My trip to Kuwait coincides with Ramadan. I won’t even attempt to explain this observance from a religious or historical perspective because I don’t have the appropriate knowledge. But here’s what it’s like for an American, who is not Muslim, visiting Kuwait during this major religious observance.
Ramadan lasts a full a cycle of the moon, which is about 30 days. Ramadan moves earlier by ten days every year. This means Ramadan is experienced in every season. You cannot eat or drink anything (including water) from sunup to sundown. All restaurants are closed until sundown. There are exceptions to the fasting requirement such as pregnant women, the elderly, the infirm, and children. However, even those with exceptions are expected to eat and drink in private so as not to disrespect those who are fasting. This is also true of people who are not Muslim. No one is going to come after you for eating or drinking in private during Ramadan. However, I met one American woman who was pulled over because an officer saw her drinking water in her car during the day. She was given a strong rebuke and sent on her way.
The fast is broken at sundown with what is called Iftar or Futoor. This is analogous to a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, but for 30 days straight! So far I’ve been to an extended-family futoor and a futoor that celebrated the birth of a baby. Tonight my hosts celebrate futoor in their home with friends of their own age.
Futoor dishes are both savory and sweet. Spices, and combinations of spices, are as important as the protein, vegetable, or starch on which they ride. You’ll find cardamom, clove, cinnamon, saffron, rose water, allspice, mace, black pepper, white pepper, and bay leaf. Most of these spices are used in both savory and sweet dishes.
Lamb and beef are popular in futoor dishes and fancy rice is ubiquitous. According to the dietary laws of Halal, animals must be raised and killed humanely. I have yet to eat plain white rice in Kuwait, and haven’t missed it. There are a variety of sauces, many of which are yogurt based. Along with olive oil and various vinegars, I’ve also found good old hot sauce on most tables. Regardless of the many explanations I’ve been given, I’m still not sure what goes with what. But it all seems to go together just fine.
There are a number of desserts associated with Ramadan, one of which is Lugaimat; fried dough balls soaked in saffron-sugar syrup. But there is one treat in particular that everyone rhapsodizes about and eagerly anticipates. It’s called Kunafa. Every family has its own recipe, but basically it’s really good soft cheese (think mozzarella), wrapped in sweet thin noodles (think vermicelli), deep fried, sprinkled with pistachios, and drizzled in honey. It is cheesy goodness from heaven, regardless of your religion.
There is also a version of trick-or-treat in Kuwait during Ramadan called Gerggian. Children dress up in traditional costumes and go from door to door in their neighborhoods. They sing songs, beat drums, and are given goo gobs of candy and treats. Remember when you were a kid and there was that one neighbor who gave out full-sized candy bars at Halloween? EVERY house is like that during Gerggian in Kuwait. Kuwaitis are crazy about their kids. Gerggian goes on for two or three consecutive nights. Some families hire a horse and carriage for Gerggian. My hosts’ two-year-old boy has been saying, “BIG WHITE ‘ORSE!” for the past week.
During Ramadan in Kuwait, many of the businesses will be open in the morning, close down about noon, and then re-open after sunset. Kuwait City comes alive at night and it’s a little weird for me to sit in traffic jams after midnight that have nothing to do with a sporting event or concert. You see young children running around at full tilt long past what we would consider a normal bedtime. But that’s what’s great about traveling to places with different cultures; you get the chance to rethink your definitions.
Kuwaiti women always dress up in public, but during Ramadan they wear gorgeous outfits that look like museum pieces. I feel mighty shabby in my tourist gear, but there’s no way I could pull off one of these outfits, nor am I expected to.
Well, it’s time to start prepping for tonight’s futoor. Not only are my tourist outfits shabby, they’re also getting pretty tight around the waist.
Thank you for visiting,