Every country has its own distinct traditional dishes that are a must during celebrations and family gatherings, as is the case in Egypt during the holy month of Ramadan.
The challenge, however, is to prepare different kinds of food that suit every family member’s taste.
Public sector employee and mother of two, Suad Bidaiwi said that since she was little she has been accustomed to a variety of dishes and drinks unique to Ramadan. She kept these traditions alive after getting married, as her husband and two sons anticipate her delicious dishes during the holy month.
"Ramadan meals nowadays are a mix between traditional and new dishes that are a favourite of the younger generation," she told Al-Shorfa. "But you will always find carob, liquorice and date juices at the table."
Bidaiwi said qamareddine juice, which is made with dried apricot paste sheets, is another table staple, as well as juice made of soaked nuts, dried fruit and different kinds of dates.
"There are some ingredients that are prepared daily such as salads, arugula, different kinds of pickles, fresh yoghurt and baba ghanouj, as well as a variety of meat soups," she said.
As for the main dishes, Bidaiwi told Al-Shorfa that they are much like "dishes prepared throughout the rest of the year with the only difference that they are prepared daily as opposed to once or twice a week".
"Plates include different kinds of vegetable stews, including okra, mallow leaves [mulukhia], beans, stuffed vegetables, stuffed vine leaves and cabbage, as well as fatta [a dish made with bread, rice and topped with garlic yoghurt], roast duck, grilled or fried chicken and meat and rice," she said.
"Um Ali", qatayif, kunafa and milk and rice desserts are some staples for dessert, she said, adding that she sometimes humours her children by allowing their favourite dishes, such as pizza, hamburgers and cake.
For suhur, a meal prepared in the early morning during Ramadan, Bidaiwi said daily fixtures include ful medames [cooked and mashed fava beans], different kinds of cheese, yoghurt and fried eggs.
Bidaiwi said some Egyptian families tend to cut costs during this month because of how expensive these dishes are, especially those with meat and chicken.
She added that families have to be frugal with their ingredients and sometimes prepare non-meat dishes.
Dr. Haifa Saad, a nutritionist and home economics expert, said, "Many Ramadan traditions have fallen out with the younger generations, especially when it comes to the consumption of high calorie dishes" during the holy month.
"Ramadan dishes are known to be fatty and mainly meat and chicken-based," she added.
"Unfortunately, the month of Ramadan has turned into a month of [excessive] eating among Egyptian fasters rather than a month of worship," Saad told Al-Shorfa. She added that around "85 per cent of Egyptians change their eating diets" during Ramadan by consuming lots of red meat and poultry, as well as enjoying "70 per cent more desserts and 30 per cent more nuts".
She added that during Ramadan, "Egyptian families consume 15 times more food than they do on regular days, as Egyptians spend 30 billion Egyptian pounds ($5 billion) on food and beverages during this month alone."
Sadly, she added, "More than half of the food prepared during this month is discarded".
Dr. Saad pointed to a study conducted by the Information and Decision Support Centre, an Egyptian Cabinet think tank, which showed that "Egyptian families allocate 44.9 per cent of their total annual spending to food purchasing, and this doubles during the month of Ramadan".
Meat consumption during the holy month "increases from 17 to 30 thousand tons, while poultry consumption jumps from 50 to 120 million chickens", she added.
"Cooking oil consumption also goes up from 60 to 75 thousand tons and vegetable ghee from 25 to 75 thousand tons," Saad said, adding that sugar consumption climbs to 250,000 tons, up from 175,000.
The amount of work necessary to make these dishes is also apparent at many restaurants and hotels in Cairo in what are known as Ramadan tents.
According to Saeed Abdul Nabi, a restaurant manager in central Cairo, these Ramadan tents open right before breaking the fast and do not close till suhur time.
Many offer traditional drinks as well as traditional chicken and lamb rice dishes, Abdul Nabi said.
Some customers agree with the cook in advance to prepare some of their favourite dishes, Abdul Nabi said, adding that prices start at 100 Egyptian pounds ($17) per person for iftar and 40 Egyptian pounds ($6.50) for suhur. Other times, "customers pay a lump sum for an open food and drink buffet as well as unlimited hookah," Abdul Nabi said.
Many people who frequent Ramadan tents linger after iftar, smoking hookahs, eating desserts, listening to religious music, watching Ramadan television series or playing sports till suhur.