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Saturday, 3 August 2013

Ramadan in Pakistan - A well celebrated month filled with excitement, aromas and delicious indulgent food

Preparing for communal Iftar at the Mosque
Photo provided by Sumayya Jamil, Taken by Athar Hussain

"The excitement of Ramadan is very well celebrated in Pakistan. Being one of the largest Muslim countries of the world, this is a very important month, socially, religiously and spiritually."

- Sumayya Jamil, London based Cookery Teacher and Food Writer 

One of the most noticeable qualities of Pakistani cuisine, to me, is that it is very aromatic, almost perfumed to be more accurate. This is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think Pakistani food. It is always the smell that starts this eating experience, followed by the beauty of its appearance and finally when you taste it... I mean it is definitely special, very layered and definitely not shallow.

To think that I, like many others, used to think Pakistani and Indian cuisines were one and the same! I never could tell the difference at first! Perhaps for a palate - that back then had been - so undaring to venture into the world of heat, that whenever the opportunity presented itself, the same palate was so focused on the heat that it missed everything else! But the beauty of heat is that once you buckle up your courage to face it, it makes way for everything else to be revealed, and you can then taste more clearly. Then, the cuisine stands out for its own right. One that is really bold, very well flavoured with layers upon layers of flavour stories to tell. The heat then becomes one of the mesmerising factors of this flavour palate.

Communal Iftars at the Mosque
Photo provided by Sumayya Jamil

Taken by Fahadee
Like the cuisine, Pakistan is a country that is very multi-layered, and one whose people are always available and willing to explore with you their food and culture. Being one of the largest Muslim communities in the world, fits Pakistan right in this Ramadan Special, and who better to speak with about Pakistan's Ramadan Traditions and food than the lovely and super talented cookery teacher and food writer Sumayya Jamil, who is a specialist in Pakistani and Muslim heritage food and culture? So we chatted about Ramadan in Pakistan and here are some of what we talked about...

Pakistani Kitchen Prep Prior to Ramadan
While most perishable foods are bought fresh on the day, some ingredients have to be stocked in advance. This prior prep creates a sense of excitement in anticipation of the Holy month and puts everyone in the spirit of Ramadan as described by Sumayya.

"When I reminisce about preparations for Ramadan in Pakistan, I remember well that a couple of weeks before Ramadan, my mother used to collect key Ramadan dry cupboard essentials such as lentils, dry roasted vermicelli, dates, Rooh Afza (a floral based drink), flour for parathas and samosas, chickpea flour for pakoras, chickpeas both black and regular and rice. All perishables were always brought fresh on the day. There was always sense of excitement mingled with urgency and expectation. A month of contemplation and perseverance stood before us and preparing for it was as wonderful as the month itself." 

And while home cooks stock their pantries with Ramadan essentials required for making their family meals, they do not forget those whose circumstances are unfortunate and in true Ramadan spirit, they collect the ingredients needed to stock these people's pantries too.
"To us this is a month of respecting food, where it comes from and those less fortunate. We would always prepare similar dry ingredient boxes for the poor and distribute these before Ramadan as well." explained Sumayya.

Pakistani Markets during Ramadan - Rooh Afza in bags
Photo provided by Sumayya Jamil

How is Ramadan cooking different from the rest of the year? & what does Pakistani cuisine offer during Ramadan?
According to Sumayya, During Ramadan Pakistanis tend indulge more in their food as they cook a lot more with ghee (clarified butter), and generally consume more dairy intake. Cooks will also prepare fried foods as well as foods that have a slow release of carbohydrates such as chickpeas and lentils. 
"Most of the year we do eat similar food, but specifically streets are laden with fried foods for Iftar such as pakoras, samosas and sugary jalebis which are Ramadan delights only!" she says

She also explains that most people cook at home, but will also buy snacks from street vendors to compliment their home cooked meals. The food of choice for most people is traditional cuisine.
"For us Ramadan is a celebration of Pakistani food and most families would only ever enjoy typical Ramadan dishes during this month – I however can’t think of anything I would never eat!"

