It’s Ramadan, and three hours before buka puasa and there is so much buzz in Dr Sobia Bilal’s kitchen. The Pakistani dentist is busy preparing savoury treats such as samosa, pakora and dahi baray (fried dough balls soaked in yoghurt).
Her parents-in-law, Jamila Mahmood, 65, and Mahmood Rashid, 75, are also in the kitchen, assembling malfuf, an Egyptian stuffed cabbage roll with rice, minced meat and herbs.
It gets even more festive when Dr Sobia’s hungry children, Nyle, 12, and Nysa, eight, pop into the kitchen to check out what awaits them for the breaking of fast.
During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Fasting is one of the five obligations that every Muslim must fulfil.
“In Pakistan, as in most other Muslim countries, the whole month is celebrated as a festival. We make special arrangements not just for the prayers but also the two special meals of the day, iftar (breaking of fast) and sahur (pre-dawn meal),” says Dr Sobia, whose family is keeping to this practice in Kuala Lumpur.
For breaking fast, their table is laden with the family’s favourite dishes. Apart from Pakistani dishes, there are also Egyptian dishes as Dr Sobia’s husband Bilal Rashid and her father-in-law are Egyptians.
There are appetisers such as preserved olives, pickles, cheese and chana chaat (chick pea salad). Mahmood has also made baba ghanoush (eggplant dip) and hummus (chickpea dip), his granddaughters’ all-time favourites.
For the main course, there is malfuf, samosa, pakora and paratha, as well as kebabs and fried chicken.
The dessert spread is impressive; there is trifle, burfi (an Indian milk dessert), fruit custard, kunafa (an Egyptian sweet treat made with vermicelli, dates and nuts), dates and fresh fruits.
Their Ramadan breaking fast spreads are always this lavish.
“This is a daily affair at our home. We prepare different dishes to cater to everyone’s liking. On certain days, we have keema, shish kebabs, briyani and haleem (meat stew with lentils and pounded wheat),” explains Dr Sobia.
Jamila usually breaks fast with a rose syrup drink, followed by dates.
“Both are rich in sugar and provide an excellent source of energy. We then eat starters like samosa and pakora. They are nutrutious and energising after a day of fasting,” says the grandmother-of-five.
For sahur, Pakistanis usually drink pheni, a nutritious drink made from vermicelli, sugar and milk. This special drink is prepared to keep those fasting energised throughout the day.
“Pheni is refreshing and filling. Some Muslims prefer heavier meals like rice, breads and dhal during sahur. Others prefer dairy-based meals to keep them full and prevent thirst throughout the day,” said Dr Sobia, a dental surgeon at a private university in KL.
In the past eight years that they have lived in Malaysia, Dr Sobia has sampled local Ramadan delights like bubur lambuk, ayam percik and an assortment of kuih. While she enjoys Malaysian food, she prefers Pakistani food for breaking fast during the holy month.
“My family loves to eat food from all types of cuisines. But we are fond of Pakistani dishes. We love to indulge in our food which is rich in aroma and flavour, more so during Ramadan when we like to cook traditional recipes and satisfy our taste buds. It is comfort food that’s nostalgic,” says Dr Sobia, who is from Karachi.
She says Ramadan is one of the biggest religious celebrations in Pakistan.
“The sighting of the moon for Ramadan is viewed as a joyous occasion among Pakistanis. We convey best wishes to our loved ones and pray Ramadan offers lots of happiness and prosperity throughout the year,” recounts Dr Sobia who gets homesick during Ramadan. During this holy month, Pakistani Muslims actively do charity work, such as distributing food to fellow Muslims on the streets.
“At intersections or busy streets, volunteers give out food and drinks to ensure everyone have sustenance for iftar. It is a beautiful practice to give back to society,” adds Dr Sobia.
There are some Ramadan rituals that Dr Sobia misses.
“In Pakistan, restaurants and food chains are open during sahur. I really miss eating out during sahur with my family members and close friends. I also miss shopping for traditional clothes and food for Eid al-Fitr.”
She adds that Pakistanis are hospitable people who enjoy organising get-togethers during iftar and sahur.
Related story: Dr Sobia shares her family’s kebab recipe
“Back home, we look forward to invitations and also to invite people over to our home. In Malaysia, we practise the same tradition by organising buka puasa celebrations among our Muslim and non-Muslim friends from different countries. This way, people from other cultures and religions can sample Pakistani and Egyptian food,” says Dr Sobia, who encourages her children to wear something new every Friday during the holy month.
She adds that Malaysians are blessed as they get to celebrate many festivities.
“The beauty of Malaysia is that our friends and acquaintances from other cultures and religions celebrate Ramadan and Eid with us. I love festive decorations in shopping malls, and being able to learn so much about different cultures and traditions.”
Here in KL, she enjoys going to grocery stores as she is fascinated by the tools used to make traditional cookies.
“Biscuits and cakes are vibrant and colourful. I also like the concept of open house after Eid Fitri which lasts for a month. In Pakistan, Eid Fitri is celebrated for only three days.”