For Muslims around the world, Ramadan is a time of deep spiritual reflection. We fast from dawn to sunset and try to join exclusively in good by keeping a clean mind. As kids, my siblings and I could read, play outside, pray, experiment in the kitchen (my preference), take a nap (also my preference), do kumon (definitely not my preference), but we couldn’t watch TV. My parents hoped that they could prevent us from seeing or hearing something “bad” by keeping us away from the TV. However, there was one exception to their rule: the Food Network.
I know it seems counterintuitive – perhaps even excruciating – to watch people cook and enjoy delicious meals during our 16 hour fast. But the food is inherently good, and its absence and presence is central to Ramadan. Muslims fast as an exercise in grounding, mindfulness, and gratitude; It’s a way of remembering the privilege of eating. So when it comes to getting involved in a good month, my parents’ exception made perfect sense.
To be completely honest, fasting as a kid can be quite boring, and that’s mainly because it’s just harder to fill the time – there isn’t a hectic schedule filled with meetings and responsibilities to get the time right to evict. The days of the week provided a busy schedule which definitely made things easier. I was busy with school from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Then I came home and dropped onto the living room sofa and took an undisturbed nap until it was time to break for iftar. We ate as a family, cleaned the kitchen, recited passages from the Koran along with other requests based on gratitude, then I did my homework and the cycle repeated itself. On the weekends I could sleep until noon and not be wrong. Shortening the first five hours of my fast really helped move the day forward, but what then? This is where the Food Network came into play.
What would Iftar be without creamy Karak Chai and Mandazi?
Television programming in the food industry provides a unique opportunity for education and entertainment. I now know my parents probably prefer us to see Giada at home rather than reruns of Gilmore Girls. In contrast to the short-form recipe content common on social media, the half-hour program broadcast on the Food Network offered a productive time pass. The hosts shared advanced techniques and processes and the 10 year old took them in like a sponge. I learned the versatility of stock items through semi-homemade cooking with Sandra Lee, the euphoria of classic comfort foods from Guy Fieri’s diners, drive-ins and dives, the importance of efficiency in Rachel Ray’s 30-minute meals and the value of fresh produce and high quality Ingredients from the Barefoot Contessa of the culinary queen Ina Garten. When it came time to prepare for Iftar with my family, I was able to apply the techniques I had learned. I knew exactly what to do to make the dough Mandazi (a mildly sweet, hollow East African donut); I had seen Ina yeast bloom in warm milk with sugar, stir in the flour and process a similar dough until it became smooth and elastic.
Interestingly, very few of the dishes I saw cooked on TV ended up on our dining table during Ramadan. Instead, we often celebrated classics from my East African and Indian cultures. Tobacco nails (an aromatic coconut curry) stood next to a glass Pyrex container piled high with fluffy, long-grain basmati rice, along with a plate of crispy ground beef samosas that were still hot from the fryer, a cooling coconut chutney, fresh whole green chillies and a plastic Rubbermaid container filled with imported (and usually gifted) Medjool dates, a salt shaker and the most important Ramadan menu item: a glass kettle filled to the brim with gold and cream Karak Chai.