The Pakistani Repertoire of Ramadan Foods
A repertoire of delicious foods that mix between fritters, salads, daals, biscuits and doughnuts... 
"As Iftar approaches, our kitchens would come alive with the scent of hot, tantalizing snacks. Our Iftar meal is one full of energy inducing foods followed shortly by dinner. More meat based and rice based dishes also feature such as Haleem, Nihari, Biryani and chickpea Pullao (stock cooked rice)"
Pakistani Street Food - Fruit Chaat
Photo by Sumayya Jamil

So if you are thinking of hosting a Pakistani style Iftar, there is a huge list of Ramadan food to choose from, below are some of these foods explained by Sumayya:

Most Popular Pakistani Iftar Foods

Chai & Pakoras
Photo by Sumayya Jamil

Dahi Baras or Dahi Phulkis (Lentil based fritters, softened with a topping of whipped savoury yoghurt, chopped coriander, mint, green chili  ginger, red chili, with  Chaat masala (a mix of cumin, dried mango powder, pepper and other mixed spice)
Chola Chaat (Chickpea based mixed salad with tamarind sauce, mint, coriander, cumin, tomatoes and potatoes) 
Shami Kebabs (Beef based finely minced kebabs with Chana lentil, fresh coriander, mint, ginger and infused with whole garam masalas)
Mixed Vegetable Pakoras (Assorted mixed vegetables such as sliced potatoes, aubergines, okra, green chillies dipped in spicy chickpea batter and lightly fried)
Haleem (Wheatgerm, oats, lentil and beef or chicken based stew topped with fresh herbs, green chili and ginger)
Jalebis (Sweet cardamom infused doughnuts dipped in sugar syrup) 
Samosas (Wholewheat flour based pastry parcels stuffed with a variety of fillings, potatoes, cheese, spicy beef mince, sometimes sweet fillings too such as coconut, bananas and sometimes halva (my family recipe!)) 
Daal with Bhagar (Lentil of any sort tempered with oil or ghee, cumin, garlic and red chili topped with fresh herbs.) 
Kachumber (Mixed raw salad of finely chopped cucumber, tomatoes, red onion, coriander, mint and green chili and lemon juice and cumin) 
Pakwan (North Pakistani biscuits made with aniseed, pink salt, figs and nuts) 
Chickpea Pulao (Basmati rice with whole garam masalas and chickpeas cooked in their own stock) 
Fruit Chaat (Sweet and savoury mixed fruit salad with spicy Chaat masala (explained above)) 
Biryani (Either chicken, mutton or beef based biryani, layered rice and curry dish infused with saffron and Kewra (screwpine water) )
Chai (Milky tea cooked with tea leaves, with or without cardamom but always lots of sugar) 

Most Popular Pakistani Sehri (Suhour) Foods
Dahi aur Gur (A personal favourite of Buffalo full-cream milk yoghurt, with fresh cream pieces within it and topped with raw sugar cane molasses) 
Spicy Eggs / Khakeena (Scrambled eggs with cumin, fresh coriander, tomatoes, green chillis)
Plain or stuffed Parathas (Plain or vegetable or meat stuffed flaky flatbreads made with whole-wheat and plain flour and cooked with ghee (clarified butter))
Puri (Wholemeal flour based flatbread deep -fried) 
Sujji ka Halva (Semolina halva made with cardamom, nuts cooked in ghee (clarified butter)) 
Nihari (Beef or lamb-based slow cooked curry) 
Seviyan (Sweet roasted vermicelli cooked in milk and infused with saffron and topped with nuts, raisins and silver leaf. More an Eid recipe, but some families like to eat this at either Sehri or at the end of Iftar as a dessert (personal favourite) )

Ramadan in Pakistan
Awaiting Iftar at Mosque

Pakistani Ramadan Traditions
Sumayya explained to me that one of the most prominent features of Ramadan in Pakistan is the free Iftars given out at mosques, and many people offering free food to poor people on the ‘big’ Ramadan days such as the 27th fast or the last Friday of Ramadan, called ‘Jumma-tul-veeda’

Breaking the fast is traditionally done by starting with a Medjool date followed by Rooh Afza (rose flavoured sherbet) with basil seeds, which are meant to give you instant energy. 
"Nearly everyone would have a warm cup of Chai (tea) after Iftar. Pakistanis love their tea and probably miss it more than food during Ramadan!" 

Then most people either follow on a dinner after their Maghrib (sunset) prayers or eat dinner much later. Most nights during Ramadan, many people go to the mosque for Taravi (evening) prayers late at night and some stay awake until Sehri (Suhour) and sleep after their Fajir (morning) prayers until they need to go to work. 
"Many of us girls used to play night volleyball whereas most boys and men would play night cricket right till Sehri time! "

She also mentioned that many people love to entertain at Iftar time and many have lavish Iftar parties during the month. As for Suhour she says that traditionally the ladies - and now even the men do - wake up early to prepare parathas and eggs the aroma of which will wake you from sleep. You will then have this home cooked bread and eggs with a cup of cardamom tea before you go back to sleep. 

