Moroccan Harira + Looking Back On My First Ramadan
Tangier is, by nature, a noisy place. At all hours of the day and night there are cars and trucks rumbling around, mopeds backfiring, people yelling, whether in enthusiastic greeting or heated debate, and absolutely no one is ever shy with their horn. For this reason, it is impossible to forget my first Ramadan in Morocco when I heard something I had never heard before in this city- silence.
My good friend asked me the other day why I decided to start fasting that first year living in Tangier, and honestly it was hard to give a concrete reason. I suppose part of it stemmed from wanting to try it as a physical and mental challenge, but the other part of it was the community. I wanted to feel as fully integrated into life here as possible and that included changing my own rhythm in time with the city’s drastic shifts during the month of Ramadan. Suddenly the days here become slow, quiet and lazy and only after sunset is when everyone comes out of a hungry hibernation. When I first decided to fast, I felt this strong and empowering sense of we-are-all-in-this-together.
That first day four years ago, however, was not easy. M and I were together at the time, but he was living in Casablanca for an internship and all of my good friends were, of course, spending their break-fasts with their families, so I was completely alone for the whole, seemingly extra-long day of no food or water. I can’t even remember now what I did in that first day to pass the time, except that I had many moments of dramatically collapsing into the couch and thinking “what in the world have I taken on?”
When it was about 5 minutes to maghreb (the sundown call to prayer), having already prepared a simple vegetable soup and some eggs and fruit for my ftour (breakfast), I wandered out onto the balcony of my old apartment and watched the remaining few people scuttling around below, buying the last loaves of bread, cartons of milk and dates for their families. The sky was starting to turn a light lavender hue streaked with golden orange and little whispers of clouds were dotted by circling birds.
The deep and vibrating intonation of the call to prayer began its first welcomed note and instead of rushing to eat, I closed my eyes and just sat on my balcony, drinking in this moment of peace. It was then that I was startled by the silence. As soon as the last echo of the call reverberated its way out, it was like everything outside had frozen still. There were no sounds of cars going by, no horns honking, no animated voices. The only delicate sound I heard when I stretched my ears was the tinkling sound of silverware on plate- all the way from the open windows of the apartment across the street from my balcony. The whole city was focusing on a single joyous act all at once- eating.
I am thankful now, looking back, to have spent that first day of Ramadan on my own. It allowed for me to feel that quiet self-introspection and listen to the connected silence of the city, carrying it with me into each day of fasting that followed. Now every time I break the fast, feeling that beautiful, overwhelming sense of communal joy and relief makes the struggle of the day completely worth it.
*I wanted to say that while I choose to fast during this month of Ramadan, I do not think it is necessarily healthy for everyone. It is always more important to listen to your body and its needs + intuition. For me, a month of Ramadan actually helps me to kind of hit the reset button on getting more in touch with my body. However, everyone is so different, so all of this is just my personal opinions and experiences.*
During this month, not only is the community tied together by when we eat, but often what we eat, as well. The staple foods for ftour in the majority of Moroccan households are dates, boiled eggs, chebekiya (a dense, fried, honey-drenched kind of cookie), and a steaming pot of harira. The first time I tried this soup was in a restaurant and I was seriously underwhelmed- it tasted just like basic tomato soup with some chickpeas and pieces of meat floating around. Once I had the homemade real-deal, my mind was completely changed. The base of this soup when it is homemade, I realized, is not in fact tomatoes, but herbs.
Three giant bunches of herbs- parsley, cilantro + celery leaves- go into a pot and get cooked down with a couple spices, a single tomato and some onion until they reach intense, rich and flavorful perfection. They say here in Morocco that it is the perfect food to break the fast with, because it gives you strength with all of the protein from chickpeas, lentils + meat and other nourishing ingredients, but at the same time keeps your body calm and relaxed with the healing powers of herbs. I don’t know much about the scientific breakdown of it, but I can tell you that eating this soup with a squeeze of lemon and perhaps a boiled egg broken into it is pure comfort.
I have always made this soup mostly vegetarian (sometimes using a beef bouillon cube), since we do not buy meat so often, and it never lacks in flavor. This recipe was taught to me by my wonderful sister-in-law, passed down the way all good traditional recipes should be. A lot of the amounts of spices and seasoning are forgiving to personal taste (we like a lot of pepper), so feel free to adjust according to your own taste buds. It is the kind of soup that should make your stomach and your soul happy, whether it is Ramadan or not.
Makes about 8 servings, vegetarian option
- 1 large bunch of: fresh parsley, cilantro + celery leaves or 4-5 stalks, all minced finely w/ stems included
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 large tomato, diced
- 1 tbsp black pepper
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- pinch of saffron (optional)
- salt to taste
- 1 beef or vegetable (for vegetarian option) bouillon cube
- 2 tsp smen (or ghee or any other strong, salted butter)
- 1/4 cup dried lentils
- 1 1/4 cups cooked/canned chickpeas
- 6 tbsp tomato paste
- 6-7 cups water, divided
- 1/2 cup all purpose flour
- 1 egg (optional)
In a food processor, combine the herbs, onion and tomato and blend until mostly smooth and there are no big chunks. Add this mixture to a large pot and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir in the pepper, ginger, saffron, salt, bouillon cube + smen. Cook together just until the smen and bouillon are melted in with everything. Pour in the lentils and chickpeas, lower the heat a bit and cook until the lentils start to get tender.
Next, add the tomato paste and 1 cup of water. Stir, cooking for a couple minutes and bring it back up to a boil. Add the remaining water, cup by cup, tasting occasionally to make sure it’s not too strong/getting too watery, then cover and let it simmer for about 45 minutes-1 hour or until the flavors are completely blended and the lentils are cooked through.
After letting it cook for a while, in a measuring cup, whisk together 1/2 cup flour with 1 cup of water. Turn the heat down low and while stirring constantly, pour in the flour mixture and whisk until combined and the soup has thickened and turned a milkier color of red. Cook for about 5 more minutes. If you are using an egg, whisk it up in a small bowl and again, stirring constantly, whisk it into the soup at the very end.
This soup will keep for about 3 days or can be frozen for much longer, but you may need to add a bit of water each time it’s reheated. It’s best served hot on the day it was made, with a squeeze of lemon and a boiled egg on the side.