Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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What’s Cooking: Samosa and Lassi — Ramadan Foods

September 15th, 2008 · 2 Comments

Jan writes: I’ve said many times that food is the great equalizer. Everybody eats. And I love learning about other cultures through foods.

I invited my friend, former co-worker and the Post’s Kitchen Counselor, Gholam Rahman, to write a bit about Ramadan. It’s a sacred month-long holiday with many food connections for Muslims around the world. Here’s his story — and recipes.


By Gholam Rahman

For the thousands of Muslims in Palm Beach County and the more than a billion around the globe, this is the month of Ramadan. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk during the whole lunar month, eschewing all food and drink. They consider Ramadan, which coincided this year with September, as a month of charity, peace and purification, not only for the body but the soul.

The rigors of the month, when eating has to be confined to just two meals — one generally just before dawn and the other at sunset — calls for some special foods and drinks promoting rehydration and sustenance during the tough daylight hours. It is the post-sunset meal, the Iftaar or the breaking-of-the-fast meal, that in most households becomes a mini-feast, starring not only a variety of cooling drinks and fresh fruits but an array of spicy hors d’oeuvres.
Different ethnic groups have evolved their own traditional Ramadan specialties during hundreds of years of the fasting and feasting experience. And Palm Beach County represents a wide spectrum of the Muslim world, from Middle Eastern Arabs to immigrants from the Indo-Pakistan-Bangladesh subcontinent to Muslims from Europe and the Orient, as well as local converts.
The memories of Ramadans past are some of fondest I have, going back — oh God! — much more than 70 years when India was still undivided and the jewel in the British crown. The day’s feast was after sundown but the preparations began hours beforehand. My Mom and Aunt, and a passel of servants (oops! domestic staff), sat on low stools in the paved Chaman (courtyard) between the two wings of the the inner house preparing all kinds of Iftaar foods, mostly of the hors d’oeuvre kind.
There would also be varieties of cooling drinks featuring lime and watermelon, and of course the yogurt-based lassi. We kids, who were not fasting, would hover around, offering to taste the treats for salt or sugar. We felt important that so much depended on our palate. And when we started to fast intermittently in our preteen years, getting up for the predawn Sehri (a lighter meal to carry one through the day) was a real adventure. I can still smell the aroma of Italian breads being toasted and eggs and cheese being fried. This was generally a meal in the “English” style. For us kids, the whole month was a ball. If we felt any pang of hunger when fasting, we’d of course never let on.
Here are a couple of recipes that are an integral part of my past. In our family, as in most families from the Indian subcontinent, samosa plays a starring role on the Iftar table. It is a kind of triangular turnover with either meat or potato filling. Traditionally, the pastry wrapping is rich and homemade, but the store-bought empanada discs, available in most supermarket freezer cases, work admirably. Most Americans are no stranger to samosa and the next recipe, for lassi, a yogurt drink, thanks to all the food shows on TV. Here are my wife Kaisari’s recipes for them.


  • 2 tablespoons Canola oil
    1 medium onion, thinly sliced
    1 pound lean ground beef
    1/2 onion, 2 to 3 cloves garlic and a 1-inch piece ginger — finely minced together
    1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
    half teaspoon ground cumin
    1 teaspoon paprika
    Salt and pepper to taste
    Dash Tabasco sauce
    Water to prevent sticking
  • For garnish:
  • 1 small onion, diced
    1/2 cup chopped mint, or mint-cilantro combination
    Chopped green chilies (optional)
    Diced mozzarella cheese (optional)
    1 packet empanada disks
    Canola oil for deep-frying

Heat the 2 tablespoons oil in a medium pan. Lightly brown the sliced onion and add the ground beef. Cook the beef, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until it looses raw color. Add the onion-garlic-ginger paste, ground coriander and cumin, paprika, salt and pepper and Tabasco. Cook the ground beef, stirring often, and adding water as needed, until done, about 20 minutes. Covering the pan helps the process go faster.
Once the cooked beef has cooled, add the rest of the ingredients, except the oil. Mix well to combine.
Take out the empanada disks 30 to 45 minutes before needing them, to thaw. Separate the disks carefully so as not to break. Keep the disks covered with a damp towel to prevent drying. On a floured surface, roll each so it is about an inch larger in diameter. Cut it into 2 half moons. Brush the straight edge of each piece with water or eggwash, pick it up and twirl it into a cone with half of the straight edge overlapping the other. Press to seal.
Holding the cone in one hand, fill it with about 1 tablespoon of the filling without overstuffing. Brush the curved edge with water and press to seal, using the tines of a fork. Traditionally, this edge is twirled into an exquisite braid, but that takes years of practice. My wife has tried to teach me, to no avail.
Heat the oil in a wok and deep-fry until golden brown and crisp. Do not crowd the wok and keep the heat at medium or just above for a crunchy wrap. Drain on paper towels. Serve with chutney, hot sauce or ketchup.
NOTE: The ingredients are available in Indian stores or even well-stocked supermarkets. Of course, you can cook the ground beef any way you want, just using chili powder or packaged taco spices. Lightly boiled and diced potatoes, with some peas thrown in, can be used instead of beef. Ground chicken works well too.

LASSI (Yogurt Drink)

  • 1 bottle low-fat buttermilk
    6 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
    Pinch salt
    Crushed ice
    Kafir lime leaves

Pour the buttermilk into a blender. Add the sugar, salt and the crushed ice. Pulse to blend and add water to thin if needed. Pulse several more times to blend well. Wash and tear 4 to 6 kafir lime leaves and stir into the jar. (Do not run the blender.) Refrigerate for 30 minutes for flavors to blend. Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Frozen kafir lime leaves are available in some Oriental stores, including Fortune Cookie in West Palm Beach (561-433-5818). Alternately, you can use a vegetable peeler to thinly pare the green skin of limes and add to the lassi. We prefer the kafir lime leaves, which we use in other recipes as well. They freeze well, stored in a zippered plastic bag.

Tags: Recipes: What's Cooking!

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben // Sep 17, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    I learned something today… I knew Ramadan was about fasting but had no idea of the details.

    The Chinese restaurant that I patronize, Chopsticks (downtown West Palm Beach) is owned by a nice Muslim couple and they always teach me something when I visit. On Sunday evenings, they always host a large Muslim contingent and I have been there to hear some of their prayers and readings. Fascinating to learn and understanding customs, cultures and religions.

  • 2 jffla // Sep 17, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Very interesting post! I have always been intrigued with Ramadan, and it’s nice to see personal accounts from locals.

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