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Food tips to maximize health during Muslim fast

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Chef Jeff Jarfi, of Jarfi’s Catering, says these meals are ideal to be consumed during periods of Ramadan.

Louisville Courier Journal

The holy month of Ramadan, the most sacred month of the year for Muslims, will begin next week for more than a billion Muslims worldwide.

Ramadan celebrates when the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by God and during this time each year, many will acknowledge the holy month through one of the five pillars of is Islam — fasting or “sawm” — and will abstain from all food and drink, among other things, between sunrise and sundown.

The fast each day can sometimes last 12 hours.

“With the help of God, you can do it,” said Youness El Mesyah, head chef at Safier Mediterranean Deli, 514 S. 4th St. in downtown Louisville. “It’s all in your mind and your body eventually gets used to it.”

With the help of their faith, Muslims in Louisville will embrace the sacrifice of fasting to get closer to God, to deepen one’s study of the Quran, to increase efforts of charity and generosity and to identify with the plight of the less fortunate.

But many who are fasting still have to go about their daily routines — some facing rigorous work, El Mesyah said, including the people living and working in his hometown of Tamloulet (تملولت), a small village in the Moroccan countryside.

During Ramadan, Muslims are allowed to eat and drink before sunrise — Suhoor — and after sundown — Iftar  — and local Muslim chefs and nutritionists say those taking part in the fast should take every opportunity to properly fuel themselves for a long day of fasting during those meals.

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“Poor nutrition may contribute to lower energy levels and fatigue,” said Rahaf Al Bochi,​ a Muslim,​​​​​​ registered dietician nutritionist, which can lead “to muscle breakdown if you are not eating enough or not eating balanced meals.”

Here’s what local chefs and nutritionists suggest for fasting during this year’s holy month and a list of foods and recipes to consider when eating before sunrise and after sundown.  

What does fasting do to the body?

As one of the five pillars of Islam, all Muslims are required to take part in Ramadan fasting. However, special concessions are made for the elderly, children, pregnant or nursing mothers, those menstruating and the sick. 

But for those participating in the fast, it can have physical benefits, Bochi said. Some studies suggest fasting may reduce insulin resistance, inflammation and cholesterol levels, she said.

Additionally, Natalie Senninger, a clinical dietician at Norton Weight Management Services in Louisville, said fasting “can even trigger something called autophagy, in which sick or dead cells are replaced with healthy cells.”

However, when the fast is broken each night, it is important for people to monitor how much they eat, Senninger said. Binging when the fast is broken after sundown can create negative side effects such as fatigue, dizziness, irritability, and lightheadedness, she added. 

From a health perspective, fasting must be done properly to keep the physical being in shape while the spiritual being sacrifices, reflects and seeks closer proximity to God. 

“You want to focus on having balanced meals at both Suhoor and Iftar,” said Bochi, who also owns Olive Tree Nutrition in Georgia and is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the nation’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. “This means having fiber, protein, and healthy fats to help give you energy, stabilize blood sugars, and give you satisfaction.”

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Before the sunrise: What is suhoor?

Suhoor or suhur is a pre-dawn meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan. It’s the last meal before the sunrise and the day of fasting begins.

This meal usually takes place around 3 or 4 a.m. before morning prayer, said chef Jeff Jarfi of Jarfi’s Catering, a Muslim and Moroccan native. Jarfi said these meals usually consist of breakfast items such as pancakes, smoothies, croissants and so on. 

“You fill yourself up with a lot of carbs and fresh fruits, and you wash and your brush (your teeth) and you pray and get ready for the day,” he said.

For El Mesyah, he likes to begin his days with some cheese, a light, fresh-made salad or some tea before prayer at 6:30 a.m. and work by 8 a.m. He believes suhoor is vital during the fast and that Muslims should strive to get something in their body at this time, even if it’s just a glass of water and some dates. 

Bahga Mufa, a pastry chef at Ramsi’s Cafe On The World, 1293 Bardstown Road, and a Sudan native, said her family makes a special type of bread for suhoor called Rea’a, that resembles a flatbread or tortilla. 

“We look forward to it every year,” she said. “It’s a special tradition for suhoor,” and it gives her family an opportunity to bond over a meal before the day begins.