These are the traditions and rituals of the Holy month in Pakistan that still live on today, and as you can see the excitement of Ramadan is very well celebrated over there.


Pakistani Seviyan
Photo by Sumayya Jamil

Sumayya was very generous to share with us 3 of her Pakistani Ramadan Recipes! I am sharing with you the dessert recipe in this post and will be sharing the 2 savoury recipes in Tomorrow's post, so make sure to come back tomorrow for those.

Sumayya Jamil's
Pakistani Seviyan (Sweet Roasted Vermicelli Dessert)

"Usually always enjoyed on Eid day, and many Pakistanis love to eat Seviyan (sweet roasted vermicelli made with nuts, saffron and milk). As a dessert during Iftar or Sehri. This is one Ramadan related food that never leaves my mind or my home.

Here is my maternal grandmother’s simple recipe, which reminds me of the comfort of her hugs, Eid festivities, the sunshine of Pakistan and Ramadan."

Serves: 7-10 people
Ready in: 30 minutes

You Need
Pakistani Seviyan
Photo by Sumayya Jamil
Half a packet of Pakistani/Indian roasted vermicelli (found in Asian shops) – crush these by hand, into small pieces before adding to milk

25 grams caster sugar
100 grams of sweet condensed milk
1 pinch of saffron, soaked in 1 tbsp hot boiling milk
1 pint of whole milk / soya milk / almond milk
A handful of chopped pistachios, almond, raisins
4-5 cardamom pods, bruised open
Decorate with silver leaf (optional)

Heat ghee in a saucepan on medium heat and add the cardamom. Once fragrant add the crushed vermicelli and keep stirring to avoid burning them.

Once fragrant slowly add both the milks and keep stirring. Add sugar and stir and cook until the mixture becomes thick and vermicelli is cooked through.

Pour in saffron and then place in a serving dish.

Garnish with nuts and raisins and adorn with silver leaf (optional)

Meet Sumayya Jamil 
Sumayya Jamil
Sumayya Jamil is a Freelance Cookery Teacher and Food Writer specialising in Pakistani and Muslim heritage food and culture. She is based in London but was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. Her mission is to highlight the differences of Pakistani cuisine from other South Asian ones in the UK, as many confuse Pakistani cuisine to be the same as other South Asian ones.

Growing up in Pakistan to a family of accomplished home cooks, she is a self-taught cook and her passion is to share her country's distinct and haunting flavours with the UK which is an already spice loving country.

In the UK, Sumayya teaches at Divertimenti Cookery School London, Rachel Demuth's Vegetarian Cookery School, Bath and also holds her own group and private classes in London. Her classes are based on cooking with the Asian concepts of estimation called ‘Andaza’ and loves to share her passion for demystifying spice.

As a food writer, Sumayya has written for many well known publications such the The Foodie Bugle, Delicious, Vegetarian Living and Crumbs magazine and has been featured in Good Housekeeping UK. Additionally she has also worked with and been published in Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Nation cookbook. Sumayya is also a member of the Guild of Food Writers and is currently working on her memoir based cookery book on Pakistani cuisine.

Sumayya also blogs at and her site also has information about her classes and pop-ups / supperclubs.

All information, along with Seviyan recipe and photographs, are provided by Sumayya Jamil and are her property. They are published on this blog with her permission. Please do not copy or use them without her permission.


Food For Thought
We will always manage to find prejudices, labels and struggles upon which we will judge one another... But if we were to really see, we will find the sameness in all of us!

Hope you have enjoyed reading today's post and getting to know more about Ramadan in Pakistan. 

Ramadan is about to be over soon, I would love to hear your thoughts about this year's Ramadan Special, what you think of it so far, how you like or dislike its topics and if you found the information useful and interesting. Share your thoughts with me as they help me see these posts from your perspective and help me better plan next year's Ramadan posts :) So do please leave a comment giving me your feedback...

Come back tomorrow for
Sumayya's Vegetable Pakoras & Kachumber Bejeweled Salad:)

The world is beautiful, all its people are beautiful, all cultures equally important, and all the same in the end - all out there for us to explore...
Ramadan Kareem