clock menu more-arrow no yes

From beans and rice to BBQ: Muslim Americans’ Ramadan cuisine reflects their diversity

Iftar, or breaking fast, is more than pita and hummus.

A man calls Muslims to prayer before breaking their Ramadan fast by eating halal Mexican tacos from a food truck in Santa Ana, California, in 2017.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The month of Ramadan begins today and Muslims will spend the next four weeks fasting and dedicating time to worship. But even though most Muslims will abstain from eating or drinking between dawn and dusk, this doesn’t make food any less important. In fact, the process of deciding what to eat for iftar — the meal that breaks the day’s fast — can be long and complicated, especially when coupled with midday cravings and coffee-withdrawal headaches.

But what Muslims eat during Ramadan, and how, goes beyond the stereotypical imagery of a family eating from a communal platter of rice and meat.

A Google search for “Ramadan food” will likely result in images of samosas or recipes for lentil soup, which can offer an unnecessarily narrow view of who Muslims are and the dishes they like to cook and eat. While many Muslims worldwide do eat these foods, and most adhere to the halal dietary standard — meaning foods that are religiously permissible; for instance, pork and alcohol are not — Ramadan cuisine has no boundaries and brings up a larger issue of inclusivity in Muslim American communities.

A common misconception is that the Muslim faith is synonymous with Arab or South Asian cultures. But while people who are originally from the Middle East-North Africa region do contribute to the largest percentage of Muslim Americans, almost 30 percent of Muslims in the US are Asian, while one-fifth are Black.

It goes without saying that these people represent many cultures, traditions, and cuisines, all of which they incorporate into religious events. So even though mosque events may overwhelmingly serve hummus and pita bread, this isn’t representative of the people who go to consume it.

This is something that Nazima Qureshi, a practicing nutritionist and co-founder of the Healthy Muslims, has noticed. “[Religious] communities are created by the stakeholders at that mosque and a lot of times, unfortunately, it’s a very ethnic base, so you’ll have the South Asian-led mosques and the Middle Eastern mosques,” Qureshi told Vox.

This leadership plays a big role in the decision-making and tends to exclude people from cultures that have less concentrated Muslim populations, something that Qureshi thinks should change. “Muslims come from so many different cultures,” she said, “so as a nutritionist, I try to incorporate a lot of different flavors to accurately reflect the Muslim community.”

Qureshi said that many of her Muslim clients feel like they have to give up their cultural food in order to eat healthy, so she tries to reverse this perspective by celebrating what her clients (literally) bring to the table.

In my family, for example, Ramadan is a time to experiment with the vast array of dishes in our family cookbooks. I come from a mixed North African, Pakistani, and Quebecois background, so Wednesday’s iftar could be a tajine stew while on Thursday we might have chicken korma.

I talked to three Muslim Americans, who value their cultural cuisines as well as their faith, about how their intersecting identities are reflected in the ways they observe Ramadan. Their stories have been edited and condensed.

Sahla Denton, 21, Cottage Grove, Oregon

I’m half Mexican, half Jamaican, and I grew up with both of those cultures equally. But I’m also Muslim, which has a big influence on my family’s lifestyle. Since we’re from such different ethnic backgrounds, we don’t have a lot of traditions that other Muslim families have, so we’ve made a lot of our own.

One thing we’ve had to do in general is adapt our traditional dishes because there are a lot of Mexican and Jamaican dishes that aren’t initially halal. For example, Mexicans use a lot of pork fat, so we have to alter even the regular beans and rice. A lot of Jamaican cakes use rum, so we’ve had to find ingredients that balance the sugar other than alcohol. Our non-Muslim extended family has also adapted to us — like now all our aunties know how to make dishes that are good for us to eat, and it’s brought us together a lot more. One of our family’s staple dishes, that we’ll definitely be eating this Ramadan, is escovitch, which is a Jamaican dish made of fish and topped with onions, carrots, and bell peppers tossed in vinegar.

The Denton farm.
Courtesy of Sahla Denton
The Denton family produces much of the food they eat themselves.
Courtesy of Sahla Denton

As Muslims, we believe in taking care of the land, animals, and plants we benefit from, which was one of the values we’ve had since starting our family farm. We produce most of the food we eat, and if we have anything extra, we try to redistribute that.

In fact, since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an active food pantry in town where a lot of local farmers donate extra produce and animal products. My dad and I were some of the first volunteers to stock the pantry with milk and eggs from our farm animals when it opened. We will definitely continue doing that this year during Ramadan, and then once we start harvesting, we’ll have produce to give as well.

