The menu evolves for a Muslim holiday built around food

The feast Nadia Hamila plans for Eid al-Adha this year, which includes lamb mechoui, centre, surrounded on the plate by grilled eggplant in a chermoula marinade with bread and Moroccan salads like the ones here: carrot salad, tomato salad and roasted red pepper salad, in London, July 10, 2021. The New York Times
It was still pitch black when Nadia Hamila, then a young schoolgirl, would roll out of her warm bed at 3 am to accompany her father to the abattoir in northern London on the first morning of Eid al-Adha.

Hamila, who at 40 is an entrepreneur and the owner of a Moroccan packaged food business in London, still remembers feeling the excitement surrounding the holiday. She and her father would bring an entire sheep back to the apartment, where all the women would gather to clean the innards and trotters in the bathtub.

“We even had a specific order for the way we ate the meat,” she said. The first day of Eid al-Adha was for the organs. On the second day, they ate the head and trotters, and only on the third day, once the fresh meat had rested, would they make kebabs, tagines or grills.

Eid al-Adha, or Festival of Sacrifice, is the second of the year’s two major Islamic holidays, and coincides with the Hajj pilgrimage. It commemorates the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail at Allah’s request. According to the Quran, God ultimately offered Ibrahim a ram to kill in the son’s place. So people across the Islamic world have traditionally sacrificed a lamb — or goat, cow or camel, depending on the region — at home and divided it into thirds among the needy, friends and relatives and their immediate family.

Home butchering of animals is now banned in many countries, including large swaths of the Arab world, where a fifth of the globe’s Muslim population live.

Meat is still central to Eid al-Adha, which many Arabs refer to colloquially as Eid al-Lahm, or Festival of Meat. But as celebrations deeply entrenched in community and tradition start to slip away, especially for Arab Muslims in the diaspora, people are finding new ways of observing a holiday for which food is a hallmark.

Areej Bazzari, a digital marketing director at Salesforce, in San Francisco, grew up in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, where breakfast was the highlight of Eid al-Adha. On her family’s holiday table was a bounty of offal cooked in myriad ways: braised with garlic, fried with onion and spices, or mixed with eggs.

“We had teams,” Bazzari said, laughing. “Team liver, team kidneys — and that’s my visual of Eid at home, all of us quarreling over who got to sit in front of which plate.”

Since her Palestinian family moved to Sonoma County in 2000, they have rarely prepared organ meat, which is harder to find fresh there. On the rare occasion that her father tracks down a fresh heart or kidneys, they will include it with other cuts of meat just to continue the tradition, but not with the same abundance they grew accustomed to in Saudi Arabia.

“We’re not going to a slaughterhouse,” she said. “This is, like, Dad going to Whole Foods.”

Bazzari, 38, cherishes the way her Eid al-Adha celebrations have evolved over the years. “I like that I can draw on childhood experiences and different cultural traditions I’m learning from friends here,” she said.

For her, Eid al-Adha now usually includes a large get-together of extended family and friends, with Eid decorations and countless dishes, including nontraditional ones like fattehs (toasted bread-based dishes with various protein toppings and sauces); shushbarak (meat filled dumplings cooked in yogurt sauce); and manaqeesh (flatbreads topped with za’atar and cheese).

But dessert — the highlight, which stays on the table for the remainder of the day — “is always a flavour from home,” Bazzari said. Her parents still fly to Saudi Arabia or Jordan every year and bring back desserts they save especially for Eid. Ka’ak and ma’amoul — quintessential holiday cookies in the Arab world, made with semolina and most often stuffed with dates or nuts — are the nonnegotiable items on that table.

Hamila’s array of desserts this year will feature cookies stuffed with dates or nuts. But her star dish for the long holiday will be mechoui, a slow-roasted leg of lamb — a constant in her feast, for its symbolism as much as for its flavour. Side dishes will lean more toward salads and vegetables. “It’s the middle of summer,” she said, “and I want to keep it a bit light.”

This Eid al-Adha is tentatively set for July 20. Because Islamic holidays are pegged to the Hijri lunar calendar, the exact date depends on the sighting of a new moon, and, over time, the holidays move through the seasons. A decade or two ago, Eid al-Adha was celebrated in cooler weather. Over the past five years, the holiday has fallen in summer, influencing the food choices.

Hamila appreciates the departures from custom. “I’m a strong believer that traditions have to adapt,” she said. To her, what counts is embracing the celebrations and connecting with the spirit of the occasion.

Sumaya Obaid, a chef and TV personality in the United Arab Emirates, recalls that when she was a child, the neighbours, regardless of race or class, would gather to sacrifice sheep for Eid al-Adha, then wash the meat and distribute it.

“Now that laws have changed, and people don’t slaughter animals at home, the collaboration and sharing, the butchering, the cleaning together, that has all disappeared,” she said. “That sense of community is just not there anymore.”

Other elements of Eid celebration, however, remain intact. Machboos el-Eid, spice-rubbed and roasted lamb, is still the essential holiday dish in the Emirates. The saffron-laced spice mixture varies from family to family, and the women take pride in picking out the fresh spices at the market a few days before the celebration to grind and prepare at home.

“It is so unique, so unique,” Obaid said of her own blend. “But I will only give it to my daughter. It is one of the most secret things in the family.”

