O you who believe, fasting is decreed for you, as it was decreed for those before you, that you may obtain salvation. - Qur'an 2:183
You might think a customer base fasting from dawn to dusk would spell trouble for a small cafe and grocery store. But for Waell Murray, co-owner of Global Markets in Burlington's Old North End, the next four weeks represent one of his busiest, and tastiest, times of year. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan starts Friday and runs through November 12.
Murray is a Palestinian-born Muslim who was raised in Ramallah. He and his partner, Lila Sennett, have owned and operated Global Markets since they moved to Burlington from Philadelphia about a year ago. According to the Vermont Secretary of State's office, Global Markets is the only food store in the state that offers products that conform to halal, Islam's strict dietary code. Consequently, the small grocery-cafe has become, well, a Mecca for Burlington's burgeoning Muslim community. Although 75 percent of the store's dry goods are made in the former Yugoslavia, Global Markets also stocks items from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. There's Alghazaleen tea from Sri Lanka, soda from Slovenia, green olives from Lebanon and Podravka-brand children's cereal from Croatia. The sun-dried figs are Turkish.
For the next four weeks, Murray will be catering to the unique culinary needs of Ramadan, whether it's by offering his Muslim customers specialty foods from their home countries or preparing fully-cooked hot meals and desserts to eat in or take out. For the more than one billion Muslims worldwide, including the eight million or so in North America, Ramadan is the ninth and holiest month on the Islamic calendar, marked by a fast observed each day from sunrise until sunset. During this "month of blessing and contemplation," Muslims are expected to give up all pleasures of the flesh, including coffee, cigarettes, chewing gum, sexual activity and food. "That makes people go around all day thinking of nothing but food," says Murray, "which creates an atmosphere of real creativity."
Not to mention hearty appetites. Throughout the 29 or 30 days of Ramadan -- the exact timing of the holiday is determined by a local viewing of the moon -- Global Markets will be serving iftar, the nightly break-the-fast meal. Since Muslims generally eat just one meal a day during Ramadan, it's not surprising that traditional dishes tend to go heavy on the carbs and proteins, with rice, meats, breads, soups, stews and desserts featured prominently -- "Not Atkins friendly at all," Murray says with a laugh.
In some cultures, iftar begins with a serving of dates or sweet drinks, which are a good way to get a quick burst of energy after a long day of fasting. Typically, a Middle Eastern Ramadan meal begins with a fancy salad like fattoush -- a chilled salad tossed with cubes of moistened bread. Next comes a thick, slow-cooked soup -- "nothing out of a package or can, but something you put a lot of hard work and love into," Murray says. Sometimes, it's a hot, sweet soup made from a dried apricot paste called kamareddine.
Typically, the main course includes chicken, lamb or goat, which are served with rice in some kind of thick stew. A common meal eaten only during Ramadan is fattah, rice mixed with hard, darkly toasted bread, a hot yogurt syrup, and either lamb or goat meat. Beef is less common, at least in Middle Eastern dishes, says Murray, and pork is, of course, strictly forbidden. Alcohol is also "haram," or prohibited.
Lamb and goat meat are popular favorites in many Ramadan entrees, particularly among African Muslims. Before Global Markets started carrying halal meats, observant Muslims had to drive to Montreal, Boston or New York City to find them. (Incidentally, Global Markets also stocks halal turkeys during Thanksgiving.) Murray emphasizes that all his pots, pans and cooking utensils were purchased new and have never been used for anything but halal foods.
With their worldly pleasures kept in check throughout the day, Muslims often end the evening meal with special desserts that are served only during Ramadan. A common favorite for Murray is katayef, a sweet pancake similar to a crepe, which is folded like a pocket instead of rolled, pinched closed, and then deep fried. Murray will be making fresh katayef dough from scratch throughout the month. He will also offer other traditional Ramadan desserts, including rice and apricot puddings.
Global Markets will be open during its normal business hours throughout Ramadan. Those who observe the holiday -- as well as curious non-observers -- are invited to the restaurant just before sunset to enjoy nightly readings from the Qur'an and share the iftar after. Murray expects to be serving about 12 to 15 customers each night in the cafe itself, but will cook enough to feed 20 to 25. Generosity and strengthening community ties are an integral part of Ramadan, when Muslims visit with family and friends.
Also, with the growing interest among Vermonters in all things Arabic, Muslim and Middle Eastern, Murray expects to see some new faces down at the cafe as well. "What I have noticed among the people of Vermont that I didn't notice anywhere else in this country is that Vermonters are open-minded to other cultures, other foods and other traditions," he says. "Consequently, when it comes to food, people look at our menu and pick an item that they can hardly pronounce and when I explain it to them, they say, 'OK, let me try it.' That's amazing."
Of course, for less-adventurous eaters, Murray and Sennett will still be serving their usual menu items, including a daily breakfast special for $2.25 offered all day. And though it's not one of the Five Pillars of Islam, it would be a sin not to mention that Murray, who lived in Philadelphia for 11 years, claims to make "the best and most authentic Philly cheese steak in town." He uses rolls that are baked fresh in the store each day.