Today is the first day of Ramadan*. I’ve never tried to keep a Ramadan fast at any time of year, though one of my Muslim friends in Kosovo has promised to invite me for the iftar evening meal one day this month and of course I will have to starve myself that day if I am to join in the breaking of the fast properly. I’m nervous of how I’ll manage that day but also excited that I’ll be part of something shared by surprising numbers in Kosovo (even people who have never been to mosque, don’t pray regularly, and are usually liberal in their interpretation of the rules, for example about drinking alcohol) and celebrated with the wailing crescendo of muezzins from Pristina’s minarets, as if they are summoning the digestive juices of the city. In the buzz of town there is the briefest of pauses – shops shut so that employees can replenish their blood sugar and families come together.
I had read that in Ethiopia, the Ramadan fast is often broken with a spiced honey bread (‘Yemarina yewotet dabo’), so as my small and inappropriately indulgent celebration of Ramadan, today I tried making the recipe. It is incongruously reminiscent of hot cross buns, which of course mark the near-end of the Anglican period of denial during Lent. What is it about cloves for celebration?
The recipe called for the plaiting of three strands of bread (as in challah, which I also tried making with honey), and my heart sank. I never seem to be able to manage bread-plaiting without creating a bulging, bursting mess of the dough that somehow looks like poorly-toned thighs wrestling or writhing, and puts me off my food. But this one baked up alright and it tasted excellent (especially with slices of Cheddar cheese on top!)
0.25 cup warm water
0.5 cup honey
1 packed active dried yeast
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
5-10 cups flour
1 tablespoon ground coriander
0.5 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup lukewarm milk
In a small bowl, stir together water and honey (and maybe a pinch of sugar). Sprinkle in yeast and allow to sit in a warm place until frothy – about 10 minutes. Add butter and egg to yeast mixture. In a separate bowl, sift most of the flour with coriander, cloves and salt. Stir in yeast mixture and add milk, stirring and adding more flour until a firm dough forms. Place dough on a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and stretches (about 20 minutes). Place dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with a damp towel, and allow to rise until double in size, at least 90 minutes. Knead the dough again and divide into 3 portions; roll each portion into a sausage shape and braid to form a loaf. Move the loaf to a well-greased baking sheet, cover with a damp towel and allow to rise in a warm place until double in size, approximately one hour. To make glaze, combine beaten egg with milk. Brush the top of the loaf with the glaze. Bake at 170 degrees for about 30 minutes or until golden.
*In case you’re not familiar with the Muslim month of fasting, it’s a period set according to the lunar calendar when Muslims let nothing (food, drink, cigarette smoke…) pass their lips during the hours of daylight.
If you think about that, you’ll see that there are Ramadans which are more or less easy – the date shifts a little each year, because they’re timed by the lunar calendar, and when it coincides with winter you have short days when you’re not so thirsty and the fast is perhaps easier to endure. And when it coincides with 20 July in Kosovo you have extremely long days and very hot temperatures when you are presumably desperate for a drink all day. But observant Muslims in Kosovo today drank nothing from 03.13 this morning until 20.08 this evening.
For more about my honey-tasting and beekeeping adventures in Kosovo, read my Travels in Blood and Honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo, published last year by Signal Books