Whoever said we wouldn’t end up using high school geometry in real life was wrong. Euclid himself would have reveled in the scene about to unfold.
All set to acquire a new skill, around fifty eager students packed the hall on a cool, breezy Sunday morning. The group appeared a mixed ethnicity microcosm of Southern California, though tilted in favor of South Asians. Our instructor, too, was Pakistani.
“The corners must be sharp and the triangles, perfect,” she directed us.
Unlike in geometry class, though, our individual work stations included no protractors, pencils or erasers. There was paper, but it wasn’t the kind you would use for working through math problems, either: it was wax paper, the type you’d use for working with dough. Our work stations also stocked with spiced ground chicken, spring roll sheets and slurry for binding the edges of each triangular deep-fried stuffed pastry delight we churned out.
There couldn’t have been a better way to kick off Ramadan than our local mosque’s “How to Make Perfect Samosas” workshop. God and food: hand-in-hand.
[bctt tweet=”God and food: hand-in-hand.” username=”wearethetempest”]
Whether eaten as a street food snack or an elegant hors d’oeuvre, the samosa is positively sacred for desi folk during Ramadan. Not sacred in the same way as dates, encouraged and practiced by the beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as the food of choice to inaugurate the breaking of the fast. To follow God’s Messenger is to follow God, they say; but the samosa, too, is held so dearly that the social convention behind it speaks as loudly as God. It’s a culture-specific sacredness for desis, often eaten immediately after the date travels down the esophagus.
Because of the absolutely diverse scope of Muslims, discussing Ramadan foods is like trying to define the complex terrain of American cuisine— part “melting pot” homogeneity, part “salad bowl” diversity. It depends on who is doing the eating and who is doing the drinking.
From Marrakesh to Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles to Auckland, Ramadan foods and drinks morph within various cultural, familial, and individual contexts.
Nonetheless, the samosa is pretty ubiquitous in the desi fast-breaking meal, the iftar.
Foods and cuisines have always been a work in progress, evolving from interplay of factors like available resources, genes, climates. And in that evolution, sometimes and somehow, certain foods and drink are revered sacred, whether in a secular or religious context.
The deification of certain foods and drink—and the inevitable vilification of others—is as old as the human drama itself.
[bctt tweet=”Defining ‘Ramadan food’ is nearly impossible. It just depends on who is doing the eating.” username=”wearethetempest”]
Just as the sacred prasadam, dates, matzo balls, bread and wine will, God willing, induct us into the “good books,” the secular gluten-free, vegan, organic also offers to us a sliver of worldly salvation.
Like the sacred taboos of forbidden fruits, forbidden animals, forbidden drinks, secular food and drink taboos can shape our behavior just the same.
The writers of the 2013 comedy “This is the End” had fun with this idea, showing that sometimes there’s a bandwagon effect where people follow food laws for social belonging, sometimes without even understanding what they’re doing. It’s a notion not uncommon to people of faith.
I still laugh when I remember the scene where Seth Rogen is driving with his friend, and announces their next stop is Carl’s Jr., the fast-food chain that serves up indulgent burgers with calorie counts that start around where the average daily caloric intake should end.
“Um, well, I can’t really do that,” Rogen replies. “You see, I’m on this new gluten-free diet thing.”
“You’re kidding!” his friend exclaims. “I bet you don’t even know what gluten is.”
“Sure, I do.”
“Well, then do tell.”
“Gluten is…really anything bad for you so fat and sugar and all that.”
“So you’re not drinking or smoking or anything?”
“What are you kidding? Of course I am drinking and smoking, I’m just having no gluten.”
[bctt tweet=”We all have our own forbidden fruits, forbidden animals, forbidden drinks.” username=”wearethetempest”]
For all the differences that the various peoples of God fret over, we share this in common: we all have, for whatever reason, our own versions of sacred and quasi-sacred foods. We all have our own forbidden fruits, forbidden animals, forbidden drinks.
Who knows? This might be part of why we can’t seem to get along. Because we eat and drink differently. Maybe that’s part of why we stay closed off from one another.
But even if you take God out of the equation, try socializing with someone who has different eating practices—gluten-free or vegetarian– when among your dearest passions are lobster bisque and croissants. What hell that would be.
Despite all the differences though, we could manage to find common ground. With its global similarities to the European spanakopita and South American empanadas, here’s a sweet and simple way to unite the world: samosas. Seems like a good time to heat up some oil and get frying. Happy Ramadan!