The story of a Syrian immigrant during the last decade often includes mention of the civil war that has impacted so many lives, like that of Suher Masri.
“When we came from the war, we lost everything,” said Masri, who opened the restaurant Aleppo’s Kitchen in Anaheim with her husband, Nidal Hajomar, in 2013. “Everything got burned,” she said of the family exporting business in Syria, which they fled the prior year.
They began offering an iftar buffet at Aleppo’s Kitchen during Ramadan — something that arose out of necessity. “If everyone comes at the same time with the sunset,” she said, “we can’t serve everyone at the same time. We can’t.”
Ramadan is drawing to a close for 2022, or 1443 in the Islamic calendar, ending the 29- or 30-day period during which some Muslim restaurant owners totally change their business models. Normally, diners come at a steady pace throughout the day. But during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month during which Muslims abstain from all food and drink during the day, customers arrive in droves at the same time — just as the sun is setting. And they’ll be hungry too, after having gone the entire day without so much as a sip of water.
How do you feed people quickly and keep everyone happy? The solution is a buffet, of course, for the evening meal iftar, which immediately follows the sunrise-to-sunset fast.
And while heading out to a restaurant for a big buffet to break one’s fast may not necessarily be traditional in the strictest sense — generally, in Muslim-majority countries, iftar is a time to be at home with family — the iftar buffet has become a mainstay in Muslim communities like Anaheim’s Little Arabia.
Gatherings at these buffets during Ramadan, as well as in mosques and Islamic centers, provide a sense of community and solidarity for Muslims in a country where they are decidedly in the minority: Muslims made up about 1.1% of the U.S. population in 2017, according to Pew Research Center estimates. And they provide a sense of togetherness for those who, for various reasons, may be unable to celebrate with their entire families at home.
On Brookhurst Street, just south of the 5 Freeway, you’ll find the heart of Little Arabia. While there’s no official signage (the name “Little Arabia” still hasn’t been formally designated by local agencies), restaurants, shops, bakeries, hookah lounges and other businesses in the area cater to the Muslim community.
During the iftar buffet at Aleppo’s Kitchen one evening, the atmosphere is that of a wedding reception. Friends greet one another with kisses on the cheek; there’s an occasional shriek from children running around playing; out in the parking lot, several young guys vape and smoke cigarettes.
Hamad Almunaye and Yousef Ashkanani, electrical engineering students from Kuwait, said they were used to spending Ramadan with their families, and chose to come to Aleppo’s Kitchen because the food reminded them of home. “We [usually] visit all of our family on the first day of Ramadan but here we don’t have anyone to visit,” Almunaye said. “Just our friends.”
Ashkanani said celebrating Ramadan is “completely different” than back in Kuwait. “It’s a new place, to fast here in the United States,” he said. “In Kuwait, [I have] my family and my brothers. But what should we do? We are students here.”
“There’s a large sense of community,” said Suleiman Dauod, a Palestinian American property manager in Orange County, who was sitting at a nearby table with his sister and her family. The reason for coming to an iftar buffet is to be “amongst people that are sharing the same tradition.”
Dauod’s sister, Dalia Fullingim, began full-day fasting when she was about 10 and came to see breaking fast as a “time to let loose” while growing up, she said, allowing herself whatever treats she wanted once the sun went down.
But Fullingim recommended breaking fast gradually, despite Aleppo’s Kitchen’s temptations — trays of molokhia, lamb shank and dawood basha, a warmly spiced Syrian specialty of stewed meatballs. “If you’ve been fasting all day, you don’t want to just jump into a full meal,” she said. “So that’s why you break your fast with water, a date, maybe a little bit of soup.”
Ultimately, Dauod said, Ramadan is what you make of it.
“If your focus is to kind of recenter yourself and refocus yourself … that’s what you’re going to get out of it,” he said. “So, spending more time in the mosque, eating less, limiting your food intake.”
On a different night at the restaurant, employees prepared for the rush of customers that would be arriving soon. Hani Hajomar, son of owners Suher and Nidal, paced the floor with a yellow notepad that listed the evening’s guests. There were about 80 people on the books so far — decent for a weeknight at the beginning of Ramadan.
