5 mins

India during Ramadan: a feast for the senses

India-bound this month? Follow our insider's guide to etiquette, eating and spiritualism during Ramadan

India during Ramadan: a feast for the senses

The month of Ramadan can be an enlightening time to travel, and – as with any religious festivals – can be a great opportunity to learn more about faith and tradition. Wanderlust quizzed India aficionado Ivor Peters (aka the Urban Rajah), chef, traveller and author of Urban Rajah’s Curry Memoirs, about what travellers to India can expect...

What kind of atmosphere can travellers expect when visiting India during Ramadan?

India is home to over 140 million Muslims, so Ramadan touches most aspects of everyday life – even for non-Musilms. In recent years, Ramadan has fallen in some of the hottest months, so a combination of fasting, low blood sugar and heat can lead to a short fuse, lethargy and a subdued mood during daylight hours. However, Ramadan is a period of reflection so the spirit is a little more philosophical and introspective.

Once the horizon drinks in the sun and dusk arrives, the streets hum with humanity and markets buzz with feverish celebration. Families pour into the bazaars and buy new chappals (shoes) and topis (hats), and of course purchase food for the Iftar feast later that evening which breaks the fast. Iftar us usually started by chewing on plump, juicy dates and supping refreshing tea or a freshly made fruit herbal sharbat (sherbert).

When the sun sets and the food is brought out, what are the stand-out celebratory dishes?

Iftar breaks the fast and nothing tastes as good as the streetfood snacks which are hoovered up by the ton. Food bazaars feed the air and the appetite with freshly fried crumbly samosas, pakora vegetable fritters, spiced chickpea snacks such as cholay and tender mutton kebabs.

The feast continues with hearty treats, such as fragrant meaty biryanis bought by the kilo or tucking into the dish which for many defines Iftar known as haleem. It’s a great bear hug of a dish a nutritious broth combining lentils, shredded lamb and bulgur wheat and it’s the sort of comfort food that’ll cradle you through ‘til dawn.

For the sweet tooth there’s phirni, soft milky pudding combined with the nutritious depth of ground almonds and ground rice flour, crowned with the regal scent of cardamom dust. For those still craving a little more dessert indulgence there’s always gulab jamuns…syrupy dumplings.

Let's talk logistics. As a non-Muslim will I have to go hungry during the day?

In a country like India there’s always food available, but it’s good manners to use discretion if tucking in whilst others abstain.

How can I enter into the spirit of things - and avoid making a faux pas?

There’s some simple Ramadan etiquette; dress modestly, and use the Ramadan greeting ‘Ramadan Kareem’, (loosely translated as happy Ramadan). Obviously don’t offer food during daylight: respect this time of peaceful reflection, and perhaps consider fasting to experience a little of Ramadan for yourself.

Try to join a community Iftar, or find one run by a local mosque – it’s the closest you can get to immersing yourself in the experience. But don’t go empty handed: a box of Indian sweets always goes down well.

How to make vegetable pakoras

(serves 4)
See Urban Rajah for more recipes!

250g gram (chickpea) flour
50g self-raising flour
½ tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp garam masala
Water to combine
300g potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
½ cauliflower, sliced, then cut across into small chunks
1 tsp cumin seeds
12 spinach leaves, finely chopped
1 onion, finely sliced
1 tsp chopped green chilli
Bunch of coriander leaves
Pinch of salt
Sunflower oil, for deep frying

Sift both flours into a bowl, spoon in the cayenne pepper and garam masala and combine. Gradually add water, tablespoon by tablespoon, and work to form a batter smooth and thick enough to cling to the back of a spoon. Leave to rest for 15 minutes.

Apart from the oil, tip in the rest of the ingredients, making sure everything is coated. Pour enough sunflower oil in a deep frying pan or wok, and heat until a dropped cumin seed fizzes and swims.

Carefully lower in tablespoons of the fritter mix. Work in batches, frying the vegetable pakoras for approximately 3 minutes on each side until they’ve taken on the colour of caramel and the vegetables are cooked through, crispy and light. Serve with a chutney of your choice.

Main image: Jama Masjid Mosque in Delhi, India (Shutterstock)

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