The heart of the Eid al-Adha meals may be meat, but their spirit is generosity. Obaid quickly added, “Inshallah, one day we share this meal, and you taste our family’s machboos.”

RECIPES:

Ka’ak el Eid

Yield: About 35 round cookies

Total time: 1 3/4 hours, plus overnight resting and cooling

Ingredients:

For the dough:

A scant 1 1/2 cups/250 grams semolina flour

2 cups/250 grams all-purpose flour

1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons/125 grams softened unsalted butter

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 tablespoon nigella seeds (or unhulled sesame seeds)

1 tablespoon ground aniseed

1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon instant yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup warm water, plus more if needed

For the filling:

Vegetable or olive oil, as needed for greasing

1 pound/450 grams date paste (see tip)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preparation:

1. Prepare the dough: In a large bowl, combine the semolina flour, all-purpose flour, butter and oil. Rub the ingredients between your palms until the mixture resembles wet sand. Cover and leave at room temperature overnight (or several hours). This allows the semolina to soften and fully absorb the butter and oil.

2. Finish the dough: The next day (or several hours later), after your semolina mixture has rested, add the nigella seeds, aniseed, fennel, baking powder, yeast, sugar and salt to the semolina mixture and gently rub together with your hands. Add 1/2 cup warm water and start to gently knead for no longer than 2 minutes. The mixture will probably still be crumbly at this point.

3. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup water to the mixture in 1-tablespoon increments, and continue to knead for about 1 minute after each addition — making sure you don’t over-knead — until you can take a clump of dough in your fingers and it holds together. You may not need to use all the water, or you may need extra, a couple tablespoons at a time, depending on a variety of factors such as climate or flour. What you are looking for is a clump of dough to come together easily and not fall apart when you try rolling it into a log. Cover and let rest while you prepare the filling.

4. Prepare the filling: Line a medium baking sheet with plastic wrap or parchment paper and grease with oil. Pour some oil in a small bowl that you will use to grease your hands as necessary. Put the date paste and cinnamon in a bowl and knead slightly with greased hands until evenly incorporated.

5. Grease your hands and tear out about 35 portions of filling, each about the size of a golf ball. On a flat surface, roll each into a string slightly thinner than your finger and about 4 to 5 inches long. Place on the greased baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap, then set aside until ready to use. This can sit at room temperature for a couple of days without any issue.

6. Prepare the cookies: Heat oven to 400 degrees and line a couple of baking sheets with parchment. Take a golf ball-size piece of dough, keeping the rest of the dough covered to keep it moist, and roll it between your palms or on a flat surface into a sausage shape about 4 inches long. Using the tips of your fingers, gently press to flatten it. Take one of the date strings and place on top of the dough, cutting off as much as necessary for it to fit the dough. (Any cut off pieces can be used to extend shorter pieces or combined to make more filling strings.)

7. Enclose the dough around the date filling and roll it on a flat surface into a slightly longer, thin sausage shape, about 8 to 9 inches long. Take one end and place it slightly overlapping the other end to form a ring shape. With a thin object (such as a chopstick), press down all the way through to make two holes where the ends overlap to ensure they are firmly attached and won’t come apart during baking. Place on the prepared lined baking sheet and repeat until dough and filling are finished.

8. Bake cookies until a very light golden brown, about 15 to 18 minutes. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before moving to a wire rack to cool completely. Once cooled, transfer to an airtight container. Cookies will keep 2 to 3 weeks in an airtight container at room temperature, or up to 3 months in the freezer.

TIP: Date paste can easily be found in any Middle Eastern grocery store. However, you could also buy good quality soft Medjool dates, pit them and knead them by hand with a tablespoon of olive oil to get a pastelike consistency. Do not use a food processor, because the dates will become extremely sticky and difficult to remove.

Sajiyeh

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Total time: 40 minutes

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound beef (such as sirloin, rib-eye, skirt steak or flank steak), cut into bite-size strips

2 1/2 teaspoons Lebanese seven-spice blend (see tip)

1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced

1 small red bell pepper, halved, cored and thinly sliced

2 jalapeños or 1 small green bell pepper, halved, cored and thinly sliced

Saj bread, pita, naan or flour tortillas, for serving

Preparation:

1. Heat olive oil in a cast-iron pan over medium until shimmering and hot, but not smoking. Add the strips of meat, spice blend and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring periodically, until all the released water evaporates and the meat starts to brown all over, about 10 minutes.

2. Once meat is browned, add 1/2 cup water, cover the pan, and cook until the water again evaporates and oil visibly releases, about 5 to 7 minutes. Repeat the process: Add another 1/2 cup water, cover, and cook until the water evaporates and oil releases.

3. Add the onion, pepper, jalapeños and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, uncovered, tossing regularly, until the onions are browned and meat is starting to soften, about 4 minutes.

4. Add another 1/2 cup water and cook for a final time, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until some of the water evaporates and you are left with a thick sauce coating the meat and vegetables, about 3 minutes.

5. Remove from heat and serve immediately with bread to scoop up the meat and gravy.

TIP: You can replace the seven-spice blend with 1/2 teaspoon each ground allspice, ground cinnamon and ground black pepper, plus 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin and a few grates of nutmeg.

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