Smorgasbord of Sweets and Savouries: Ramadaan in South Africa

As a child, I knew that Ramadaan was approaching when we received a large package of kajoor (dates) with “Compliments from the Vawda family” neatly printed on the attached label. For each year the Vawdas supplied the neighbourhood Muslims with their dates. When I think of Ramadaan, I think of a renewed sense of faith, spirituality and hope. Then I think of the food. For fasting, on the most basic level, is about abstaining from food. Yet as wives and mothers we are constantly challenged by our families to provide the tastiest of meals, especially during Ramadaan. Ironic as it may be, here in South Africa, the majority of Muslim families go through a preparation phase a month or two before fasting begins.

My family is no different. We set aside days to prepare the samoosa and pie filling, make the pur and pastry, then start the daunting task of filling the samoosas and pies, which could take up to a week, depending on how big your family is. However in recent years, and in attempt to stay healthy, we’ve managed to cut down the amount of savouries we eat and cook nutritious meals instead as well as use the air fryer as an alternative to deep frying.

I come from the city of Durban, home to the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere – the Grey Street Mosque. The city has an eclectic mix of Muslims who come together during Ramadaan. A month before the fasting begins, the spice shops and supermarkets begin their “Ramadaan Specials” on spices, almonds, barley, dates and so on.

When Ramadaan dawns upon South Africa, Muslims zealously welcome the month. Islamic radio stations and publications contribute to this fervour, reminding us that this year we can make a change in our lives. When the night of the first taraweeh arrives, I know a month of momentous praying, additional Quran reading, attempts to better myself, and fasting for one month lie ahead. And I embrace it.

As a child, sehri was always filled with noise – the shouts from my mother to get out of bed, the clattering of dishes, the hum of the microwave. I always woke up to see my grandmother praying her tahajjud. Now, as a married woman and a mother, the roles have shifted in my life and I have to wake up first to prepare the food in the stillness of the night. A tradition amongst families is to drink almond milk during sehri, especially the huffadh, to improve their memory.

Work continues like normal for everyone here in South Africa during Ramadaan. When late afternoon approaches, the delicious aromas begin to emanate from the kitchens – a harbinger of iftaar. I remember the fragrance of my mother’s fresh haleem (a broth made of barley), which was a must at iftaar each day. Served with a spritz of lemon juice and naan (bread), haleem is a source of energy. In keeping with the charitable attribute of Ramadaan, steaming haleem and naan are distributed freely in the majority of mosques around Durban during weekends. When you live in my city, it’s not possible for a Ramadaan to pass without buying, at least once, fresh haleem and naan from Mullah’s Café in the city centre.

Iftaar is also made at the mosques with womenfolk sending platters of samoosas, cutlets, pies or any other savoury, served with chutney, and jugs of ice cold sharbat (pink milkshake made with sweet rose syrup) with sabja seeds (basil seeds). There is a genuine buzz amongst the men at the mosques each night for taraweeh. Fathers, sons and brothers, from the young to the old, join the congregation. They do so and return home to enjoy a cold dessert before retiring to bed.

The month of fasting continues with Muslims preparing and distributing food parcels to the needy. Before we know it Eid is upon us and we find ourselves saying, “I can’t believe Ramadaan flew so fast!”


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