Holidays bring us together with friends and family. Regardless of the holiday, all cultures celebrate with traditional foods. While Christians and Jewish people celebrate their respective holidays, Muslims also celebrate Ramadan this spring. Each celebration comes with festive meals.
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast between sunrise and sundown. Muslims believe that during Ramadan, on the "Night of Power," God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad the Qurʾān, Islam's holy book. This year, Ramadan is celebrated from the evening of April 1st through the evening of May 1st.
Iftar is the evening meal. It often includes food eaten only during the Ramadan period, and it's important for the food to look appealing so Muslims can feast with their eyes. Many meals consist of foods high in complex carbohydrates, digested slowly, and low in fats and sugar. Many meals start with dates, which are believed to be the food that the Islamic prophet Muhammed ate to break his Ramadan fast. Fruits and beverages are usually consumed in abundance to rehydrate the body after a day of fasting.
Suhoor is the morning meal. It needs to be wholesome to provide enough energy to last during the long hours of fasting. Protein-rich foods, including eggs, meats, and dairy, are the staples of Suhoor, and oats that are slow to digest but high in fiber.
Eid al-Fitr is the celebratory feast that marks the end of Ramadan. Special food is prepared for the occasion, including lamb as the main dish and many sweets as desserts. The food prepared for this feast is unique to each region, and it's made of special localized ingredients. For example, in Mediterranean countries, baklava is enjoyed on Eid, while on the Indian subcontinent, rice pudding with rose water is a special dessert.
In the story of the Exodus, the people of Egypt suffered a series of terrible plagues, including the death of all firstborn sons. Members of the Jewish faith painted their doorposts with sacrificed lamb's blood so that God would "pass over" their homes. When the Jews finally escaped Egypt, they did not have time for their bread to rise, so they baked it before it was leavened. Now at Passover, Jewish people refrain from eating leavened food, including bread and other baked goods, and instead eat matzo, an unleavened cracker.
On the first two nights of Passover, people of the Jewish faith have a Seder, a traditional meal that includes the retelling of the story of the Exodus. A Seder Plate in the center of the table holds six important symbols to mark the holiday. A shank bone from a roasted lamb is on the plate to represent the pascal lamb (sacrificed lamb). A charred hard-boiled egg is also included as it represents the cycle of life - birth, reproduction, and death. For many, it is a custom to eat a hard-boiled egg dipped in saltwater as an appetizer on Passover.
Ashkenazi Jews, Jews of European heritage, feast on gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, and roast chicken or braised brisket on Passover. Sephardic Jews, Jews from Spain, Portugal, Northern Africa, and the Middle East, feast on vegetables with rice and meat mixtures, matzo-meal crusted kibbeh stuffed with ground lamb or beef, and flavorful desserts infused with cinnamon, cardamom, tamarind, ginger, cumin, or sumac.
Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus after he was crucified and buried in a tomb. Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on a different day, usually one week later, because they follow the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar. Periodically, Orthodox Easter and Easter are celebrated on the same day.
For many Christians, lamb is a traditional Easter food. Historically, at Easter, lamb would have been the only fresh meat available after a long winter with no livestock to slaughter. Many Americans do not appreciate the gaminess of lamb and prefer ham as part of the Easter meal. Orthodox Christians are more likely to eat lamb at Easter along with traditional ethnic side dishes.
Early Christians in what is now Iraq are believed to have dyed eggs at Easter. Others believe that egg dyeing was an ancient pagan custom. Eggs symbolized birth and were an appropriate symbol at spring festivals celebrating spring and the new life that comes after the winter. The Orthodox Christian Churches adopted the practice, and it spread into Western Europe and eventually to America. Orthodox Christians traditionally dye their eggs red to symbolize the blood of Christ, while others use a variety of colors and designs related to spring.
Traditions are always evolving, and our palates are always changing. One thing is certain - if we have something to celebrate, we will do it with food!