Observance of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, and during the month itself Muslims strive to be more compassionate and sensitive to the world around them. In Egypt, however, the holiday is equally notable for its food.
Despite strict fasting during daylight hours during Ramadan, many admit that they actually eat more during this holy month. Between delectable Eastern desserts and fine Egyptian dishes, it’s hard to resist the appeal of food once the sun has set. Preparing the feast requires stocking up on various Ramadan-related products and food items.
Readily available in the run up to Ramadan are dates, dried figs, dried apricots, raisins and nuts like pistachios, cashews, hazelnuts, and walnuts. The nuts are predominantly used to make desserts like konafa, a traditional cake, which has seen some evolutions in the past years.
Since Ramadan now falls in the summer a popular konafa contains mango, upsetting purists who claim that the traditional recipe with cream is superior. Controversy aside, konafa is a staple of the Ramadan menu, and traditional holiday songs usually include the popular konafa maker.
Despite the tense situation on the streets, homes are nonetheless preparing for the upcoming holiday season. A manager of a local supermarket chain said: “We are selling the same amounts of Ramadan goods as last year, but the only difference is that people have started to buy their products 20 days ago when usually people buy their products 10 days before Ramadan. People started their shopping early because of the expected events,” he explained.
He added that his customers are buying all types of goods, but due to higher prices, some things are staying on the shelves. “The price of some Ramadan-specific products has increased by 30-40% compared to last year,” he said, blaming the rise on the devaluation of the Egyptian pound.
The purchase of holiday products will continue until Ramadan’s start later this week: either Tuesday or Wednesday depending on the Islamic calendar. Usually the day before the start of the holy month, the city’s streets fill with traffic as last-minute shoppers scramble to finish their unending errands; this year it is expected that this will happen earlier due to ongoing political unrest.
To an outsider, this shopping frenzy can be confusing, and seems contrary to the spirit of Ramadan. To put things in perspective, however, Egyptians traditionally break their fasts while visiting family in the first week. Every day a different person invites the “extended” family for iftar, or breakfast; with every invitation comes the obligation to return it. This results in many schlepping back and forth across the capital just before the sun goes down, in an attempt to fulfill all their familial obligations.
Due to all those iftars, dessert shops and bakeries work overtime. There is a time-honoured taboo tradition in Egyptian culture against visiting a home empty-handed; you will be sure to spot Cairenes out and about with artfully wrapped platters of traditional sweet desserts under their arms.