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Breaking fast in Bangladesh

Commemorating the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, Ramadan is a season for fasting, of contemplation and charity.

It is always dark when I land in Dhaka, but this is a situation I have little control over. The three airlines that operate Dhaka routes from southeast Asian cities all seem to be heavily invested in a game of last plane landing. My arrival time is irrelevant; since I always have airport transfers arranged when I come to visit. What this forces me to do, however, is observe the comings and goings of airline travelers.

One of my first impressions of Dhaka was a massive throng of white-clad pilgrims moving in unison, newly minted hajji straight off the plane from Mecca. There was a separate section processing their arrival; had this not been in place, many a hapless traveler would have gotten caught in unnecessarily long lines at immigration. Back then, I chalked it up to a stop-gap measure to handle the heavy volume of arrivals. But, after a few trips there and back again, I’m more inclined to think that this aptly illustrates Bangladesh society’s willingness to reorganize itself over religious observances.

The pervasiveness of religion in everyday life—and how this peaks with certain seasons—should come as no surprise to anyone born and raised Catholic in the Philippines, but the prospect of traveling during Ramadan still gave me some pause. Celebrated on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar to commemorate the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, Ramadan is a season for fasting, of contemplation and charity—two qualities of which I’m rendered incapable when hungry.

I thought it would be incredibly ill-mannered to eat while everyone else was keeping fast, or to ask for tea when even liquids are not allowed. I was soon disabused of the notion. In fact, it seemed even more rude to sneak in snacks. If you must eat, you might as well be upfront about it.

Having said that, the daily act of keeping and breaking fast really does have an impact on business and social matters. For instance, our hotel, which usually offered a buffet breakfast, reverts to a la carte offerings, because there are not enough non-fasting guests to justify buffet service from 6 to 9 am. Instead they have the seasonal sehri menu, a pre-dawn meal for those who need to eat before morning prayers. I always wake up too late for sehri, so I wasn’t able to experience it, but my colleagues assure me that the sehri is a workaday meal, where you try to eat food that will sustain you throughout the day and keep you from getting dehydrated (too much caffeine is a no-no). So it’s not unlike a healthy breakfast, but with the knowledge that it is the only meal you will eat until after evening prayers.

The workday ends at 3 pm, which makes scheduling meetings a little tricky. What would normally be a working lunch would just be work if you weren’t mindful enough to take a short break for your solitary meal. Going out for meetings or gathering large groups is even more challenging, given Dhaka’s notorious road congestion. A pleasant surprise: you can actually catch up on your reading, if you don’t mind the pirated bestsellers peddled by street vendors. If you feel quite strongly about intellectual property rights, maybe chat with a colleague and ask about their plans for Eid al-Fitr instead.

Eid is the end of Ramadan, the “Festival of Breaking the Fast.” Everyone’s heading out of the city, and bus trips on holiday dates are egregiously expensive and fully booked. Small gifts are expected when visiting family, and new clothes are a must on Eid al-Fitr. The shops are ready, of course, with special Eid collections, rebates, and extended business hours.

Rush hour shifts to mid-afternoon, when the workforce collectively makes their way to their respective iftars. The communal post-fast evening meal, the iftar is an event, not unlike Christmas parties in terms of social obligation. Much like fiestas or holiday meals, there are a few dishes associated with it, like haleem—a spicy stew made of lentils, chickpeas and meat (mutton!). Or jilapi, deep fried flour rings covered in saffron syrup. But the most important item on the iftar spread is a small serving of dates, with which you are supposed to break fast. The tradition dates back to the Prophet Muhammad, who is held to have broken fast with dates and water, but there’s an actual nutritional benefit to it. Rich in sugar, fiber, magnesium and a number of other nutrients, dates are easy to digest and can bring up the body’s glucose to normal levels after a long fast.

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In affluent areas of Dhaka, like the diplomatic quarter of Gulshan, the iftar meal is often served in a lavish buffet style, with hotels and credit card companies collaborating on buy-one-get-one promos. In contrast to breakfast and sehri, the a la carte dinner service may be temporarily replaced by a buffet, and reservations are required. 

Photo credit: Chan Walrus

But there are other ways to observe the iftar. Go with tradition and break fast at a neighborhood mosque where a community meal is served. If you happen to be in the mood for fast food, dates and fruit juice are added to value meals, repackaged as iftar boxes.

Or, if you’re not constrained by institutional travel advisories and in the mood for a Street Food-esque experience, head over to the Chawkbazar iftar market in Old Dhaka, where hundreds of street vendors hawk traditional foods made using closely guarded family recipes. The market caught fire early this year, but occupational safety is a luxury few vendors can think of and by all accounts, business proceeds as usual.

Ramadan is a time of reflection, and if you’re an outsider hoping to understand its ethos and practice, breaking fast like a local is the best way to begin.

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