The feasts of Ramadan: traditional cuisine, vegan meals, and dates with a twist are the iftar dishes of choice in the UAE
The UAE’s multi-ethnic residents are known to experiment with new cuisines and restaurants given the wide availability of food from all over the world.
During Ramadan however, it’s back to basics. For Muslims in the country, the iftar table mostly consists of familiar traditional dishes.
Mateen’s Catering, which specialises in Mughlai and Indian cuisine, launched thaal iftar packages in Dubai at the beginning of the holy month and has seen good demand so far.
The delivery-only circular platters feature seven-course meals and include everything, from aromatic biryani and butter chicken to samosas and saffron milkshakes.
“We have introduced the ‘thaal’ concept of delivering iftar platters to people’s doorstep with authentic flavours that people love. On an average, we get requests for 25 thaals per day, which is mostly for home iftars and some for corporate,” Mateen Ali Mohammed, Founder of Mateen’s Catering told Food Matters Live.
Iftar traditional home cooking
According the Mastercard-CrescentRating Ramadan & Eid Lifestyle Report 2022, which surveyed 1,000 individuals between January and March, the majority (92%) of people consider having iftar and suhoor [the meal consumed early in the morning before fasting, during Ramadan] with family as their most-anticipated activity during the holy month, while 42% said they were looking forward to having delicious food.
“Most responses centre around traditional delicacies when asked about their go-iftar and suhoor dishes…from fried snacks such as samosas to different types of soups, porridge, and main meals like a variety of rice dishes and bread. Western food is not consumed much during the Ramadan season,” the report said.
The survey also found that 74% of respondents prefer home cooking every day, 36% never order food, and 42% never dine out during Ramadan.
Sohail Al Marzouqi, Operations Manager at Emirati restaurant group Al Fanar, said that deliveries tend to be higher in number at the beginning of the month, when people are still adjusting to the fasting routine.
“In the first two weeks, it’s more ordering in with deliveries, and in the second half of Ramadan people tend to get out more and dine in restaurants and malls,” Al Marzouqi told Food Matters Live.
“The average bill for delivery is Dh150-200 ($41 to $54) or so for 2-3 people. Occasionally, we get big orders for Dh400-450 ($109 to $123), which would cater for 4-5 people. We rarely we get one-person orders,” he said.
Al Fanar is famous for its authentic Emirati dishes, which include thareed, a main dish at every local Ramadan table, made from meat and vegetable stew and served with regag, a thin and crisp cracker-like bread. “During Ramadan, most of the iftar orders we get are for chicken and lamb-based dishes, and to a lesser extent seafood dishes,” said Al Marzouqi.
Levantine-street eatery Zaroob made the most of Ramadan by offering Middle Eastern favourites across its Dubai branches.
The iftar menu, available for dine-in and delivery, includes comforting dishes like moloukhiya (a braised greens dish made with jute leaf), koussa mahshi (courgettes stuffed with savoury meat and rice), and koshari (an Egyptian staple mixing chickpeas, pasta, fried onions, and tomato sauce).
The restaurant also launched one-meter-long shawarma and manoushe (a Levantine flatbread with a variety of toppings), which it claims is the biggest in Dubai. The two limited-edition Ramadan dishes were created for iftar to share with family and friends.
Iftar vegan and healthy options
Indulging in sumptuous iftars is nothing new to Muslims in the Middle East, but an increasing number of people are choosing healthier meals over the heavier recipes they ate growing up. Restaurants are responding to this demand by cooking up healthier versions of traditional dishes.
Just Vegan, a restaurant with two branches in Dubai that specialises in plant-based dishes from around the world, held a special event on the last weekend of Ramadan, where it served an enticing range of Middle Eastern delicacies.
The menu featured rare vegan versions of harira (a Moroccan soup of meat, tomato, lentils, and chickpeas), dawood basha (a meatball stew with potatoes and peas, simmered in a tomato sauce), and bourak bel jibneh (fried cheese pastries).
Meanwhile, UAE-based healthy meal subscription company PrepHero introduced a number of calorie-counted Middle Eastern dishes to its Ramadan meal package, including machbous (a spiced rice dish with meat), qatayef (stuffed Arabic pancakes with a variety of fillings) and muhalabiya (a milk pudding scented with rosewater).
“As a healthy meal plan company in the UAE, we work around understanding many of our client’s daily preferred meals so that we can always make our meal plan more personal and inspired by their all-time favourite meals”, Tarek Hassan, Content and Partnership Executive at PrepHero.
An iftar classic: dates
While some people are opting for healthier meals and plant-based options, one aspect of iftar remains unchanged: breaking the fast with dates.
Dates are considered an ideal food to break the fast with as they provide a burst of energy and reduce the hunger pangs, preventing excessive eating. Starting iftar with dates is also rooted in religious teachings as they emulate the practice of the Prophet Muhammad.
In the Mastercard-CrescentRating Ramadan lifestyle survey, 80% of participants said they prefer to break their fast with dates.
Dates grow widely in the Middle East, with the UAE alone producing 160 varieties of the fruit. As a staple in every Muslim household, they always sell during the holy month, in every shape and form.
With chocolate-covered and almond-filled dates already widely available, local dessert shops are now adding new twists to these sweet fruits.
As part of its Ramadan collection, Not Just Desserts DXB, a Dubai-based chocolate brand, has created assortments of dates filled with mango, pistachio, cashew, and lotus, some topped with edible gold, while Coco Jalila is offering dates filled with candied orange and lemon peels.
Food is clearly a big focus in Ramadan and the extravagant iftar meals are not going away anytime soon. Businesses that can satisfy the appetite for homely, nostalgic food, or cater to the niche demands for healthy and vegan traditional meals, are likely to be the busiest in future Ramadans.