists -- are terrific at any time of year.

When the holy month of Ramadan begins on July 8, Muslims will rise before dawn to consume a light meal, called sahur, in preparation for a 16-hour fast that ends with the setting sun. It is a spiritual month of looking inward and paying forward, but the evening meal, or iftar, weighs heavy on the brain, particularly during summer when the days are extra long.

Most Muslims break their fast -- and stoke their appetites -- with nourishing dates and water or milk. For chefs, what comes next is often a family-style feast filled with regional specialties. Soup and other one-pot meals are particularly convenient.


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After their dates, veteran San Francisco chef Yahya Salih of the Iraqi restaurant Jannah sits down with his wife, Wafa, and three kids for heaping bowls of his "million-dollar lentil soup," which gets its savory flavor from pink lentils, curry powder and fresh lemon juice.

"Lentils are a natural choice because they are rich in protein," explains Salih, who follows the meal with a tamarind-tinged lamb and okra stew. Naturally, dishes are made in advance whenever possible. But that doesn't help when you're running a restaurant. Ramadan is particularly challenging for chefs.

"I have to test the food on the tip of my tongue because I can't swallow it," Salih says. He also gets dehydrated standing in front of a fiery stove all day without drinking water. "But then I break my fast and become joyous."

Cookbook author and chef Louisa Shafia grew up entranced with her Iranian relatives' rich, slow-simmering dishes, such as ash-e reshteh, a country-style bean and noodle soup made fragrant with fistfuls of dill and mint.

Shafia, who lives in New York, identifies as Jewish, like her mother, but says her father's Muslim family prepares ash-e reshteh during Ramadan as well as halim, a hearty porridge traditionally made with wheat, barley and turkey.

"They are nourishing and just feel so good," says Shafia, who included both recipes in her new book, "The New Persian Kitchen" (Ten Speed, $24.99, 208 pages). To give her halim a modern twist, Shafia substitutes the nutty New World grain amaranth for the cracked wheat.

"It's a really tasty, interesting whole grain and has more nutrients than wheat," Shafia says.

For cookbook author and former Arabic cooking show host Suzanne Husseini, Ramadan is about community. "Growing up, 25 of the 30 days my parents would have people over to break bread with," says Husseini, author of "Modern Flavors of Arabia" (Appetite, $29.99, 190 pages).

At Husseini's home in Dubai, it is no different. Family and friends surround her dining table for a "wow-factor" iftar, which often includes main courses such as herb and pistachio-crusted rack of lamb or sayyadieh, a family-style fish-and-rice pilaf that gets its crunch and gold color from onions fried in peanut oil.

"I like to serve dishes that look beautiful and are a full meal in one," she says.

For appetizers, she offers mint-flecked lamb kofta with sweet and sour cherry dipping sauce and a variety of salads, such as arugula with tomatoes or a deconstructed baba ghanoush sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

But, like chef Aboghanem and his childhood bint al sahn, dessert is what she craves most during Ramadan. "After fasting all day, your blood sugar has dipped, so you just want something sticky and sweet and warm," she says.

Like many Middle Eastern Muslims, Husseini satisfies the craving with an ancient Ramadan tradition: atayef, deep-fried doughy crescents that are filled with the soft, white akkawi cheese (ricotta works, too) or chopped walnuts and soaked in rose syrup. Once Eid Al Fitr arrives on Aug. 7, marking the end of Ramadan, you won't see these divine hot pies again until next year.

"It's like Christmas pudding," she says. "It tastes good only at this time of year."