Fasting, Feasting and Socialising

| 17/09/2009 | Reply
 


LUCAS OLENIUK PHOTOS/TORONTO STAR

At Nurdan and Zekeriya Balikci’s home, iftar guests break the fast with fresh dates and many Turkish delights.

Sunset meal during Ramadan nourishes both body and spirit

September 16, 2009

Laid
out before each of us on Nurdan and Zekeriya Balikci’s iftar table is a
single, fresh yellow date. We pluck these fruits off festive orange
napkins fashioned into flowers, bite into them and marvel at the way
they crisply straddle the sweet-tart divide.

Some of us reach also for dried dates, enjoying their wrinkly brown skin and luscious sweetness.

Iftar
is the name of the evening fast-breaking meal during Ramadan, the
Islamic month of fasting, which began Aug. 22 and ends Sunday with Eid
ul-Fitr. Dates are traditionally the first thing eaten to boost blood
sugar levels.

This is my first iftar. The word only entered my
food lexicon this summer after I spotted restaurants advertising iftar
set meals.

I am among the non-Muslim guests joining the Balikcis
and their friends from the Turkish community in North York. This is the
fourth year the Canadian Intercultural Dialogue Centre has invited
non-Muslim Torontonians for iftar. About 900 guests have been paired
with 250 families this year.

A calendar from a local Islamic
society hangs in the kitchen, alerting us that today’s fasting began at
4:53 a.m. and ends at 7:48 p.m., punctuated by multiple times for
prayer.

“Fasting may be difficult, but it provides the body with
energy, activity, and resistance,” says Fatih Yegul, executive director
of the Saygi Canadian Turkish Academics Association. “Hardships and
sufferings promote people to higher spiritual degrees, and will be
returned manifold in the other world.”

The kitchen is abuzz all
night. As hostess Nurdan Balikci says, “I prepare dinner for 10 to 15
people, but it’s okay for 20 or 25.”

This is an understatement.
The food flows so freely that most can’t keep up with the two dozen
items that showcase Turkish cuisine.

Multiple soups (lentil,
cucumber and yogurt, and apricot) help us ease into iftar. Grape
leaves, cabbage rolls and eggplants are stuffed with meat, rice, onion
and spices. There is homemade bread, and grilled lamb and sea bream.
Manti, dumplings smothered in yogurt and red pepper sauce, makes an
expected appearance. Lamb and butter beans are served from a clay pot.
Yogurty beet sald is divine. Dessert – baklava, pine nut helva, poached
squash – is endless.

“Not every day we eat like this,” warns Balikci. “Impossible.”

The
diversity of iftar is key, says University of Waterloo professor
Mustafa Yavuz, but so is “the more people the better” principle as the
Prophet Muhammad “says don’t be alone when you are eating.”

I
can’t get an accurate head count. About 12 of us are seated at the
table, but some people come and go. Numerous women keep the courses
flowing from the kitchen. Some men plant themselves by the barbecue.
Children romp freely.

The Balikcis arrived from Turkey nine years
ago. Nurdan is from Istanbul, Zekeriya from Malatya (a region renowned
for its apricots). She is homemaker to their family of five. He builds
fences and decks.

During Ramadan, families wake before dawn for a light meal (called suhoor) of tea, bread and cheese.

If
suhoor is about family, then iftar is about community. University of
Toronto student Senem Karlidagsays “women try to show their abilities
and try to teach other.”

Children aren’t expected to fast until
puberty. Seniha Inceoz, 12, calls her second year of fasting “fun.” Nil
Academy teacher Aysel Yegul’s 4-year-old son likes to say: “Mommy I am
fasting. Mommy can I have ice cream?”

It’s in the kitchen, naturally, that all the best chit-chat happens.

Balikci
shares her dream to one day “try every kitchen, every cuisine.” She’s
not sure how she’ll manage that as Muslims can only eat halal food that
is permissible according to Islamic law. They don’t eat pork or drink
alcohol. Animals must be slaughtered in a specific way. Halal meat and
cheese are easily sourced, but labels must be scoured for animal
products.

“That’s why I cannot go to any restaurant,” says
Balikci, before she and a few others grill me about “my Canadian food.”
They’re curious to know if I eat pancakes with maple syrup on weekends.
(Rarely.)

It’s refreshing to be questioned for a cross-cultural exchange.

Margarett
Best, Ontario’s minister of health promotion, says “it’s a sign of
respect when you sit with people and share the culture.”

As
iftar wraps up with tea, deputy police chief Tony Warr speaks for
everyone when he says: “I’ve never been here before but I feel like I’m
part of the family. And you don’t bring a gift to their house, they
give you a gift.”

Canadian Intercultural Dialogue Centre executive director Varol Soyler explains why we’re given gorgeous Turkish plates.

“The
story is, in Ottoman times, that when your guest comes, you prepare
something, a food. I am using your teeth to eat my food, so it’s kind
of that I am renting your mouth, your teeth, to digest my food. So at
the end, I have to give you something to pay you back.”

jbain@thestar.ca

Category: Canada, The Americas

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