A look into the brilliance of the Suhoor, the pre-dawn meal that even the Prophet considered sacred — and important.
It is just after midnight at Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty. Much like the rest of the hotel, the otherwise bustling kitchens too have been cleaned and closed, though not all of them. Somewhere else a small team of chefs is busy putting together a pre-dawn meal for their guests observing roza, rather a little feast, of some of the interesting dishes of fruits, pilaf, shammi kebab, paratha and a special drink called Tharikanji, a hearty beverage made of semolina, vermicelli, coconut milk and a few dry fruits. A signature Malabari treat, the cool drink is quite popular during the holy month because of its nourishing quality.
Just a glass of it, says Yogender Pal, Executive Chef at the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, “can keep you satiated through a major part of the day.” Chef Pal, who supervises the preparation of the meal, which is had by most of their Muslim guests before starting their day of fasting, has been enamoured of the drink ever since he discovered it a few years ago. In appearance, says the functional food expert, “it is akin to sattu or mandia — a thick beverage made of millet and popular in Eastern India — but that is till one witnesses the process of making it. First, the drink uses both vermicelli and semolina as its base ingredient which are roasted first and then cooked giving it that rich texture mouthfeel. Once it is cooked into a lassi-like consistency comes the tempering. It is here that the Tharikanji takes on its kanji character, where the sweet drink is tempered with cashew nuts and shallots. And yet, the finishing taste is deceptively delicious.”
Chef Pal, who has over the last few years also added the therapeutic nannari syrup to the Suhoor menu that is often made on request, often finds the pre-dawn meal a fascinating insight into the world of traditional food and its wellness aspect. Every dish on the Suhoor platter, he adds, “serves an important function of ensuring that those who fast are able to do so without a fall in energy or craving for the rest of the day.”
Incidentally, Chef Pal isn’t the only one charmed by the lesser heard or attended pre-dawn meal. Anirban Dasgupta, Executive Chef at JW Marriott Pune, too finds the preparing of the meal a “crash course” in not only discovering interesting traditional dishes like the khutta hua gosht of Hyderabad, Middle Eastern Oozi Biryani and the pulao varieties from Assam, but also learning how food was traditional paired for wellness. The locavore advocate, Chef Dasgupta’s first tryst with Suhoor or Sehri — as it is a meal had in the last quarter of the night — began with Arab expat guests. On the platter was the complete Ottoman spread of mezze (at least 7-8 varieties), raan biryani, sheermal, different kinds of kebabs, baklava and dates. But unlike the Indian guests who often had their pre-fast meal with their families, those from the Middle East, in keeping with the tradition, had it as a ‘communal event’. “In fact, a different tent was set up for this purpose only that allowed them to mingle, dine, share joys, even read the morning namaz before retiring to their respective rooms,” says Chef Dasgupta.
The preparing of this blessed meal, over the years, has not only given Chef Dasgupta a repository of unique dishes from different parts of the Middle East as well as India, but also an understanding to the wellness side of the meal. Just by appearance, says Chef Dasgupta, “the spread may appear to be a collection of some of the dishes from the Iftar feast, but the order in which it is had — first protein, then fibre, followed by complex carbohydrates, dates and then the sweet for instant energy — is one of the reasons the meal is called a blessing even by the Prophet. After all, it is this meal that keeps them going through the day without craving for even a drop of water.”
Suhoor in essence
Fascinatingly, through history, that is what has made Suhoor such an important meal, although, says Hyderabadi cuisine expert Quddus Abdul, “unlike Iftar where there is a decree as to the food that is to be had to break the fast and what next to eat, Suhoor or Sehri meal isn’t confined by any diktat or boundaries. It is said that the ritual of a pre-dawn meal was introduced by Prophet Mohammad who is said to have found that a frugal meal of dates and water (some even believe it to be sherbet) could help sustain you through the day happily.”
Food lore has it that during the initial years when the Prophet and his followers observed the holy month of Ramadan, they did so by having a date or two along with water before sunrise. A tradition, says Quddus, “that many elders still follow today who find that the frugal meal actually helps them stay calm through the day.”
