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ramadan drinks

SAt the end of a long, scorching summer day in Ramadan, fasting Muslims eagerly look forward to cool, thirst-quenching drinks.  From traditional syrup-based and rosewater-infused beverages to contemporary concoctions such as the Emberator, Yoyo, or, Awar Galb, chilled fruit drinks provide welcome, healthy, and enjoyable refreshment.  They can be prepared at home or purchased at one of the many juice bars serving custom made fresh juices and blended fruit cocktails. 

Fresh fruit drinks, and beverages made from fruit syrups, have a long, distinguished history in the Muslim world.  In fact, the English words syrup, sherbert, and sorbet are all derived from the Arabic word, “sharaab.”  Before the advent of refrigeration, perishable fresh fruit was dried or combined with sugar into thick syrups or pastes that could later be added to cool water.  Roman emperors, medieval caliphs, Ottoman sultans, and Mughal rulers all had a passion for sherberts.  They contributed to the art of making delicious beverages with syrup and are said to have sent their swiftest runners to the mountaintops to haul back snow to chill their drinks.  Popular syrups today are based on these centuries-old recipes which also utilised extracts of flowers and herbs and sometimes vinegar for additional flavoring.

Writing in 1836, British author, Arabist, and scholar,  Edward William Lane described the sharaab of Egypt, referring to them as sherberts.  “The Egyptians have various kinds of sherberts or sweet drinks.  The most common kind is merely sugar and water but very sweet; lemonade is another; a third kind, the most esteemed, is prepared from a conserve of violets, made by pounding violet-flowers and then boiling them with sugar.…  There is also a kind of sherbert sold in the streets which is a strong infusion of licorice-root.…”

Lane observed that the fruit cordials were served in colored and ornamented glass cups on a round tray covered with a piece of embroidered silk or gold cloth.  During Ramadan, upper class households kept such a tray of beverages ready for family members and guests breaking their fast.  “Immediately after the call to evening -prayer, which is chanted four minutes after sunset, the master and such of his family or friends as happen to be with him drink each a glass of sherbert,” Lane remarked.

Today, many  types of drinks both traditional and trendy, eastern and western, are served side by side during Ramadan.  Along with water and leben, a kind of buttermilk, the most popular traditional Ramadan beverages in this part of the world are qamar el deen (apricot), tamar hindi (tamarind),  jallab (a combination of fruit ingredients), erk-soos (licorice), beithan (almonds), and sharaab al loomi (lemonade).  But the list of widely-consumed Ramadan drinks would not be complete without mentioning Vimto, a syrup derived from the juice of grapes, raspberries, and blackberries, flavored with herbs and spices.  Invented in England in 1908, it was first marketed as a health tonic and eventually came to be wildly popular in the Arab world.

Nowadays the wide variety of fruit syrups stocked on supermarket shelves makes the preparation of fruit cordials quick and easy.  However, some housewives still like to make their traditional Ramadan beverages from scratch.  Tamarind or apricot paste, for example, is left to soak in water for hours, is then blended until smooth,  sweetened with sugar, and made fragrant and refreshing with rosewater. 
Large quantities of qamer el deen are produced in Syria by squeezing apricots, mixing them with glucose syrup, and spreading the mixture on giant trays to dry under the summer sun.  Tons of this tangy, leather-like substance are produced annually, with 90 percent of it exported to other Arab countries, primarily for use during Ramadan.

Jallab, beithan, and erk-sous are summer drinks that originated in the Levant but are well-liked throughout the Middle East.  Jallab is made of dates, grape molasses, rosewater, and sometimes carob.  The syrup is diluted with cold water and the drink is served in a tall glass with crushed ice and topped with pine nuts and golden raisins.  Beithan is a delicately-flavored, milky colored drink made of almond syrup and cold water to which orange blossom water or rosewater is added.   

Erk-sous is a black, mildly sweet and slightly bitter beverage made from the licorice root.  It’s also very popular in Egypt.  In places like Khan El Khalili and other crowded streets in old suburbs it’s still sold by street vendors carrying ornate brass containers of the beverage on their back. 
During Ramadan, Egyptians also sip a cool concoction made of dried fruits known as khoshaf.  Dried apricots, figs, dates, raisins, and prunes are soaked in water overnight, sprinkled with coconut, and served chilled with the sweet, thick liquid in a tall glass with a spoon.  “It’s something to drink and it’s something to eat at the same time, but for Egyptians in Ramadan, khoshaf is a must.  We break our fast with khoshaf,” says an Egyptian lady named Umm Abdullah.

In the United Arab Emirates, a popular and traditional summer drink is sharab loomi ma ward, made with fresh lemon juice, water, sugar, and rosewater.  Bahrainis enjoy sherbet ward, which is simply cold water flavored with rose syrup.  During Ramadan they also drink a healthy and revitalising beverage made by adding mai ligga, the aromatic liquid from the heart of the palm tree, and a few strands of saffron to ice cold water.  There are variations of this drink made with rose water, nigella seeds, or essence of mint water, with sugar sometimes added according to taste.  Aside from these traditional drinks, Vimto is just as much in demand in Bahrain during Ramadan as it is in Kuwait.

