An excellent article on the foodways of Ramadan by the writer Ramona Aly
‘The final days of Islam’s month of fasting are with us. And as Ramadan draws to a close, so does “Veganadan”, in which a growing number of Muslims adopt a plant-based diet for four weeks. I am keen to eat less meat in Ramadan, but it can be a challenge when you are invited to iftar, the meal with which Muslims break their day-long fast, and there is only meat on the table. After 18 hours without food (an extra 40 minutes if you are in Scotland), hosts like to lay on a generous banquet, and a typical iftar spread includes an array of lamb samosas, kebabs and roast chicken.
When I am at home, iftar tends to be a more vegan affair: a fresh fruit salad of mangoes, raspberries, blueberries and honeydew melon sprinkled with chopped dates, for example, along with a platter of peas fried lightly with cumin seeds, followed by yellow dal and aubergine curry.
The first Muslim community in seventh-century Arabia barely consumed meat. Muhammad lived largely on dates and barley. Ali, the prophet’s cousin, is said to have stated: “Do not make your stomach a graveyard of animals”, and the caliph Umar warned against the addictive nature of meat. Yet most of this seems to be lost on Muslims in Britain today, who, despite making up 4.6% of the population, consume more than 20% of lamb and mutton produced in the UK.
It is common for halal butchers to see a rise in meat sales in Ramadan – the most spiritual and supposedly most frugal month in the Muslim calendar. But a desire for a less indulgent lifestyle is one reason that veganism is gaining popularity. It is healthier, more ethical and, so we are told, more Islamic. As the Vegan Muslim Initiative (VMI), founded by two vegan Muslims from Canada and Australia, puts it: “If Muslims are going to be relevant and positive contributors to our planet’s future, then there must be a major paradigm shift in how we view and approach food.”
VMI member Anita Nayyar, 37, is a convert to both Islam and veganism. She went strictly vegan two and a half years ago, after hearing an account of Muhammad rebuking one of his companions for taking a baby chick from its distressed mother. “The prophet spoke of the bird in human terms and said that animals are communities like us,” she says. “I think about that when I consider how a dairy cow is separated from its calf and the mother cries for her baby – just so we humans can take its milk.” Nayyar says Muslims are neglecting the other condition for meat to be halal – not only must the animal be slaughtered in a certain way, but the meat must be tayyab (Arabic for pure and wholesome). “When we eat meat of an animal that has suffered, or lived its life in a tiny cage, we are consuming that trauma into our bodies,” she says. “We have to consider when we eat a chicken wing, we are most likely eating an animal that hasn’t seen daylight. How is that Islamic?
“Since going vegan, “I’m able to connect to my faith better and I feel lighter in my heart.” She is also lighter in the stomach – Anita’s iftar often includes baba ganoush, hummus and a kidney bean curry spiced with paprika, chilli, onions, garlic and ginger, and fragranced with fresh coriander.
Next week, when Ramadan ends with the festival of Eid, Nayyar will host a tea party in her garden for Muslim converts who do not get to share festivities with their non-Muslim families. She normally bakes Nigella Lawson’s vegan chocolate cake, but this year will be trying a recipe from the blog One Arab Vegan – salted-caramel date cake, using all the leftover dates with which Muslims typically break their fast. I am tempted by another recipe from the same source: vanilla saffron doughnuts drizzled with rose-scented glaze and topped with pomegranate seeds and pistachios. With recipes like this, it is easy to understand the vegan appeal.
David Stelzer, a customer service professional in his 30s, originally from Singapore and now living in north London, decided to go part-time vegan last Ramadan but continued throughout the year and kept the habit this Ramadan. “I’ve lost weight, my gut feels lighter and I sleep better,” he says. His suhoor (pre-dawn meal) consists of porridge sprinkled with chopped dates, figs, nuts, banana and a dollop of peanut butter. During the week, his sunset meal tends to be an oriental dish of noodles and vegetables with tofu. While he went vegan for purely health reasons, Stelzer says, veganism also helps him to focus on prayers and meditation. I ask if he will be vegan for Eid. “It’s unlikely,” he says. “It will probably be one of my days off from the plant-based diet.”
Dawud Marsh, from east London, has not had a day off in 35 years. Along with his wife, he runs a project for adults with disabilities, and converted to Islam 11 years ago. He sees a natural fit between being vegan and being Muslim. “Meat production has a huge negative effect on the planet. Islam is all about transformation for the better, and that sat well with me when I became Muslim.”
As a veteran vegan, Marsh recalls having to make do with simple (boring) food such as brown rice and brown pasta – he even ground his own soya powder. This Eid, with so much more choice, he is looking forward to vegan biriyani, and his wife’s “gateau piment” or Mauritian chilli cakes – crunchy deep-fried balls of split peas and finely chopped onions and coriander, fired up with green or red chillies.
A more recent vegan convert is Mara Whyte, a 23-year-old student from Birmingham, who went vegan overnight in 2017 after watching What the Health, a Netflix documentary on food production. She now distributes leaflets about veganism – along with vegan cakes – every weekend in the city centre. As the only British Pakistani Muslim in a group of mainly white atheists, she attracts a more diverse crowd. “Muslims come up to me and are generally curious, but sometimes question why I’m so involved in animal rights when there are people dying from starvation in the world. But they don’t realise how it’s all connected and how the grain produced in developing countries for global meat consumption drains their resources and land, leaving billions hungry.” Her passion has even encouraged her 16-year-old brother to go vegan. For iftar, they enjoy a fresh fruit salad and chana chaat – a cool and refreshing chickpea and potato salad mixed with kidney beans and chopped onions.
For Eid, Whyte will visit family and friends, who always prepare a separate vegan curry for her – although one Eid, when she asked for vegan food, she was told to pick out the potatoes from the meat and aloo curry. That’s the sort of experience any vegan, Muslim or not, will be able to relate to.