Though the range of possible options at suhoor can vary, experts agree the meal is supposed to be light and nutritious. Bochi, aregistered dietician nutritionist, suggests people try these meal options during suhoor:

  • Whole grain toast with eggs and avocado
  • Oatmeal with nuts, seeds, and fruit (adding protein powder to your oatmeal can also be a great option to boost your protein)
  • Protein shake (think spinach, banana, mango, protein powder, and almond milk)
  • Greek yogurt with fruit and chia seeds

“Waking up for suhoor is important to prepare you for the day’s fast,” she said. “Skipping this meal can place your body in ‘starvation mode’ which may result in muscle breakdown and extreme fatigue.”

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Families traditionally wake up and eat suhoor together, Bochi said, and when the day ends, “it’s very important to break your fast immediately at iftar time (sunset) and focus on eating a balanced meal to nourish your body and prepare you for the next day’s fast.”

Dusk falls: What is the Iftar?

The Iftar is the meal served at the day’s end during Ramadan. It is served at sunset each day during the holy month and is what breaks each day’s fast. Across the Muslim community, the day’s fast is often broken with dates and a glass of milk, orange juice or water, said Mufa, pre-sous chef at Ramsi’s. 

After that, the menu opens up. 

Jarfi and the Muslim Americans for Compassion, 2903 Waldoah Beach Road, have been serving Iftar meals to the Muslim community locally since 2009 and serve about 700 people each year.

He tries to cook “comfort food” for the community that they can eat and then take home as leftovers to use for other nights. Any given year, his Iftar lineup can include roasted chicken with herbs, homemade mashed potatoes with garlic and mixed vegetable or, a chicken stir fry with vegetables and rice. Jarfi wants to make sure there is a lot of protein and vegetable options available and suggests people break their fast with the same. 

Since he opened Safier in 2012, El Mesyah has used his restaurant to provide chicken kabob, chicken shawarma, rice, hummus, and salad for Guiding Light Islamic Center, 6500 Six Mile Lane, and Al Nur Mosque, 2815 S. 4th St., each day of Ramadan for Itfar. 

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For Muslims in Louisville, observing Ramadan is a community effort, but it’s important to focus on individual health.

“I always recommend listening to your body’s fullness cues,” Bochi said. “Practice mindful eating at Iftar and Suhur to help you listen to your body’s fullness, and allow you to enjoy your food. This means slowing down when eating, chewing foods well, putting away distractions.” 

Contact Andre Toran at atoran@gannett.com or follow on Twitter @andretoran. 

Harrira, a traditional Moroccan Ramadan soup

Courtesy of Chef Jeff Jarfi, Jarfi’s Catering. Total cooking time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons of Ghee butter
  • 1 chopped yellow onion
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper 
  • 1 cup of chickpeas soaked overnight
  • 1 cup of lentils soaked for an hour
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley 
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro
  • 2 chopped celery sticks (roughly 2 tablespoons)
  • 2 large tomatoes, puréed
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste

In a large pot start by putting the 2 tablespoons of Ghee butter. Add chopped onions and let it simmer for about two minutes. Next, add all the spices listed above, 2 cups of water, the drained chickpeas, the cup of lentils and half each of the parsley, cilantro and celery. Let the ingredients cook at medium heat for an hour while stirring the pot occasionally.

Next add 6 cups of water and the puréed tomatoes and let it come to a boil for 20 to 30 minutes until there is a nice consistency. Next, add vermicelli noodles while it boils (optional). In a separate cup, mix the flour and 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and water just to make it a nice and a runny consistency.

Now, slowly add the cup that has the tomato paste, flour and water to the main pot while stirring and add the other half of the celery, cilantro and parsley.

Serve with a slice of lemon.

Rea’a bread

Courtesy of Bahga Mufa, a pastry chef at Ramsi’s Cafe On The World

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1/2 cup of semolina 
  • 1/2 teaspoon yeast 
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 cup of oil
  • 1 cup water

Mix all ingredients in a mixer with a dough hook. Let it sit for half an hour, then break the dough into portions of your desired size and flatten the portions to the desired thickness. Lightly oil a skillet and cook dough on medium heat until light tan spots appear on the side of the dough in contact with the skillet. Flip to the other side and repeat. Repeat this process until the bread shows amber spots on each side. The time of cooking depends on heat applied. 

Serve and enjoy. 

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