On the first day of Ramadan it’s my turn to cook. During the lockdown, food has become a barometer of time when it isn’t a balm for a painful time itself. But it’s Ramadan now and food takes on even greater meaning this month. Ironic, I know. Though we fast during daylight hours, abstaining from the pleasures of the flesh and generally trying to be better people, it is around food that the other rituals of Ramadan are forged. Togetherness. Solidarity. A strengthening of purpose. It comes together around the two meals of Ramadan — iftar, the breaking fast meal, which commences after sunset and suhoor, or sehri, the meal consumed before commencing the fast. It is beautiful.
Make no mistake, there is a great deal of excess, too. We don’t actually need this many varieties of meat patted, prodded and appropriately styled for Instagram stories. But there’s something that food does for our spirit. And not just the consumption of it. That’s the easy part. The ritual preparation of a well-cooked meal as an act of love is an act of devotion. It is, for me, a part of having faith. And thinking about it as an act of love is how I reconcile the gendered division of work in the home.
So I am making mutabbaq, which in Arabic means “folded”. It is described as a stuffed pancake or pan-fried bread and it’s common everywhere between the Arabian Peninsula and Southeast Asia. It is an especially popular street food in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Saudi Arabia is where I learned to love it. So even though I’m far away I make mutabbaq every Ramadan.
I use large sheets of purr, the wafer-thin pastry traditionally used to make samoosas. But while the purr for samoosas would be cut in long strips, I use larger, rectangular shaped sheets for the mutabbaq. I can’t take the credit for making the purr. I’ve never even attempted it. I’m happy to support the aunties who run massive samoosa purr businesses out of their kitchens. Good purr comes at a premium. They are delicate. So even as I work, I cover the stack in a damp cloth to prevent them from cracking.
I start by taking two sheets and slice them in half. These will be the centres of my mutabbaq. I have to work quickly. I reach for the stack beneath the cloth, gently peeling off a complete sheet and laying it in front of me. In the middle of that sheet I place one of the pieces I’ve already cut. And then I reach for the filling. I’m using chicken mince that my mum has cooked and frozen especially for mutabbaq. Into it, I’ve beaten five eggs and gently seasoned it further. As I use a serving spoon to gently pat the filling onto the centre of the mutabbaq, I remember in horror that one time I got a bit carried away with lemon pepper. I shudder.
And then I begin folding.
As I fold the edges inward, using a paste of flour and water to seal it, I am reminded of a different time and a different me. A teenage me walking into the crowded alleyways of Madina in Saudi Arabia with my brother late on Ramadan nights. The holy month turns many Muslim majority countries into nocturnal nations. So the streets were as full with people and cars as they were with merriment. The shopkeepers’ chants of “five riyal, five riyal, everything five riyal, hey South African, Mandela, five riyal!” were a perennial soundtrack for us — apparently you could spot a South African a mile away. But it’s not the five riyal store that had interested us. We were buying mutabbaq. Even as I remember standing in the queue at the vendor, I am frustrated by my fading memory. I can’t recall where the vendor was situated. But I remember my brother standing beside me, my constant companion, as we watched a man dexterously folding a mutabbaq. He was quick. Far quicker than I could ever hope to be folding mutabbaq as I do once a year. I remember ordering, “bedoon tamatim” — without tomato. “Wa waahid bil mawz.” And one with banana.
With a smile, I lift my first mutabbaq on the griddle plan. My family is already clamouring around me. This is my homage to the love of food, but the love too of food in places we love.