This was my weekly newspaper column from a couple of weeks ago.
The air, just as the time to break the Ramadan fast draws near, feels different. It’s not just the sweet softness of dusk that means that you can almost taste it in your mouth like melting caramel, or the golden haze of the sun diffracted through the kitchen window that makes its scent linger like the smell of cookies browning in the oven. It is that the air at the time of iftar carries the fragrance and memories of childhood.
If as an adult you can never find food that is as tasty as your mother’s cooking, then the food she cooked for iftar is a hyperbolic form of nostalgia evoking heightened senses.
For me, it is the smell of roti, Indian unleavened bread, that triggers the nostalgia.
They were hand-kneaded from wholemeal flour and water, a task that I took over once my child’s hands were large enough to grasp the sticky ball, and strong enough to pummel it into a stretchy dough.
I would help my mother roll it into perfect circles and then let it cook in an iron griddle for a few seconds on each side, flipping it backwards and forwards until it was cooked all the way through and evenly toasted on both sides. I would then cover it with butter, place it with the other rotis, and close the lid firmly on the tin so they stayed moist and soft until the time for iftar.
Ramadan is not just about memory, it is about tradition and culture. And so while the rotis of my Indian extraction still make my mouth water, my East African heritage evokes Ramadan’s sense of reconnection to my roots.
My favourite of these is the most deliciously named, and delicious tasting Makati Mamina. It is an East African sweet made of ground rice, coconut and yeast, and then gently cooked in a large deep frying pan until the coconut rice has set into a gooey crumbly sweet. To give it a golden kiss it is then grilled until brown on top.
For me, that is the taste of Ramadan.
I was reminded of this dish when I was sent an email of traditional Ramadan recipes from a friend of a background similar to mine.
It was circulated among those of us who had shared childhoods drooling over the same iftar foods.
I read through the recipes not just with my taste buds on fire, but with my rose-tinted spectacles pushed firmly back on the bridge of my nose remembering a more innocent and pleasurable Ramadan.
There was no work, no childcare duties, no worries about the world to interfere with the pure task of fasting.
The reason those rotis and that makate still taste so good is not just because nostalgia makes food taste better.
It is because it reminds me of a time when I was more innocent. And innocence doesn’t just heighten taste – it heightens gratitude for what you have, through the sheer pleasure of having it, through the simple accomplishment of the task of fasting.
As an adult that gratitude comes from another source: the result of understanding that we are fortunate for what we have when so many round the world, like those many thousands of people suffering from famine in East Africa, have not just little, but nothing.
As an adult that means the goal of the fast has been achieved: it reminds us not just of the pleasure of food but the pain of others.