Although I live in Scotland now, throughout the month of Ramadan, I look back to the pre-dawn hustle in my family’s kitchen in Pakistan, where I grew up. It was always such a novelty preparing for the first roza, or fast in Urdu, and though it’s a month of abstinence, it is surprising how food is more central to Ramadan, or Ramazan, as it’s called in Urdu, than any other time of year.
Preparation and shopping began a few weeks in advance, especially for ingredients that gave us energy for the morning meal, called sehri, or daybreak in Urdu. Unlike many families in the Indian subcontinent who have family cooks, my mother cooked all the meals at home. As a result, I learned Pakistani home cooking, not by written recipe, but by osmosis.
I enjoyed cooking with her on most days, but it was always during Ramadan I savored every recipe she cooked. This was a time she delved into the store cupboard and made the foods I craved all year, ones that we only ate during the month of Ramadan: Kalay chanay (black chickpeas), sabudana kheer (sago pearl milk pudding), samosas, spicy coriander-scrambled eggs, but most of all, keema parathas, spicy minced-meat flatbreads.
I was never a breakfast person when I was young, so eating before daybreak was even more unpalatable. But the heady aroma of ghee woke me up at 4 a.m. and the chatter lured me out of bed.
For someone who would only have a glass of milk and a breakfast biscuit outside of the month of fasting, having to force myself to eat a bowl of sago pearl pudding and yogurt with jaggery followed by keema paratha was difficult at first. But curiously, as each Ramadan morning passed, I would wake up without hesitation, with a grumbling tummy. My mother told me the meal was essential to get through a whole day of abstinence: The yogurt and sago pearl pudding are said to help with hydration; and the jaggery with sugar gives a quick boost, while parathas made with whole-wheat flour offers carbohydrates for slower-release energy.