While I am writing this chronicle, Ramadan is still in progress. Ramadan, as we all know is a fasting period of the Moslems which lasts about a month. The followers are not allowed to eat anything between sunrise and sunset. This is compulsory for any good Moslem. For some, the fasting period, and the feeling of hunger, makes them think o those who are hungry and this compels them to contribute towards feeding the poor.

In order to avoid the risk of non-compliance, there are time charts that indicate the exact time, day by day, of sunset after which there is a meal to break the fast. I had been to several Moslem countries during Ramadan, but had not noticed its influence on daily life, as I witnessed in Turkey. At a first glance, and very blatant to a tourist, is a notice in many restaurants of a special price for “Iftar”, with a fixed, promotional price, with a composition of the menu. Obviously this excludes alcohol. “Iftar” is a dinner that follows the daily fasting period. At the end of Ramadan, they have a special day, which is the day that they break the fast. Without wanting to make comparisons, we can associate Lent to the end of Easter Sunday, which is a day where there are great gastronomic celebrations.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to join “Iftar” organized daily by a carpet merchant. The host, his employees and other collaborators, family members and friends were present at Iftar. The meal started religiously at 19 hours and two minutes, according to the sunset time of the time chart.

Tables were improvised because there were over twenty people. Since there were no reserved seats people sat around the table as they arrived. The bread was already on the table, flat bread made of a mixture of flours, and a lettuce and tomato salad. Afterwards each place had plate, a glass, a spoon and a fork.

A tall plate with soup was placed in front of each of us. They served Chicken soup with Aletria (tiny noodles), which was served with half a lemon. The host warns us that the lemon is fundamental to the taste of the soup and that each person should squeeze as much as he wanted. The soup looked like a light-colored purée. I tried it first without the lemon and then with the lemon. Indeed, the acidity of the lemon helped balance the final taste. While I ate, and because conversation was flowing with enthusiasm, I didn´t have the courage to ask how the soup was made.  After the meal I asked the owner of the house, who confessed that he had made the soup, to explain how it was made. Amidst broken English he sent me to a friend, Mustafa Kabak, a guest at the dinner, to explain how it was made. I think I wrote the recipe down carefully and here goes: Cut cubes of white chicken meat and fry them in butter to seal the meat. Cover them in abundance with meat broth and when it is boiling, add the Aletria (tiny noodles) to cook together.  Add spicy red pepper paste and season with salt and pepper. Boil until the chicken and the noodles are well cooked. Remove it from the burner and with a blender make it creamy. Serve with lemon juice. I don´t know if this is the whole recipe, but the soup I ate there was delicious.

Afterwards they served a large bowl of rice, covered with refined chopped lamb stew. Each one helped themselves to a portion using a spoon or fork. There were no individual dishes, but there were also no arguments concerning what the people helped themselves to.

To top off the meal, the famous Baklavas were served, a typical Turkish sweet that is made of small rolls of puff paste stuffed with dried fruit cooked in honey. Some say they have aphrodisiac power!

As drinks, there was only water and soft drinks; at the end they served the traditional Turkish red tea. However, more important than the food as such, was the act of eating together. The get together and sharing meant more than the gastronomic value of the meal and the semi celebration of eating after the sacrifice imposed by religion. They confessed, and some with conviction, that it was no sacrifice. I noticed curiously that one of the elements hardly ate. I discreetly asked him and he answered that he was not very hungry because he was not a strict follower of that part of the religion. He claimed, at twenty, that he had discovered the pleasures of life…!

These issues of religion are always hard to address because everything starts as an act of faith. Naturally there were no discussions. It is curious to note that all religions interfere, and above all, influence, the eating habits all over the world.

In the case of meat, one of the most valued elements, this is simultaneously the most persecuted product, with more fears, and the most forbidden one. It is also the most exalted product, and it continues to be an element that identifies gluttony.

If the goat or lamb is the most accepted and glorified animal in the food of the various religions, the pig is the most banned one.

Here in Portugal, either due to economic reasons (pork is a subsistence food) or to show proof to denounce Jews, we made pork a permanent element in our regional cuisine using a lot of knowledge and multiple tastes. Pork also has the honor of being on a high pedestal, where we use every part, from the tip of the snout to the tip of the tail. We even use the insides.

Porc was the main differentiating element between Christians on one hand, and Moslems and Jews on the other.

Nowadays, religion for many people, is the aesthetics of the body and so meat and other food is replaced by vegetables and often very little food….and they lose out on all the pleasures.


© Virgilio Gomes