From puff-puff to dolma: The cultural influences of Iftar menus in UAE homes

Residents of different nationalities share their must-have dishes and their history


Mazhar Farooqui

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Published: Fri 22 Apr 2022, 7:18 AM

Last updated: Fri 22 Apr 2022, 8:23 AM

From puff-puff and dolma to harees and dahi bhallas, Muslim communities in the UAE bring culinary delights and diverse cultural influences to the Iftar table.

We reached out to Dubai residents from different nationalities to learn about their must-have Iftar dish and its history.

Harees and luqaimat

Futtaim and Ghala, UAE

Emirati siblings Futtaim (9) and Ghala (10) may not have attained the age when fasting becomes mandatory for children, but both observe the tradition and thoroughly the experience. Their Iftar menu features several dishes, but the time-honoured harees (meat porridge) and luqaimat (sweet dumplings) remain daily staples.

Harees is made of crushed wheat with chicken, while luqaimat, which means ‘small bites’ in Arabic, is a popular Middle Eastern dessert made with yeast batter and served with fragrant sugar or date syrup.

Luqaimat was described as early as the 13th century as luqmat al-qādi (judges’ morsel). The origin of Harees, however, traces back to the sixth century. According to Persian cookbook author Magarget Shaida, the fortifying dish was invented in the kitchen of king Khusrow before spreading throughout the Middle East and India. However, some historians dispute the claim.


Heba Adeeb, Iraq

Billed as the pearl of Iraqi food, dolmas are basically grape leaves stuffed with a delicious mixture of minced meat, vegetables, rice and herbs.

Greeks claim its origin dates to the time when Alexander the Great besieged Thebes and the resulting food scarcity forced residents to cut whatever little meat they had into small pieces and roll them into grape leaves.

However, some researchers claim that dolmas were already being cooked and relished in Iraq as far as the Assyrian Period (933-609 BC). Whatever the truth, Iraqi business development director Heba Adeeb says their Iftar table is incomplete without dolmas.

“It takes around four to five hours to prepare them, but it’s worth the trouble,” says Heba whose father, Adeeb Sami, happens to be one of the survivors of the Christchurch mosque shootings in March 2019, which led to 51 deaths. “My dad loves dolmas, as does my four-year-old son."

Mashed potatoes with mushroom

Maimouna Liskauskaite, Lithuania

The humble potato is both the king and queen of Lithuanian cuisine.

In fact, Lithuania’s national dish, Cepelinai, is also made of potato dumplings stuffed with spiced ground meat. So, it come as no surprise that the core ingredient of Maimouna’s must-have Ramadan dish is a potato.

“Our Iftar spread consists of many dishes, but mashed potato casserole with mushroom is my all-time favourite. It’s a brilliant dish and doesn’t take too long to cook,” says the former schoolteacher who reverted to Islam in 2003.

Curiously, potatoes remained out of bounds for commoners in Lithuania until the late 18th century, occupying barely 0.4 per cent of the total arable land.

Farmers were wary of cultivating potatoes because of rumours, which wrongly claimed that eating potatoes causes fever. The fact that the largely Catholic country considered potatoes almost a protestant “sabotage” didn’t help the cause of the vegetable, either.


Mounsurat Abiola Ashii, Nigeria

It goes by many names - puff-puff in Nigeria, botrot or tobgei in Ghana and mikate, beinye and ligemat in other West African countries.

Regardless of what it is called, the ball-shaped deep-fried doughnut tastes pretty much the same everywhere. But Nigerian advertising professional Suad Ashimi insists that nobody makes the traditional dish better than her mother, Mounsurat Aboila Ashii.

“We are four sisters and we live together in Jumeirah Lakes Towers. Our mother is visiting us for Ramadan. Our Iftar spread consists of many traditional African dishes like pounded yam (tuber veggies), gizdodo (chicken gizzard and plantains infused with herbs and bell-peppers) and jollof (rice cooked in a blend of tomatoes, onions and peppers) but the pièce de résistance is home-cooked puff-puff,” says Suad.

The popular snack is said to have originated in Netherlands. It was brought to the West African Gold Coast with the Dutch colonisers and adopted by the Fante people in Ghana. It then rippled out to other parts of West Africa eventually reaching Oyo, an inland state in south-western Nigeria, inhabited by the Yoruba tribe which the Ashimi sisters belong to.

Warak dawali

Dareen Al Sarraj, Palestine

Warak Dawali is the Palestinian version of stuffed grape leaves which is enjoyed as a snack or appetiser during Iftar.

“The ingredients and preparations of the Middle Eastern delicacy vary from region to region as each place has its own recipe,” says Dareen Al Sarraj, who hails from Palestine and works in the PR industry.

“I start by preparing the hashweh (stuffing), which includes ground meat, rice, herbs and spices. After that, I remove the salt brine from the grape leaves by soaking them into hot water. Once ready, I place the stuffing into the centre of the leaf and roll it before layering the pot with olive oil, sliced potatoes and/or tomatoes. The dish is slowly cooked alongside tender lamb chops in tangy lemon broth,” adds Al Sarraj.

Warak dawali is also known as the food of celebration because its preparation is often a team effort. In certain Palestinian societies, being a good mashi (filling) cook is viewed as a badge of honour and a reflection of a woman’s readiness to cook for her husband.

Dahi bhalla

Quratulain Mohsin Aqeel, Pakistan

Visit any Indian and Pakistani home for Iftar and you will invariably find it on the menu. Variously known as dahi bhalla, dahi vada and dahi badey, this ubiquitous dish is made of soft, melt-in the mouth lentil dumplings dunked in creamy yogurt and topped with sweet and tangy tamarind sauce.

Former Pakistani news presenter Quratulain says dahi bhallas are a firm fixture on their table during Ramadan. “It is a popular street food back home in Lahore and I absolutely love it,” says the JVC resident.

According to culinary anthropologist Kurush Dalal, the decadent chaat variant originated in northern India in the late 17th century during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan when royal physicians asked the emperor’s chef to prepare a dish of spicy fried snacks and yogurt, as a countermeasure to the alkaline water of the Yamuna river, the kingdom’s main water supply.


Injeel Moti, India

Biryani is the most loved dish in India. More than 55 million biryanis were ordered in the country last year, up from 35 million in 2020, according to food delivery giant Zomato, which delivered two biryanis every two seconds.

Biryani is also the most commonly prepared dish in Indian Muslim households in the UAE during Ramadan. Injeel Moti, managing director of Dubai-based PR and communication agency Catch Communications, says she absolutely relishes the mixed-rice meat dish made with lamb or chicken.

“I don’t get the time to cook myself during Ramadan, but when I do, I rustle up a biryani. It’s a one-pot meal that’s easy and quick to make,” she says.

Theories abound about the origins of this sumptuous dish with many historians claiming it originated from Persia and was brought to India by the Mughals. There’s also a debate among foodies to which biryani is better – Hyderabadi or Lucknowi.


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