Photo by Tenaya HillsIt starts with a date: the fruit type of date, not the ask-someone-out-and-hope-to-get-lucky kind. That's how parishioners at the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove break their sunrise-to-sunset Ramadan fast, in accordance with Muslim tradition holding that the Prophet Muhammad finished his Ramadan fasts in the same manner.
But after the faithful gnaw through that one-inch orb of sweet, warm heaven, a problem arises for the imams heading Orange County's largest mosque: How do you fill the still-growling gullets of your thousands-strong congregation?
Enter Fatima Rahman. She runs the Islamic Society's soup kitchen and thus coordinates the iftar, the bountiful meal mandated by the Quran to end a Ramadan day. On a recent Saturday, Rahman watched with vigilant pride as about 40 teenage volunteers served the meals she and two other women spent the better part of the morning and afternoon preparing.
"We started cooking around 10 a.m. today," said Rahman, known by most in the mosque as Auntie Fatima. "On Saturdays, we feed about 800 people, but we make 1,000 dishes because people like to take home extras."
As she was speaking, Auntie Fatima continued to govern the 15-foot Islamic Society kitchen like Saladin. Five enormous pots stewed on the two stoves; trays buckling with samosas, chicken tikka, and other goodies baked within the eight-shelf oven. And while the fans in the kitchen swished around, more hardy aromas than fresh air, Auntie Fatima and her friends didn't complain.
During the week, Auntie Fatima's iftar functions more as a soup kitchen for the poor than any grand theological purpose; most of the Islamic Center's congregants break their Ramadan fast at home or at a restaurant on weekdays due to school and work. But come Saturday, Muslims from across the county gather at the Islamic Society within the hour after sunset to experience iftar as a community. Or at least that's what they say—a lot come just to feast on Auntie Fatima's creations rather than express devotion to Allah.
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Most of the Islamic Society's congregants are from India or Pakistan, so Auntie Fatima usually makes Indian faves for the Saturday iftar. She begins with appetizers handed out at the exact moment of sunset: the essential date, half a banana for protein, and a samosa slathered with a chunky pistachio-green chutney. After fasting all day, this interplay of sweet mushiness and spicy crunchiness makes Muslims forget their previously collapsed stomach and delights everyone regardless of religion. Auntie Fatima also tucks in some baklava as well, but no one complains—it's funny how tummies overlook cultural inconsistencies.
These appetizers are free; the rest of the iftar costs you a measly two bucks (which go to charity) and comes in an impossible-to-close Styrofoam box scooped together by the volunteers. In this foam treasure chest are fluffy mountains of vegetable-studded rice topped with saucy, tender chunks of lamb korma. Buttressing the mound is a drumstick-and-thigh set curried chicken-tikka-style: hell-hot, red and yummy. Auntie Fatima balances this meatiness with buttery sides of potatoes and spinach. She also stirs up some fresh, wonderfully frothy mango lassi as the beverage and throws in a cardamom-drenched gulab jamun fried-dough ball for a gloriously sweet dessert.
Auntie Fatima is indefatigable, but she does allow the Arab aunties to take over the iftar once in a while, and they come with hummus, shawerma and falafels in tow. Sometimes, she's even benevolent enough to let in Islamic restaurants looking for new clientele to cater the night. But regardless of menu, if you wanna chow down your own iftar—yes, non-Muslims are allowed; no, we won't proselytize—you better hurry. Ramadan ends with the next new moon this coming weekend, so if you see a bright crescent in the sky on Friday, you'll have to wait till next year. But if the universe plays in your favor, and the moon isn't sighted until Saturday night, the iftar is still on. Silly Muslims and their crazy lunar calendar . . . you've got to love us!
ISLAMIC SOCIETY OF ORANGE COUNTY, 9752 13TH ST., GARDEN GROVE, (714) 531-1722. THE IFTAR IS AVAILABLE AFTER SUNDOWN EVERY DAY DURING RAMADAN AND COSTS $2 PER PLATE BUT IS FREE FOR THE TRULY DESTITUTE. NO FAITH IN ALLAH REQUIRED.