All over the Arab world, fresh fruit bars do brisk business during Ramadan.  Kuwait’s first juice bar, and still one of the most popular, is Al Dhahiya Juice located next to Dhahiat Abdullah Al Salem cooperative supermarket.  What began as a humble juice kiosk in 1978 is now practically a national icon, with the juice bar promoting itself as the juice bar of the people. 
Blenders are whirring, fresh fruit is being peeled and chopped, and the pace of work is hectic as eight juice makers serve customers at Kuwait’s pioneer juice bar.  Sayed Hameed, from India, has been working at Al Dhahiya Juice for 33 years.  Over the years he has witnessed the development of many notable fresh fruit blends.

“Many of our most famous juice recipes were created and named by anonymous customers,” he says.  “Now they are served at many juice bars throughout Kuwait.”
These famous concoctions include Akhu Aziz (the brother of Aziz), a mix of mango, banana, and ice cream;  Abdulwahab, a blend of mango, strawberry, banana, and orange; Ferrari, simply strawberries and ice cream; and the evocatively-titled Awar Galb (Heartache), a mouthwatering mix of mango, strawberries, and ice cream. 

Al Rawdha Juice, next to Al Rawdha cooperative supermarket, serves some of the fruit cocktails developed by Al Dhahiya Juice and has come up with its own recipes as well.  Yoyo is made with apple, mango, and milk; Shahleila (Cute One), consists of berries, banana, and strawberry; and a yellow concoction made of peach, banana, pineapple, and strawberry is named Qadsawy, after the Qadsiya football team whose team color is yellow.

Ahmed, originally from Egypt, is whizzing a blend of avocado and mango in the blender and gives me a cup of it to try.  It is a wonderful combination, sweet but not too cloying, with a silky consistency.  Ahmed says he has many regular customers who have their own favorite juices or special juice blends.  Some people ask for less or no sugar while others request their juice at room temperature or with ice.
“Lots of people like to have apple juice, kiwi, pineapple, or orange with carrot in the morning.  Some people on a diet order grapefruit juice.  During Ramadan, some of the juices most in demand are pomegranate, watermelon, guava, orange, peach, and lemon with mint.”

According to Ahmed, some of the favorites among the younger crowd are the Emberator (Emperor), a cool rich combination of mango, vanilla ice cream and milk, and other milkshakes made with cookies and candy bars such as Oreo, Kit Kat, Snickers, Flake, and Maltesers.  A very unusual combination on the menu catches my eye and I ask Ahmed to make it for me.  He washes some rocket leaves, then puts them into the blender and adds ice cream, honey, and nuts.  He mixes it into a frothy green drink that is a rather strange combination of sharp, bitter, and sweet. 

The rocket leaf drink is probably an acquired taste but like so many other fresh fruit and vegetable beverages it’s packed full of disease fighting vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.  Rocket leaves are high in vitamins A and C and contain sulfuraphane, a potent stimulator of natural detoxifying enzymes in the body.  Scientists from Saudi Arabia have found that rocket leaf is a safe and natural alternative gastric ulcer treatment.  Research has also shown it to have anticancer, antidiabetic, and antimicrobial properties.   So perhaps that bitter, peppery taste is worth getting used to.

There are, however, many delectable fruits as well as vegetables that can deliver significant health benefits in the form of fresh juice.  Vitamin E, important in the formation of red blood cells and the use of vitamin K, and a powerful antioxidant, is found in bananas, apples, kiwis, and blackberries as well as green-leafed vegetables.  Besides being a fantastic thirst quencher, watermelon juice is high in vitamins B-1 and B-6, responsible for promoting vital energy, good digestion, and creating antibodies in the immune system along with many other benefits.  Oranges, lemons, and limes are also a good source of Vitamin B-6, of course along with vitamin C, one of the most important of all vitamins.

Drinking fresh juice is a convenient and enjoyable way of getting the five servings of vegetables and three servings of fruit a day recommended by America’s National Cancer Institute.  However, nutritionists warn that juices may contain more sugar than you realize, so if you aren’t careful, these extra calories can lead to weight gain.  Juice is not recommended for individuals with type 2 diabetes or high triglycerides. 

If making fresh juice at home, make only as much as you can drink at one time because fresh squeezed pulp can quickly develop harmful bacteria.  Likewise, don’t leave the juice you buy from the juice bar standing in the refrigerator for a long time. 
The old, traditional Ramadan drinks, if made from scratch, are also very healthy.  Dried fruits and nuts are rich in vitamins, minerals, essential fats, and nutrients.  The small pine nuts that float in the purple jallab drink, for example, are not only a pleasing garnish.  They contain calcium and other minerals including phosphorous, iron, and niacin which are good for the skin and eyesight, boost the immune system, and help relieve stress and anxiety.
So whether you choose trendy or traditional beverages, you can stay cool, hydrated, and revitalised this Ramadan by engaging in a popular local tradition and enjoying some of the many delicious chilled drinks that you can buy or make yourself.

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