Ramadan is a beautiful time to travel the Middle East, especially when you’re on a quest to explore the country’s roots and cultural heritage. Check out our travel guide and get inspired by the spirit of Ramadan before your trip.
Let’s start with the essentials. What does Ramadan, Iftar and Suhoor mean? Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and the most sacred month of the year in the Islamic culture, during which strict fasting is observed by Muslims from dawn to sunset. During this time, people who observe Ramadan do not consume any food or drinks between fajr and maghrib prayers. Suhoor refers to the meal consumed early in the morning by Muslims before fasting, taken after saying the fajr. Iftar is when people gather to break their fast together. It is taken just before maghrib time, which is around sunset.
The restaurant scene in the Middle East during Ramadan
What happens to restaurants during Ramadan? Do the shops close during fasting hours? Many cafés and restaurants as well as shopping malls remain open during Ramadan, but note that they may have shorter or different opening times. So it’s best to call beforehand. Although the places that are open during the daytime are likely to have curtains or panels in place to conceal people eating and drinking from those fasting. Supermarkets stay open throughout the day and takeaway food can also be delivered. And some hotels, such as Radisson Blu hotels, have a restaurant available where non-fasters can eat and room service remains available as well. So for those who are not fasting: worry not. There will be lots of opportunity to delight in the local cuisine!
Expats in the Middle East and best practices for travelers
What is expected from people in the Middle East who are not fasting and observing Ramadan? The UAE, for example, has a population made up of 80% expats who are of different races and religions. Due to this fact, people have found a way to celebrate each other’s differences in a peaceful and respectful way. People are expected to be considerate of those who are fasting. Men and women are advised to wear modest clothing and refrain from eating, drinking or smoking in public places during this period.
Ramadan is one of the best times in the year to explore the Middle East’s rich and colorful culinary scene. Although considered a religious observance, Iftar has become not only a ritual for the Muslims, but also a community affair, where people of different races and religions gather together with family and friends to have a sumptuous feast. During this time, there’s a vast amount of Iftars on offer; ranging from lavish banquets displaying full-on Arabic opulence you can only dream about or see in movies; down to the street side cafeteria deals that are friendlier on the pocket.
Must try Iftar dishes
With luxurious Iftar spreads being laid on throughout the country, Ramadan is the perfect opportunity to broaden your horizons. Here are some top dishes to try for Iftar:
A product of the date palm and cultivated since approximately 6000 B.C, the date fruit is one of the sweetest fruits around and also happens to come in many different varieties. Although dates can be eaten fresh, the fruit is very often dried, resembling raisins or plums. Traditionally, fasting Muslims break their fast by eating dates. Not only does this provide a quick boost of energy after a long fast, it’s also a highly symbolic start to the meal, since it’s said to be rooted in the religious teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Did you know that you can find approximately 27 varieties of dates in Deira, Dubai? Fancy an authentic Old Dubai experience? Head down to Radisson Blu Dubai Deira Creek.
Malfouf is a traditional Lebanese dish made up of flavorful ground meat, rice and spices stuffed inside rolled cabbage leaves. Loads of fresh garlic and lemon juice give these cabbage rolls wonderful flavor and aroma. What better place to try it than Lebanon itself?
This melt-in-the-mouth tender, delicately flavored and juicy whole roast lamb is typically served on a bed of Oriental rice. This is easily a Ramadan favorite and what you would most often see as the centerpiece on opulent Iftar buffets. The ouzi is a communal dish, shared by families and communities. Traditionally, the ouzi is placed in the middle and everybody eats from the same plate. Ramadan is an important time to bring communities together, and the ouzi is instrumental in communal celebrations.
This sweet, cheese-based pastry is a traditional Palestinian dessert made with cheese pastry soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup. Though it’s often eaten for breakfast in Levantine nations, in the UAE you’ll find it in the dessert section, usually surrounded by excitable children wielding ladles of heavy syrup. Good for one last burst of energy, this will go nicely with your Arabic coffee!
Al Harees, a traditional Emirati dish consisting of wheat, meat and salt, is a popular treat during special occasions such as Ramadan, Eid and Arab weddings. Harees is made by cooking ground wheat in a pot with a pinch of salt, to which the meat is added. The mixture is then left for many hours until it is fully cooked and the meat is completely dissolved into the wheat. The mixture is poured into a clay pot and placed in a clay oven or in a specially prepared hole in the ground that is filled with burning coal. After several hours, the thick mixture is removed and stirred with a special piece of wood called ‘midrib’. The final product is topped with local ghee and placed onto flat plates. Harees is a rich meal and is filling.
Baklava is a rich, sweet dessert pastry made of layers of filo pastry (a very thin, unleavened dough) filled with chopped nuts, sweetened and held together with syrup or honey.
Umm Ali, also called Om Ali (translated to Ali's Mother) is a national dish of Egypt. This scrumptious dessert is a Middle Eastern version of bread pudding and is often served with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream on top. Freshly baked puff pastry is used in making Umm Ali for an extra level of deliciousness. If you want a modern Emirati dining experience, check out Aseelah Restaurant in Dubai.
Making a cultural trip out of Ramadan
Ramadan in the Middle East has indeed evolved from being a purely religious observance to a truly cultural occasion for everyone to experience. Take advantage of this time and tailor your trip by exploring the traditional side of the Middle East. Visit cultural destinations such as Jeddah, Bahrain or Kuwait and experience Ramadan like a local!