How I explored Islam as a new Muslim through the dinner table

“I had to make Islam real to me. I had to make dinner.”

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“I had to make Islam real to me. I had to make dinner.”

When meeting someone from an unfamiliar culture, the first thing I ask is, “So, what do you eat?” Food holds our history and can reveal a story with each bite, taking the global and exotic and turning it into the local and intimate. Although there is technically no such thing as “Islamic” cuisine or “Muslim” food, the culinary traditions of Muslims from around the world are bound together by Islam and the guidelines offered in the Qur’an and the sunnah (traditions) of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) regarding food and food preparation.

Accompanied by Pakistani friends, the first food I encountered on my journey to Islam was at a Pakistani restaurant. Actually, I was unable to enter that restaurant. The moment the door was opened, the pungent and hot spices hit my eyes, and, within minutes, I could not see through my tears. We left and found something a little more American. Converting to Islam was a bit like this experience. The changes I made were monumental and stung; they stung because I was entering uncharted territory and did not know if I would make it out all right. On the surface, there was nothing familiar to guide me or comfort me. The languages spoken (primarily Urdu and Arabic), the dress, the lifestyle, and, of course, the food, were out of my experience.

A year after converting to Islam, I married a man from Morocco. I bought a Moroccan cookbook and would start food preparation at noon to get dinner on the table by six. This was a major production, but I loved learning about the food, history and people. Then, after a month of marriage, my husband asked me, “Why do you make wedding food everyday?” I was floored! So that is why it took me so long. Even though I was spending so much time in the kitchen, I still left time to learn about Islam. I read history books and fiction by modern Muslims writers and looked for recipes from Islam’s past. Not only had many of the culinary traditions changed since the tenth century, but also so had the way people interpreted Islam.

Not all Muslims do the same thing; they are not homogenous now, nor were they in the past. They also do not eat the same food, so why was I giving myself a hard time preparing wedding food everyday? Could I not simply make Islam “practical” instead of something foreign? Just like food, Islam is meant to be digested several times a day, or, more appropriately, lived.

I am a third generation Mexican-American convert who had no connection to Mexico and its culture. At the same time, I was denied cultural citizenship as an American because of my skin color, so I was a foreigner. After my conversion, I did not want to become a practitioner of a culture; I wanted to be a Muslim. Yet, despite my best efforts and my husband’s, the reality of daily life intervened – what were we going to eat?

I had to make Islam real to me. I had to make dinner.

At first, dishes I prepared did not always turn out tasty, but I practiced and looked to the foods that traditionally nourished Mexicans and Moroccans. Tagines and moles were among the dishes I discovered. Moles come from Mexico and tagines from Morocco. Similar to curries, they are slow-cooked pots of delicious morsels that melt in the mouth.

I eventually made my own version of curry. Is it exactly like a traditional curry? No, but it is my version. It is true that to call something a curry does not make it a curry. It has to include all the basic ingredients of a curry. The same is true for a religion. One cannot remove one or more of the fundamentals or pillars of Islam, such as prayer, and still call it Islam.

Here are some of my recipes to enjoy during the month of Ramadan and beyond. I only use organic produce, eggs, dairy and organic-halal meat. Many of the herbs and other supplies can be purchased at www.mountainroseherbs.com

Recipe #1:

Jicama (Mexican turnip) in Minted Salad Dressing

Serves 6-8

1 small jicama, peeled

¼ cup diced fresh mint leaves

Juice of 1 lemon

¼ cup organic, cold-press olive oil

Salt to taste

Slice the jicama into small thin strips. Arrange on a plate. In a small mixing bowl add other ingredients and mix well. Drizzle the mixture over the jicama, cover with a piece of parchment and let stand for 1-2 hours.

Recipe #2:

Chicken Marinated in Charmoula with Mango/Papaya Salsa

Serves 6-8

8-10 skinless chicken parts

Charmoula (marinade)

¾ cup olive oil

Juice of 3 lemons and 1 lime

1 bunch cilantro, chopped with stems

1 bunch parsley, chopped with stems

3 tablespoons ground cumin

3 tablespoons ground coriander

¼ teaspoon red chilli flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

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Mix the olive oil, lemon juice, cilantro and parsley in a large bowl and let stand for at least 15 minutes. Add the chicken and coat well with the charmoula. Cover with unbleached parchment (available at natural food stores or www.gaiam.com) and place in the refrigerator overnight.

Mango and Papaya Salsa

1 mango, diced

1 Hawaiian papaya or ½ Mexican papaya, seeded and diced

2 large tomatoes or 5 small roma tomatoes

½ white onions diced fine

1 bunch cilantro, diced and steams removed

Juice of one lime

A pinch of ancho chili

Salt and pepper to taste

Once the chicken is done marinating, either cook it in the oven, covered with unbleached parchment, or grill it. Serve with the mango and papaya salsa and fresh sprigs of herbs like mint, thyme and oregano. This looks very pretty on a Mexican or Moroccan platter.

Recipe #3:

Minted Hibiscus Cooler Sweetened with Agave Nectar

Serves 6-8

84 ounces water

1/3 cup dried hibiscus

2 fresh mint sprigs

1 lime sliced into thin rounds

Agave nectar to taste

Place the hibiscus inside an unbleached muslin bag and tie. Place it inside a glass pitcher and pour room temperature water over the bag. Let it sit for 2-3 hours. The longer it sits the bitterer it will be. Remove the bag and add the agave nectar and lime slices.

Recipe #4:

Flan with Cardamom, Honey and Pistachios

Serves 8

6 eggs, beaten well

3 cups milk

1 cup honey, divided

2 teaspoons cardamom

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup diced pistachios

Beat the eggs in a bowl, and add the milk, half the spices and half of the honey. Pour the remaining honey and spices into 8 custard dishes. (I have used one large baking dish, but it never comes out quite right). Then add the egg mixture to each dish. Place the dishes in a larger baking dish and pour in boiling water to a one-inch height. Bake at 325° F for 30-40 minutes, or until a knife comes our clean when inserted in the middle of the flan. Once done, turn each dish upside down onto a plate and garnish with pistachios.

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