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.
My favorite was always making keema parathas, using up leftover spicy minced meat, or preparing some the night before.
After the first few days of adjustment in waking up, I would join my mother in the kitchen to measure flour, knead it into soft dough, roll it out into small parcels and fill them with keema, before rolling them out again, ensuring not to let the filling ooze out. Those moments of cooking so early with my mother were calming and ritualistic. We would enjoy uninterrupted time to chat, catch up on gossip, laugh, and share secrets. While we talked, we churned out one perfectly filled paratha after another, cooking them on the flat tawa — the cast-iron griddle pan for Pakistani flatbreads — drizzling generous amounts of homemade ghee around the sides, sneaking bites of them while they were piping hot.
What I loved most about sehri was that we all sat together as a family at the table and rejoiced over the food before us, contemplating together the challenges of hunger and most of all thirst, that made this time very special.
Far removed from the rituals of Ramadan, today in Scotland, it is challenging for me to maintain the same level of enthusiasm on my own, but I want to pass on my culture to my young daughter, who has never lived in Pakistan.
I find teaching her traditions and culture through cooking, eating, and sharing food is the most beautiful way of doing this. My daughter and I love cooking together, and keema parathas are by far her favorite.
Throughout this month, we wake up early and relive my childhood: rolling out one keema paratha after another. Just as the morning meal during Ramadan has always been special to me, I’m hoping it might just be the same for my little girl.
Ramadan ends the evening of June 4.
Sumayya Usmani is a cookbook author, food educator, and broadcaster based in Scotland, but was born and raised in Pakistan. She’s the author of the award-winning Summers Under the Tamarind Tree and Mountain Berries and Desert Spice. She is the founder of Glasgow’s first social enterprise cook school, Kaleyard. On Twitter at sumayyausmani.
Sumayya Ansari is a freelance illustrator and artist. She lives in LA with her husband and three wild things.
Kalay Chanay: Black Chickpeas with White Poppy Seeds and Red Onion
Serves 4 to 5
The nutty skin of black chickpea, the bite of poppy seeds, the sharpness of tamarind: Kalay chanay is a surprising sensation. My mother cooks this during Ramazan (the period of fasting for Muslims). It’s a snack to bless the table, and with its ‘garam’ qualities it brings heat to the soul.
Kitchen secret: You can make this an hour before you want to serve it to give the fruit a chance to soak up the juice and become infused with flavor.
500g/1¼lb/22⁄3 cups dried black
Chickpeas (available in most South Asian stores)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon nigella seeds (kalongi)
2 tablespoons white poppy seeds (available in most South Asian stores)
1–2 red onions, cut into fine rings
100g/3½ oz. garlic, tamarind and red
Chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves
Chopped green chilies
2 medium tomatoes, deseeded and chopped into medium pieces
1.Soak the black chickpeas overnight in a bowl of water. The next day, drain, put in a large saucepan, pour in 500ml/17 fl oz/2 cups water, or enough to cover them and bring to the boil. Cook for 30–40 minutes, or until soft. These don’t get as soft as regular chickpeas and retain a slight bite.
2. Drain and set aside. Heat the oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. When hot, add the cumin, nigella and poppy seeds and fry for about 1 minute until they pop. Add half the red onions and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes, or until just soft. Allow them to retain a little crunch.
3. Add the boiled black chickpeas, the remaining red onions, and stir through until hot. Turn off the heat and add the tamarind chutney (see p150) and garnishes. Serve warm or cold.