Ramadan is a challenging time of year, no doubt about it. For those fasting, it requires an admirable amount of self-restraint. For those not fasting it still demands changes to one’s daily routine. And for those in the restaurant business, who cater to the daily breaking of the fast, the Holy Month is a manic time of year.
‘For the kitchen, Ramadan is one of the busiest months, in terms of preparation,’ says Munier Al Sallaq, the executive chef at the Shangri-La Hotel, who estimates he is currently serving 200 guests a night. ‘It’s a very short amount of time for quite a lot of work; the kitchen’s hours are usually longer during Ramadan.’
Gilles Sohier, the director of food and beverage at the One&Only Royal Mirage, agrees. ‘It gets much busier as all the guests tend to break their fast at the same time.’
And, as hungry guests spill in to Dubai’s hotel dining rooms, those chefs who are also honouring the traditions of the month by withholding from food during daylight hours find their own Iftars postponed.
‘I break fast at 7.30pm, when everyone else has finished eating,’ reveals Al Sallaq. Being around the food in the kitchen all day doesn’t pose any extra challenge for him, he says, agreeing with Farid Jamal, the food and beverage co-ordinator at the Sheraton Deira, who says that his position in the hospitality industry enriched his experience while fasting: ‘It’s beautiful to see the food laid out and looking fresh before the start of Iftar. The sight helps me open up my appetite and makes me appreciate what my guests are feeling when they finally get to break fast.’
One of the biggest obstacles for those in the restaurant industry has nothing to do with fasting, however. What was once an at-home affair involving friends and family has become big business, with upscale Iftars now a regular fixture in hotels across the UAE. > For chefs and managers, then, the most difficult aspect of the season is creating an Iftar that stands out when so many tend to blend together. ‘Our Iftar is unlike any other,’ Al Sallaq notes proudly. ‘Maybe other hotels have bigger buffets, but in terms of offering good food, I think ours is the best. It’s home-style, and it keeps our guests coming back again and again.’
For Jamal, meanwhile, the trick is in never offering the same spread twice. ‘We’re trying to create a home away from home; you don’t like to eat the same thing at home every day, and you wouldn’t want to eat the same thing every day during Ramadan. We are trying to exceed customers’ expectations by having more options.’
Another way that hotel restaurants try to distinguish themselves at this time of year is by offering more international options. As hotel-based Iftars become a favourite dining option not only with the locals but with expats, you’re more likely to find biryani and ouzi stationed near Arabic favourites, such as falafel and fattoush, and lemon meringues stashed near the kanafa.
‘I’m looking for a wider audience. It’s not only Middle Eastern people that go for Iftar, it’s other nationalities as well,’ admits Al Sallaq. ‘So I’m going through the line of international food that can attract more people.’
So are these contemporised, international Iftars the way of the future? Many in the hospitality industry think not.
‘You can’t talk about Ramadan without all the traditions that go along with it,’ says Al Sallaq. ‘The dried fruits, the figs, the apricots, they all come automatically with an Iftar, and that’s never going to change. People in the Middle East like to have options, which is why I go a little bit away from the traditional, but I’m not forgetting the Arabic food; it’s a must.’ In the meantime, as more nationalities stream into Dubai, you can look forward to breaking fast with lentil soup, and who knows, maybe some sushi to boot.
A tangy yoghurt drink
A sweet, syrupy drink made from dates
A chunky, Moroccan lentil soup
A soft, white cheese topped with cracked semolina, baked to form a hard crust. This is often served with a heavy, sweet syrup
A pudding made from cream, filo dough, sultanas and pistachios