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Spirituality in the kitchen: Wholesome and halal

Spirituality in the kitchen: Wholesome and halal

30 Jul, 2011

chicagotribune.com

By Manya A. Brachear, Tribune reporter

Yvonne Maffei spent last week in her kitchen simmering soups and sauces, packing her freezers with fruits, meats and herbs and taking inventory of her cabinets and shelves to make sure she has all she needs during the 30 days of Ramadan.

Though Maffei's preparation may seem counterintuitive for the holy month when Muslims are commanded to fast from dawn to dusk, Maffei, a chef and food blogger, believes the feast should be as sacred as the fast.

"If you feel more aware, you really savor it for the miracle that it is," said Maffei, the Des Plaines chef behind the blog MyHalalKitchen.com.

A new generation of Muslims is focusing on the spiritual side of the kitchen during Ramadan, from the way they clean to what they cook. While traditionally Muslims have tried to break their fasts with cultural comfort foods, some Muslims are making sure their food is not just halal, but organic, free-range and "tayiib" — Arabic for wholesome. They care as much about how the animal was killed as they do about how it was raised.

"We're so focused on the slaughter, we're not focused on the animal's life," Maffei said. "We're saying we have to go a step beyond because this food is sacred."

During the holy month of Ramadan, expected to begin Monday after a sighting of the new moon Sunday night, Muslims are expected to abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours as a sign of patience and piety. The fast also forbids vices such as smoking, profanity and ill temper.

Families rise before dawn to pray and share a light meal called "suhur" in Arabic. They gather again at sundown to break the fast in a meal known as "iftar."

Muslims traditionally break their fast by biting into a date, a simple sugar that the body can break down quickly. After evening prayers, Muslims return to the table for a protein-rich meal. Morning and evening menus are often designed to fuel Muslims for the sacrificial regimen.

That's especially important when Ramadan falls during the steamy month of August, in which the days are long and thirst is strong. While Maffei struggles without her morning coffee and enjoys piquant dishes from her and her husband's Latino and Italian heritage, she will avoid both caffeine and spices and prepare recipes that hydrate.

Last week, she bounced from the sink to the stove to her computer, sanitizing fresh peaches with a white vinegar spray, simmering Sicilian marinara and summer squash and zucchini soup, and posting recipes and cooking tips for others in the same boat. She says that after a day of fasting, soups are easier on the stomach than some other foods. So she keeps several kinds of soup in the freezer and alters them gradually as the month progresses.

She does most of the cooking before Ramadan so she can then concentrate on prayer and reading Scripture.

"Ramadan is a time to put our house in order and purify our soul with acts of worship," Maffei said. "I don't want to be in the kitchen longer than I need to be. I want to be reading the Quran. ... The last thing you want to think about is what I'm going to cook. There's just no energy for that. Plenty of time, but no energy."

Sheikh Kifah Mustapha, imam and associate director of The Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, said the Quran instructs the faithful to eat and drink without waste. The consumption of a wholesome, or tayiib, diet comes from the lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago.

"He was the role model. He was the example of humanity," Mustapha said. "He lived the lifestyle that none of the poor would look up and say, 'Wow, this guy is a king.'" Quite the contrary. He lived a lifestyle that everyone could emulate. He consumed grains and dates that were grown in the city of Medina and meat that was raised locally.

"It was all organic at that time," Mustapha said. "In Islam, people are urged to connect with nature for the preservation of the nature itself and the human body."

But Mustapha said there are challenges to maintaining that lifestyle. Though the Muslim community is encouraged to build relationships with local farmers and vendors, buying "organic" can double or triple the cost of meats and vegetables.

"It can be a faith-based initiative, but in the end everyone faces the reality of how much they can afford," Mustapha said.

There's also the question of availability. Meat that is both raised ethically and slaughtered according to Islamic law can be hard to find.

Qaid Hassan, 30, owns Whole Earth Meats, an online butcher shop that sells grass-fed, cage-free and hormone-free halal meats. He sees an influx of customers during Ramadan, a time of year when Muslims often think beyond bargains and reflect on ways to be more authentic.

"There are many folks who think holistically about the food they eat," said Hassan, who knows and trusts the farmers who raise his animals. Inside a Eureka, Ill., warehouse, he slaughters them himself, with a special prayer and a swift slice of the knife across the throat.

"It can add to the spiritual dimension of the fast," he said. "More people are taking seriously the ethics behind what they're consuming even though they should be consuming less. We think about our relationship with each other and God and we're very intentional about that. If done correctly, there can be a communal transformation."

Maffei agrees that Muslims have to be intentional about their food selection, especially during Ramadan. She and her husband made their annual trek to one of their favorite butcher shops in Naperville last weekend to stock up on halal meat. She gave specific instructions to the man behind the counter.

"Keep the fat! Love the flavor," she told him.

It's not gluttony, she said. It's a way to drive home the purpose of abstaining.


"At the end of the day, the food tastes wonderful and we appreciate the fast," she said. "You have food and feel compassion for those who don't have a choice."

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