An 'iftar' feast

Breaking the fast the Muslim way; popular for big family gatherings, “everyone should forget about using cutlery."

July 26, 2012 17:44
An iftar feast

An iftar feast. (photo credit: Thinkstock)


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In this period, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims break the fast every day with the iftar dinner, which often includes time-honored Middle Eastern specialties.

The last iftar meal we enjoyed was at the Olive Tree restaurant in the Little Arabia district of Anaheim, California. The sumptuous menu showcased Middle Eastern classics from majadra (lentils and rice topped with golden brown fried onions) to molokhia (meat stewed with leaves of the mallow family). After breaking the fast on dates and juices, such as apricot juice and rosewater- date juice, diners chose from an array of appetizers, including cigar-shaped burekas, sambusak (savory fried turnovers), fava beans with a spicy chickpea-jalapeno topping, cauliflower fritters, mint-coated labaneh cheese balls, labaneh mixed with walnuts and garnished with pomegranate seeds and pistachios, tomatoes baked with cilantro and jalapeno peppers, and eggplant stewed with sweet peppers in tomato sauce.

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The hot dishes included lentil soup, braised lamb shanks, roast chicken with chickpea-studded rice, and kafta (meatballs) with potatoes in tehina sauce.

One of our favorite dishes at the dinner was musakhan (also spelled m’sakhan or musakhkhan), which is composed of simple elements – chicken, onions, olive oil and bread. The chicken is combined with a generous amount of onions that have been fried in olive oil; the mixture is seasoned with lemony-tasting sumac, a ground Middle Eastern berry, and heated in pita or atop other flatbread. The bread absorbs the delicious flavor of the sauteed onions and chicken and contributes to the appeal of the dish. The restaurant’s chef, Um Alaa, prepared her musakhan by rolling the portions of chicken and onions inside thin flatbreads, which made them look almost like crepes.

Musakhan benefits from slow cooking. Habeeb Saloum and James Peters, authors of From the Lands of Figs and Olives, cook the onions in the oil over low heat for 11⁄2 hours. Their version is spiced with cardamom, allspice, salt and pepper in addition to the sumac, and enhanced with browned pine nuts. To finish, they layer the onion mixture and chicken pieces with split pita breads to form a sort of casserole, and bake it.

Musakhan comes from the Tulkarm and Jenin areas and is considered a typical Palestinian dish, writes Christiane Dabdoub Nasser, author of Classic Palestinian Cookery. It is popular for big family gatherings, “where everyone should forget about using a fork and knife and dig in with the hands...

The key ingredient is the sumac, which you buy as whole grains unless you have a really reliable spice vendor.”


Nasser’s recipe is prepared in three stages. She roasts chicken pieces with cut onions and garlic cloves until golden, and meanwhile makes chicken broth flavored with onion, garlic, allspice berries and cinnamon sticks. At serving time, she spreads hot taboun bread, or laffa, with onions cooked with olive oil, allspice, sumac and some of the chicken broth, tops it with the chicken pieces and then with more of the onion mixture, and sprinkles it with pine nuts.

Some versions of the dish are very rich. Aziz Shihab, author of A Taste of Palestine, uses a lavish amount of olive oil – 2 cups for 2 chickens and 6 onions – and adds a liberal amount of sauteed pine nuts too. Saffron, sumac and paprika season his mixture. At serving time, it is is broiled on top of pita bread.

As a fresh complement to the main courses at Olive Tree, there was a large bowl of fattoush, which is like Israeli salad with lettuce and pita croutons. For those who had room for dessert, there was warbat, a lightly sweetened filo pastry with a custard filling.

It was indeed a feast worth fasting for.

Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.


This recipe is from my friend, Clifford A. Wright, author of A Mediterranean Feast. He learned how to make it from his Palestinian ex-mother-in-law.

Wright notes that you can use large split pita breads or sheets of thin flatbread such as saj bread. You can also use laffa.

Makes 6 servings

1 chicken (about 1.6 kg. or 31⁄2 pounds), preferably free-range
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1.6 kg. (31⁄2 pounds) onions, peeled and sliced thin
1⁄4 cup ground sumac
4 sheets flatbread, such as laffa, or 2 or 3 large pita breads, split open and separated, or enough bread for 6 servings

Cut the chicken into two breasts, two thighs, two legs, and two wings. (You can save the back for making chicken broth.) Season the chicken with salt and pepper.

In a large, deep casserole, heat 1⁄4 cup of the olive oil, and then lightly brown the chicken on all sides over a medium heat, about 20 minutes. Remove and set aside. Add the remaining 1⁄4 cup olive oil to the casserole and cook the onions until translucent, about 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the sumac and cook for 2 minutes to mix.

Preheat the oven to 175ºC (350ºF). Cover a 23- x 30-cm (9- x 12-inch) baking dish with two overlapping halves of the pita bread or 2 sheets of the flatbread. Spoon half the onions over each piece of bread, then arrange the chicken on top of the onions and cover with the remaining onions; add the juices from the casserole. Cover with the remaining bread pieces, tucking in the sides (crusty side up) and spraying with water.

Bake until the chicken is very tender and almost falling off the bone, about 11⁄2 hours. Before the top cover of bread begins to burn, spray with water again or cover with aluminum foil.


Fattoush is a colorful salad with plenty of parsley, green onion and lettuce to complement the tomatoes and cucumbers.

The olive oil and lemon juice dressing is flavored with mint and garlic. Many flavor it with sumac as well.

Makes 6 servings

3 to 4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, or more to taste
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
1 small fresh garlic clove, finely minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 Tbsp. coarsely chopped fresh mint or 2 tsp dried
1 tsp. ground sumac, or to taste (optional)
1 sweet red or yellow pepper, diced (optional)
3 small cucumbers, unpeeled
8 ripe plum tomatoes or 3 medium or large tomatoes
4 small radishes, diced (optional)
2 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
1⁄4 cup chopped parsley
11⁄2 cups diced romaine lettuce
2 pita breads, toasted and broken into bite-size pieces

To make dressing, combine olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, dried mint (but not fresh) and 1⁄2 tsp sumac.

Cut sweet pepper, cucumbers and tomatoes in 1-cm (1⁄2-inch) dice and put them in a large bowl. Add radishes, green onions, parsley, fresh mint and romaine. Add dressing and toss. Add half the toasted pita and toss again. Taste, adjust seasoning, and add more olive oil and lemon juice if you like.

Serve at once or let salad stand for 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend. Serve sprinkled with remaining sumac. Garnish with a few more pieces toasted pita and serve the remaining pieces separately.

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