Hosting a dinner party is stressful. And hosting iftar? That’s on a whole other level. Like any other dinner, there’s the desire to feed people delicious food. But then there’s the added pressure of cooking while fasting (that’s right, no tasting), all while knowing that this is your very hungry guests’ most anticipated meal of the day and that they’ll be expecting to break their fasts at a certain time.
This year, on the first day of Ramadan in New York City, hundreds of thousands of Muslims will break their fast at 7:22 p.m. While the exact time varies depending on where you live and each day’s particular sunset time, one thing is guaranteed: We’re all hungry. And if my mindset is any indication, we’ve been thinking about this meal for hours. Some people want to eat right away, while others choose to pray first. Either way, when I’m hosting, I know I need to be prepared—being impromptu doesn’t play well with an iftar.
Variables and constraints make everything a little more cumbersome, but after years of attending iftars, watching people host, and hosting my own, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that will make the whole affair a lot more manageable. Here are my house rules:
1. Tell people what they’re eating.
As a virgo, I’m a natural-born planner—I go to bed thinking about breakfast and wake up thinking about dinner (okay, maybe I just love food). And this tendency is exacerbated when my meals are numbered. With that in mind, I do my iftar guests a favor and tell them what’s on the menu. It gives people something to look forward to, and, at the very least, prevents someone from bringing a dish I was already planning to make. It may even present an opportunity to coordinate and lighten the load.
2. Salting is tricky—just accept it.
My heart beats extra fast when everyone starts taking their first bites. Will the food be under-salted, or arguably worse, too salty? Over time, I’ve learned two principles for cooking while fasting. First, use recipes that call for a specified amount of salt as opposed to salting to taste. That way, I can rest assured that I’m at a good starting place. Second, don’t stress if everything isn’t perfectly seasoned—salt is extremely personal (I should know, I carry around a tiny tin of Maldon). I place a salt shaker or pinch bowl of salt on the table and encourage people to season to their own taste, and I do the same for other seasoning agents like fresh or crushed chiles and lemon wedges.
Now onto the food…
3. Display the dates, and keep a pit dish nearby.
Following the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH), most Muslims break their fast with dates. Instead of hiding them away in the pantry, I keep the dates out for everyone to see. This way, when the clock strikes iftar everyone can help themselves. Pro tip: Place a small empty bowl nearby for people to discard their date pits—few things are more awkward than walking around with a date pit in hand searching for the garbage can.
4. Serve more than just chai, but don’t skip it.
After the dates, the next order of business for most will be caffeine. Some version of chai is always a must in my family. Whether that’s a simply brewed cup of English breakfast tea with a splash of milk or a full-blown glass kettle bubbling away with Karak chai, caffeine simply cannot be skipped. Some people (like me) will drink it immediately because they already have a headache from the withdrawal, while others prefer it after a meal. Either way, don’t serve it solo. Make up for the day’s dehydration with some other beverage offerings (non-alcoholic ones, of course). Water is good enough, but that third beverage really says luxury. Personally, I’m a sucker for something bubbly that feels special, so I’ll be making a sweet and sour spritzer for my guests.
After a long day of no food, and another one coming, carbs are always a good idea. They’re filling and energizing and, if nothing else, very comforting. I’ve always been partial to pasta and rice, but if grains and legumes are more your style, do you. This year, I’ll be making Afghan pasta, which I learned about from a dear friend. It’s sort of like a lazy girl version of the traditional Afghan mantu I love, with the same flavors but a lot less preparation.
6. Serve no-stove sides. Yes, salad counts.
I could never feel comfortable just serving a main dish for iftar—sides are a very real part of the game and, just like at any other big dinner, some people even look forward to them the most. But stovetop space is precious. So instead of crowding the kitchen with pots and pans, I look for no-cook recipes or ones that won’t take up any space on the range.
I know greens aren’t the most exciting, but, if you ask me, even a simple salad deserves a place on the table. With so many filling, hearty dishes in the mix, it’s nice to balance the spread with something bright and fresh. Also, you know, nutrients.
7. Save the deep-frying for dessert.
Don’t get me wrong, I love samosas and bhajias just as much as anyone else, but I don’t trust myself with a vat of hot oil when I’m famished—I’m just not mentally on enough to be extremely careful. That doesn’t mean I’m skipping the frying entirely. I just save it for later in the night, when I’m full, re-energized, and craving a sweet bite. After all, what’s Ramadan without my deep-fried friends? Plus, it’s a good excuse to retreat into the kitchen (fellow introverts, you understand). Kalimati is my deep-fried dessert of choice, mostly because these pillowy little munchkins dripping in cardamom syrup remind me of my mother’s kitchen during Ramadan.
8. Or make your dessert in advance.
When deep-frying feels like too much effort, I pick a dessert I can prepare ahead of time and serve on my schedule. I lean towards dishes that get better with time, like banana pudding, tiramisù or, my personal favorite, saffron milk cake. This way, when everyone’s ready for round two, I can just pull it out of the fridge.
I hate to break it to you, but hosting an iftar will always involve some level of planning (read: stress). But, the good news is that after mastering the art of the iftar, hosting a dinner party outside of Ramadan will be an absolute breeze.