How Suhoor transformed into the royal lavish meal, says Quddus, “is much to do with the changing era and eating habits rather than a planned progression. One of the reasons that it still continues to change even today.”
Concurs brand specialist Zamir Khan, who views the pre-dawn meal as a creation of “necessity and functionality that perhaps could have been inspired by the fasting rituals in other cultures where eating before sunrise has been advocated to ensure that the reason of fasting — in case of Ramadan, a month of abstinence and mind-soul-body detox — is carried on well.”
This may explain why, in India especially, “you would never find a menu for the pre-dawn meal, which is mostly a blend of leftovers and a few dishes that are attuned to the place one stays in, and the kind of hunger you are preempting for the day.”
For both Quddus and Khan, Suhoor is often fruits, juices and one rice meal or a good chicken sandwich that can keep you satiated. Although, confess the seasoned experts, “that wasn’t the case when they began roza, and when they are at the grandmother’s place, where a hearty meal was served for the pre-fast meal, which helped us go about our day without a thought for food, and water — which is rather difficult, given the hot and humid weather these days.”
From those dishes, a few have turned into Suhoor must-haves, says Shadab Ahmed, Chef de Cuisine, Jyran, Sofitel BKC, “like Doodh Lachha, Pheni, kebab, nuts, one composite dish such as a pulao, khichdi or dal chawal followed by a sweet dish like a halwa, kheer or sheer qorma.”
And for good reason, says the Awadhi food expert, “While the sweets keep you in a calm mood, especially those made in milk; the pulao, kebab (or meat dish) and the nuts ensure that you are able to continue even after the eight-hour fasting when the resource in the body continues to deplete.”
In fact, adds Quddus, “the presence of biryani or khichdi along with nuts in Suhoor is there purely because while easy to digest, it also enables the body to store the protein and fat for later use, especially after the 11th-hour mark when you really feel the need to replenish. That extra food makes one less responsive to the food aromas and the challenges around them one is bound to encounter during the day.”
That ability to stay unaffected by food is as much a test of will power as it is about eating right, says Chef Ahmed, who admits that even after all these years the initial days of fasting can be tasking. “It often elucidates the evolution process of Suhoor,” he says, “from the frugal meal of dates and water to a functional feast that often has a few indulgences as well.”
Among the kebab varieties that are had in Hyderabad during Suhoor, adds Quddus, “is one where dried, spiced meat strips are fried to crispness and had along with khatti dal and chawal.” In Mumbai, says Chef Ahmed, “it is Khajla-pheni, a Baqar Khani heirloom dish that is considered the healthiest dish for breakfast and can keep one nourished and hydrated for long hours.”
Then there’s the Kashmiri Suhal which, according to Khan, “is essentially a deep-fried flatbread that over the years has emerged as a kin to the Afghani Bolani. And there’s the refreshing Tamir Hind, a cooling drink made with tamarind said to be popular with the aristocrats of Awadh and Bengal.”
In fact, adds Khan, “food lore has it that the drink was so popular that big earthen pots were filled and placed across the city as the musaharati went about waking people for Suhoor in the erstwhile Mughal Sultanate. This was followed in the evening with Kashmiri ‘bebr-i-buel’ made with basil soaked in milk and kateer (natural resin), a known rehydrate.”
The rise of the three Muslim gunpowder dynasties (the Mughals in India, Ottomans in Turkey and the Safavids) only added to the importance of Suhoor. While the Ottoman and Safavid Sultans turned it into a communal event for the court, the Mughals ensured that the kitchens were open to the people for Suhoor. In fact, Empress Nur Jahan, it is said, would usually set up these small places around the city for Suhoor and would herself supervise the making of the food that would be served after a prayer and would be done with the firing of the cannon that marked the end of the seher. So popular was the tradition of feeding Suhoor to people that later her granddaughter Jahanara Begum too continued it in Chandni Chowk where the eating places were encouraged to open their kitchens for both the poor and others for the pre-dawn meal.