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Lucky dip harira and Ramadan

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"Ramadan is not a complete fast at all, but a strict discipline between the hours of sun-up and sun-down: at night there is feasting." Robert Carrier

This is probably the kind of food I should be eating tonight as I have a very mild upset stomach today. Not quite sure where it came from but have narrowed it down to a couple of potential sources. And it's disappearing now. Anyway that soup looks like just the sort of soothing thing I should eat.

My lucky dip - for this is a lucky dip post was Claudia Roden's Mediterranean Cookery and the page I turned to contained a recipe for Harira a soup that is traditionally eaten at Ramadan. And wouldn't you know, we are now a week or so into Ramadan. The Australians are relatively lucky this year as to the number of hours that they must fast - between sunrise and sunset - 6.49 am-5.47pm today. In summer it would be longer. And obviously this varies around the world. Ramadan begins at the start of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

"Ramadan begins officially with seven volleys of cannon sounded at first sight of the tiniest sliver of the new moon. And at the first light of the following dawn the day's fast begins, to be broken only at the setting of the sun. For thirty days, Moroccans live to this exciting new rhythm: calm and sleepy during the day, rustling with activity at night." Robert Carrier

I gather it could be twenty nine days rather than thirty - it depends on when that crescent moon is sighted again.

"Good Moslems fast all day, abstaining from food, drink and tobacco, and even medicines and sex." Robert Carrier

I think various categories of people such as the sick, the elderly and the pregnant - there are other categories too - are excused. I remember that the children of one Palestinian lady I worked with were excused for example. I also remember that when we holidayed once in Malaysia at a Club Med, we discovered that it was Ramadan, and that the European kitchen staff, fasted all day as well as their Islam colleagues in sympathy for them having to cook for others whilst fasting.

I am quoting Robert Carrier a fair bit in this pose because he has several pages dedicated to Harira and Ramadan in his A Taste of Morocco. After all he lived there for several years, and was fully into the rhythm of life there. Obviously what you eat as you break your fast would vary depending on where you live in the world. Harira is a Moroccan soup and is traditionally eaten at Ramadan, but I assume that they don't eat the same food every day for a month. Maybe it's a traditional first Ramadan meal.

However, it seems that almost everywhere the fast is traditionally first broken with dates.

In Morocco:

"this wonderfully fortifying soup is served the minute the muezzin sounds and the family rushes back to the household for their first meal of the day. The whole house is filled with the wonderful aromas of the soup as it cooks, and at the family happily sits down to bowls of the hot soup traditionally served with a series of sweet and savoury tidbits: fresh dates, dried figs, hard-boiled eggs and sweet cakes and triangles of fried flaky pastry stuffed with almonds, lamb or chicken. Harira is traditionally served from a large covered bowl surround with little earthenware bowls and specially carved soup spoons fashioned of lemon wood." Robert Carrier

There does not seem to be an 'authentic' recipe for Harira - which, by the way - derives it's name from the Arabic 'alharir' which means silky. The silkiness is obtained by either adding a flour and water paste towards the end, or, more unusually, some fresh yeast or soaked sour dough bread. There are heaps of recipes without this finishing touch though.

"Harira is the generic term for a soup full of pulses – chickpeas, lentils or beans – with little meat, few vegetables and plenty of herbs and spices. Every day during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset, the smell of this soup permeates the streets as every household prepares its own version to be eaten when the sound of the cannon signals the breaking of the fast." Claudia Roden

Indeed she herself has a few different recipes spread throughout her books. The version I picked out of the blue is this one, which, as you can see is completely different from the one at the top of the page.

But Robert Carrier too, has at least three different versions - probably more as I did not check out all of his books. I could not find an online rendition of the soup at the top of the page, but there is Robert Carrier's Moroccan Harira from the BBC.

The commonalities to all - well most - of the recipes I saw - were beans or lentils of some kind, saffron, onions, tomatoes various spices, and often tiny pieces of vermicelli. But they range from the really basic to the quite complicated - Greg Malouf being one of these. He tops his with fried prawns.

The recipe is online, but not a picture although I imagine it might have looked a little like this. one here. Odd that he should add the prawns as a garnish, as fish doesn't seem to be a common thing. Mind you I had a quick look at this month's Coles Magazine to see if they acknowledged Ramadan - which they didn't, but they did have a very quick and dirty Fish and chick pea stew which could just make it into the general category. It looked quite nice, although it doesn't really have very many flavourings in the mix - it's one of those quick weeknight meals things - a can of chick peas, a can of tomatoes, a jar of chargrilled capsicum, some fish and some spinach. That's it. It looks nice though, as does a variant from a previous magazine.

But I digress. I think I allowed myself to be led astray by Greg Malouf's fancy version.

Then there was the other serendipitous thing - a recipe in last week's Guardian newsletter from Jane Jeffes, which led me to a website called Recipes for Ramadan, which was set up to allow Moslems from all cultures in Australia to share stories of Ramadan during a time of COVID lockdown. For traditionally Ramadan is also a time for families to get together. Here you will find stories and recipes from everywhere - not just soup.

Ramadan by the way exists to celebrate the time when Mohammad wrote down the first of the Koran. It's a time of fasting, prayer, reflection and community and we could probably all do with more of that. Even some of the fasting, although as Robert Carrier says - it's not really just about fasting - after dark there is a lot of joyous eating and celebration - and community. And as one who fasts on a fairly regular basis for a day, food tastes particularly wonderful afterwards.

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