One of my favorite Ramadan memories was when I was little and we used to go to the mosque for iftar. It would be me and my friend, and we’d have to help the little kids serve their food, and so I remember going back and forth to the food line so many times, but it was a lot of fun. The food was all really good because it was usually a potluck, so there was Mexican food, there was Pakistani food, there was food from all over the place on one table.

Dawood Yasin, 51, Berkeley, California

Ramadan, for me, is proximity to God through subtraction to make space for addition. And so the subtraction obviously is food, and the addition is worship. This Ramadan I’m hoping to experiment with a simple diet, where I will break my fast with dates and bone broth, but I still love to cook.

My family originated from the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Senegal, and we have our traditional foods like jag (beans and rice). But over the past two years I’ve been putting energy and intentionality into American barbecue. On the 17th of April, it will be 25 years since I converted to Islam, and for most of that time I wasn’t able to eat barbecue because no one made it halal. You’re not going to see an iftar in the mosque where they’re serving barbecued chicken and cornbread. It’s biryani and kebabs, you know, Mediterranean or South Asian cuisine. Which is great, I mean, everyone has their own inclination. But I wanted to expose more people to the possibilities of making this cuisine halal, and the response has been incredible.

Dawood Yasin set out to make halal barbecue, and succeeded.
Courtesy of Dawood Yasin

I see food as an expression of love to my family. Because if I love you, then I’m going to ensure that the best form of protein, vegetables, and food in general, is what I’m serving you. And if that means I have to go get it myself I will. I’ve spent full weeks at a time bow-hunting on backcountry trails and trekking through mountains to fish. I started this hashtag on social media #getyourownhalal, which to me is the coupling of being outdoors and getting the best food for your health.

I actually don’t see a separation between wellness and religion. When I look at religiosity, I see it as a lifestyle, so there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two: If I’m unhealthy, I can’t worship properly. When I was 45 years old, I had a knee injury and I couldn’t prostrate to complete the Muslim prayer for six months. I had to pray in a chair during that time and I thought to myself, imagine if this was a perpetual state? I missed prostrating and putting my head onto the ground, and I knew that if my lifestyle was ever the cause of restricting my worship, I would have to address it. One of the aims and purposes of Islam is preservation of life, because there can be no preservation of religion if there is no life.

Seba Ismail, 19, Boston, Massachusetts

I have a really big sweet tooth, so my favorite Ramadan dishes are desserts. We’re Egyptian, so my mom makes atayef, which is a sweet dumpling filled with cream, and we only have them during Ramadan because my mom says she wants us to savor it more and really appreciate it. I used to beg her to make them for my birthday and she would always say “no, you gotta wait until Ramadan,” so as a kid I would always get super excited for when the month started because it was the only time I could eat them.

This year I won’t have that because I’m spending Ramadan on campus in Pennsylvania, and since Ramadan for me has always been so tied to community, I’m kind of excited to experience it by myself. I feel like it’s more of a test for me and my relationship with God. In the past, Ramadan would be my mom telling me to go to the mosque for prayers, or going to iHop for suhoor with my hometown friends, and I feel like I relied on a lot of people for my Ramadan experience. Now it’s just myself, and I don’t really know how to do that, but it’s kind of cool.

Seba Ismail is celebrating Ramadan as a college student for the first time.
Courtesy of Seba Ismail

My family is Nubian, so growing up I would get a lot of people asking me, “How are you Egyptian, if you’re Black?” And because I don’t wear the hijab, people are also surprised when they find out I’m Muslim. I feel like I had a really big identity crisis that came from a lot of misinformation and ignorance. A lot of people don’t know about the complicated past of colonization in North Africa, or the slavery that happened there, or the displacement of Indigenous groups. I don’t think we talk about the diversity of the Muslim community enough, like the Black Muslim population is huge15 percent of the world’s Muslims live in sub-Saharan Africa but most people don’t know that.

Bucknell University has a primarily white population, so I get a lot of questions about Ramadan and fasting that Muslims joke about but that I’ve never had to answer before, like “You can’t even drink water?” “How does your body survive?” and “Do you just stand outside and like, look at the sun to see when you can eat?” A lot of these people have only ever seen Muslim people on TV, which is kind of shocking to me and frustrating at times. I’m still figuring out how to navigate it.

Growing up, my parents would always tell me, “you’re Egyptian,” and then I go to Egypt and they’re like, “you’re American,” and then in America, they’re like, “you’re neither.” But I think now I’ve found a space in between, where I can be somebody who doesn’t have to fit in one box or the other.