Ramadan is that holy time when we take a small step closer to the lives of those who are less fortunate. We experience their hunger, their fatigue, their daily struggle for the things we take for granted. And in turn, we channel that empathy into prayers, zakat (alms) and acts of feeding the poor.
Dubai has monetized Ramadan. We – ‘we’ as businesses and ‘we’ as consumers – have reduced Ramadan to a series of shopping deals and buffet extravaganzas that are a far cry from the humble, restrained spirit of the month. I laugh every time a radio ad for a five-star restaurant 'Iftar tent' closes with the profound words: Embrace the spirit of Ramadan, likely written by someone whose only experience of the holy month was behind a ludicrously over-stocked buffet table.
Just when I’d given up all hope of having an authentic Iftar experience in the city, I receive an invite from Maysa Meqdadi, the Palestinian-Jordanian mother of two living in Mirdiff and running home-based cooking lessons under a brand that shows she means business: Let’s Talk Food Dubai.
While Maysa has been living in Dubai for the past ten years, she only translated her passion for cooking into formal classes since the start of the year - much to the delight of students who leave her rave reviews after attempting her recipes back home. Just scrolling through her past Facebook posts made me want to pull up a chair at her table and snatch a slice of her homemade mussakhan, a Palestinian pie that marries a whole bone-in chicken with the contrasting flavours of fruity Palestinian olive oil, sweet caramelized onions and tart sumac.
As we wait for the other six participants to arrive, Maysa, my intern from work [#RheatheIntern] and I talk about everything from cookbooks to possible mutual acquaintances to the recipe of jallab, a thirst-quenching concoction of dates and grape molasses. I have never met Maysa before, but she is the sort of fun, chatty, down-to-earth personality who leaves no room for awkward silence. Her eyes bear the excited twinkle of someone who is proud of her culture and cannot wait to open up her home to strangers like me.
You don’t see that in Dubai very often.
It is nearly 5.30pm by the time our eclectic crew of students arrive – two sprightly Italian ladies who run a cooking course in the Marina, a half-Palestinian, half-Greek entrepreneur focused on showcasing forgotten Palestinian village crafts, and a young food-loving couple from South Africa who recently moved to the city. We have less than two hours before Iftar and an ambitious menu ahead of us: a traditional apricot cordial, lentil soup, fattoush, two kinds of kofta dishes and dessert. Unless Maysa has some sort of culinary magic up her sleeve, that menu simply will not happen.
Much to our collective relief, Maysa does create culinary magic. From blending pre-soaked strips of sweet apricot leather into a thick, velvety Qamr Deen juice to making a lentil soup from scratch, Maysa weaves through our menu with the practiced grace of someone who can cook, teach and patiently answer questions all at once. She is everything I am not in times of great culinary stress.
The menu lends itself to teamwork and very soon, eight strangers converge into a coordinated crew, helping, guiding, sharing and laughing. Maysa engages us so effectively in the cooking process that there is no time to feel hungry, except when the occasional whiff of seven spices latches on to the aroma of baking kofta.
While Maysa is far from bring prescriptive, we manage to test her limits with our grotesque kofta shapes, each of them worlds apart from her delicately-moulded demo piece. Our misshapen boulders are promptly thrown back into the prep bowl and the group is (gently) ordered to reshape the kofta, this time with closer supervision. Maysa is a teacher who gives you room to breathe, whilst occasionally pulling the strings of tough love when it matters. She’s the best kind of teacher to have.
Ten minutes before Iftar time, we blend our lentil soup with cumin and a pinch of turmeric into a smooth creamy broth. Our baked tomato kofta crowned with potatoes and green peppers has done its round in the oven. And the kofta logs drenched in rich tahini-lemon sauce are awaiting their bubbles of doneness on the oven rack. Even the mastic-spiked Arabic clotted cream (ashta) and sugar syrup for dessert are complete. I am shocked. Not only have we completed the menu, but these have just been the easiest and most enjoyable ninety minutes before Iftar that I have ever experienced.
The beauty of Maysa’s kitchen is that you are in her home, with the basic tools and ingredients that you might have - or can economically buy - back in yours as well. Ashraf, her witty, friendly husband ‘supervises’ us from afar, retreating behind his books on the couch when Maysa goads him to do a chopping chore. Third-grader Faisal politely shakes our hands when we first arrive, while the younger curly-haired Ghazi groggily tumbles into the session halfway in. Maysa laments that he was asleep for much of the session – he is the only one of her three men in the house that loves to actively watch every step of the cooking process right from the start.
Minutes before the call to prayer, our cooking station receives an elegant Levantine-inspired makeover. Knives, aprons and recipe printouts are cleared away. Translucent cobalt bowls and ceramics painted in Hebron (Palestine) are set down over place mats traced with gold Arabic calligraphy, Our tahini kofta has finally bubbled to completion and is the last one to greet the table. The sweet smell of freshly-fried khubz chips away at my self-restraint, a torture exacerbated by the aroma of cloves and cinnamon waltzing about the room courtesy our tomato kofta.
7.15pm. The Adhan. Dates. Three sips of water in slow succession to prepare the stomach, explains Ashraf. Maysa recites a prayer in Arabic, and Ashraf translates it into English. It ends with: ‘…and I wet my throat,’ though mine is flooded with spoonfuls of creamy lentil soup even before the prayer is over. The fattoush turns out to be the freshest, most vibrant fattoush I have tasted in a long time and I quickly dive in for seconds. For thirds. No Lebanese restaurant will ever meet the fattoush bar again. The kofta deliver the sort of gracious, wholesome flavours that can only come to life in a home oven. I suddenly realize that I should have exclusively prioritized my stomach for the sublime tahina kofta, drenched in a sauce that deserves nothing short of guttural moans of pleasure.
Our evening draws to a close with cups of cardamom-infused Arabic coffee, digestive sage tea and a dessert worthy of a fairy-tale – baby pancakes (ataif asafoori) pinched into cones, ladled with our ethereally light, homemade clotted cream, rolled in pistachios, garnished with orange blossom petals or dotted with Damascus rose buds. And drizzled with our homemade sugar syrup. Not averse to a few fun departures from tradition, Maysa creates the Nutella-stuffed ataif that her sons love. And two ataifs down, I end up becoming a Nutella slave as well.
As I walk back to my car with Maysa’s farewell sweets and homemade olive oil and dates ka'ak in hand, I feel miles away away from mainstream Dubai. I have broken my fast far away from the buffet tables and far away from the Ramadan hype. Maysa's effort is a tiny drop in an ocean of commercialized rubble, but that one authentic drop has quenched my thirst in a way that the ocean never will.