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« Fall Dinners at Chez Panisse | Main | Seattle's International District: Then and Now by Harley Spiller »

October 27, 2005

Ramadan in Istanbul by Bob Beer

Ramadan in Istanbul My first visit to Istanbul in 1982 coincided with Ramadan; but apart from the lines of people in front of restaurants waiting for the appointed hour to break their fasts, I can’t say it really affected me much. The country was still under martial law with curfew in effect, putting a damper on evening activities past 12:00. I didn’t know many Turks, and most of those I’d met were of a non-orthodox sect of Islam that generally do not fast; but even that was not openly discussed during those repressive times. Only one of my new group of friends was niyetli, or "with intent," as one who is fasting says of himself, and was getting some ribbing from the others. "Papaz" they said, pointing to him and laughing. "Priest." He took their joking good-naturedly. I do remember being impressed by timetables on the evening news giving the exact time to the minute for iftar, the breaking of the fast for all the major cities of Turkey. And perhaps there was more food being sold on the street than normal, but "normal" was still so much! It seemed then that almost as many people were not fasting as were. Now, having lived here for nearly six years, I’m amazed that I could have been so oblivious to Ramadan, or Ramazan as it as known here. The fast held during Ramaz is considered one of the five pillars of Islam. Whether you are Muslim or not, it’s a special time; life takes on a different rhythm. The observant try to focus on more spiritual things during the month, and many who consider themselves rather lax Muslims try to be a little better. The particulars vary across the Muslim world, but in Turkey, a typical day during Ramazan goes like this: an hour and a half before sunrise, people are woken up by the Ramazan davulcusu, or Ramadan drummers, who walk around the neighborhoods with a big double-headed drum. They beat out a variety of rhythms, and in between rounds, they may also sing a mani, a rhyming couplet. A couple of common ones are:


People wake up and have their pre-dawn meal, known as sahur. The morning ezan, the first of five daily calls to prayer, marks the beginning of the fast, and nothing is eaten or drunk the entire day, until sunset. I did it once or twice to experience it, and I can tell you it’s not easy - and it was the dead of winter, when days were short. The Muslim calender being a lunar one, Ramazan comes earlier every year, and abstaining from food and water during the hot Turkish summer is indeed an act of faith. At the exact minute the fast is to be broken, cannons go off around the city, and the evening ezan is chanted from the mosques. It tends to be a very quick, to-the-point ezan! The fast is traditionally broken with a date or an olive, and a sip of water. People who are ill or traveling, and pregnant women, are excluded from the fast. To read about Ramazan in the west, especially articles focusing mainly on the abstention aspect of it, one might expect Ramazan to be a rather dreary month; one of piety, of seriousness, something akin to Lent. Certainly one wouldn’t expect it to be a time of celebration. However unlike Lent, Ramazan is not a month of mourning; rather it is to be a "fast for the body, a feast for the soul." It can be hard on people and sometimes tempers are short; also the rush hour starts early as everyone tries to get home early to prepare for iftar. But aside from that it’s actually a pleasant time of year. It is a time of solidarity, a challenge that people undertake together, and there is a sense of accomplishment when one completes the fast. In several parts of the city there are "Ramazan tents" set up providing a free iftar meal for all who come, and carnivals around major mosques, especially Eyüp, Fatih and Sultanahmet, with puppet shows, games, food stalls, arts exhibitions and sales, and live musical performances that go late into the night. In practice, people probably think more about food during Ramazan than any other time of the year; it’s the time when housewives pull out all the stops and make their favorite dishes. An invitation to a Muslim home for iftar can be quite a treat! In the central market in Eminönü, there is almost a festival atmosphere as people search for the best, the freshest, the finest. Families who can, go all out on food shopping, splurging on special items that are too expensive to be indulged in every day: pastýrma, suçuk, baklava, kadayýf. Ramazan is the time to spend the extra Lira and get the best cheese, the slightly more expensive fruit. All the newspapers have special pull out sections on Ramazan cookery, as well as the [somewhat unrealistic] articles on how not to gain weight during the month. Though the clerics emphasize, and logically so, that the iftar meal should be light, not an exercise in gluttony, it’s no surprise that the average Turk gains a good deal of weight during Ramazan. Sahur often tends to be eaten with the idea of "stocking up" for a long day without food or water, and then at iftar, people make up for lost time, eating much more than they might normally, sometimes snacking almost continually into the night. At the end of Ramazan is a four-day holiday, or bayram, locally known as during which people visit each other and have trays of sweets on hand to offer visitors; children kiss the hands of adults and receive gifts of money. Since it’s a moving holiday, available ingredients change throughout the year. For this reason there is no set "seasonal" menu for Ramazan as there is in the more stable Christian holidays, which were cleverly set by the church over spring fertility and fall harvest festivals. Still, there are a few special items without which Ramazan would not be Ramazan here. Dates, for example, are something which Turks tend to be oblivious of most of the year - some unobservant friends of mine had never even tried one. Associated almost exclusively with Ramazan, they are prominently displayed everywhere, in stores, carts on the street and in great piles in the neighborhood markets: nearly round, dry yellow ones from Baghdad, soft black ones from Bam in Iran, large medjool types from Medina (the most expensive) with their characteristic waxy bloom, and glistening dark brown ones from Tunisia, which are one of the cheapest but still my favorite. Another sure sign of Ramazan is the rows and rows of Ramazan pidesi in the bakeries. This is a special flat round bread about 14 inches wide and perhaps an inch thick at the most, brushed with egg and sprinkled with nigella seed. It’s reportedly a very difficult bread to make well, and some bakeries hire a specialist to make it during the month. It’s soft, rich and very slightly sweet.


The sine qua non dessert during Ramazan is güllaç, which is a bit hard to describe. The dessert is based on large thin starch wafers. These were traditionally prepared by hand, of egg whites beaten together with a generous amount of wheat starch. The mixture was deftly spread onto a flat, slightly convex griddle, where it quickly sank and hardened into a thin porous wafer. Nowadays they are almost exclusively factory-made. To make güllaç, milk is boiled with sugar and the starch wafers are dipped into it for about 30 seconds, causing them to soften and become silky smooth. These are then wrapped around a variety of fillings, including nuts, grated apples, marzipan, clotted cream, or a milk pudding. (Pastry shop versions these days tend to just be layered in a large pan rather than individually wrapped.) More milk is poured over, to be soaked up by the wafers, which continue expand and buckle, giving the dish its characteristic appearance. Rose water is sprinkled on top; it is from this that the dish takes its name (gül, rose). The tops are then typically decorated with a sprinkle of brilliant green ground pistachios and pomegranate seeds if they are in season, though glaceed cherries seem to be most popular second choice. Fancier versions may be topped with elaborately cut fruit. Snowy white, it’s a beautiful-looking dessert. It’s really at its best when homemade, as it gets soggy when it sits for too long in a shop window, but the versions served at Saray and Sütiþ in Taksim are decent. You’ll just have to sample several and choose your favorite...


As for decorum during Ramazan, it’s no issue at all in the heavily touristed areas of Sultanahmet and Taksim. Even in most of the rest of the city, the chances of anyone saying anything to foreigner eating during the fasting hours are next to none, but out of respect of the challenge others have taken on, even many non-fasters still refrain from smoking or eating out on the street.


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