Nidal was gently pouring water from a Styrofoam cup into steam trays while Suher observed. The iftar buffet, while now an Aleppo’s Kitchen tradition, is not what she or her husband grew up with. “You’re not going to go out for a Ramadan buffet in Syria,” she said.
Other Muslim-owned restaurants also transform during Ramadan due to diners’ shifting needs — menus, hours and staffing all change. About a half mile south of Aleppo’s Kitchen is Desert Moon Grill, another restaurant that offers an iftar buffet.
Owner Sam Nordin abbreviates the restaurant’s daytime hours to focus on to-go meals and the nightly buffet, which runs from approximately 7 to 9 p.m. Customers dine inside, as well as outdoors, where LED stars and crescents hang from the tent that covers the eating area. On a strip of sidewalk in front of the restaurant, which is a former Sizzler, a man kneels on a small rug, praying.
“Ramadan is a time when you and your neighbors get together, we become like one family,” said Nordin, who grew up in Lebanon. “Let’s say we have four neighbors. The moms get together, this mom cooks this, the other mom cooks one thing, and they share.”
Nordin bought the restaurant in 2019, six months before the pandemic hit. Desert Moon Grill’s iftar spread typically includes hummus, baba ganoush, fattoush salad and the restaurant’s specialty, stuffed lamb.
He alters his sleep schedule during Ramadan, becoming quasi-nocturnal. “I usually stay up until 5 a.m.,” Nordin said. “I pray, I go to sleep, I get up at 2 [p.m.], take a shower. 3, 3:30 I’m down here. Then it’s a lot easier for me. I’m only fasting for like four, 4½ hours.”
The support he and the restaurant receive from the Little Arabia community is especially important when American culture can sometimes feel isolating. “In the U.S., everybody’s on his own,” he said. “It’s more separate.”
Just north of Desert Moon Grill at the restaurant Little Arabia, Alia El Rida stands in the kitchen, sprinkling toasted almonds on a large pan of rice. El Rida, who usually arranges events and banquets for Little Arabia but assumes chef duties during Ramadan, faces a predicament Muslim cooks deal with every year: She can’t eat the food as she’s preparing it. It’s not allowed.
Cooking without sampling is risky enough when preparing food for your immediate family — but when cooking for 100 or 200 people, the potential for mishap is very real.
If El Rida is nervous, it doesn’t show.
“I already know the exact amount of salt and spices” for the various dishes, she said. Nor does the food come out too salty: “Either you need a little, or it’s perfect,” she said.
Some cooks will taste just on the tip of the tongue and spit it out, but El Rida doesn’t do that. “I don’t trust that I’m going to spit it out,” she said with a laugh.
There are other ways to get an opinion in the kitchen, El Rida said. She can ask someone who is pregnant, for example — certain groups of people are not expected to fast, including those who are sick, pregnant, elderly and very young.
Inside, the buffet is immaculately presented on a series of tables arranged like a horseshoe. A giant, guitar-pick-shaped plate of muhammara — a dip made with walnuts and roasted red peppers — is artfully indented, rivulets of oil catching the light. Sierras of green beans and spicy potatoes are bordered with dainty slices of citrus. A heap of mujadara — lentils and rice — is delicately sprinkled with a ridge of perfectly golden, crispy onions.
For entrees, there are steaming pans of stuffed eggplant and zucchini; chicken and lamb; grape leaves rolled up like small cigars; a sea of lamb swimming in yogurt sauce, dotted with pine nuts (shakriya).
Overseeing it is one of the restaurant’s owners, Ihab Elannan, who stands at the counter with a notebook in which the week’s daily menus are written out by hand.
As 7 p.m. approaches, it’s nearly time to call places for the start of the show. It really is a production: Everything happens quickly and needs to go smoothly. Within about 20 minutes, the restaurant goes from nearly empty to completely full. Dozens of people line up to fill their plates, going down both sides of the buffet.
In the outdoor dining tent lit with long, fluorescent bulbs, it feels like a big dinner party. As the meal goes on, kids gravitate toward iPhones and men gravitate toward their cigarettes and cups of strong Arabic coffee, flavored with cardamom. There’s an occasional gurgle of hookah and waft of sweet-smelling smoke. On one of the nights I went, an older gentleman sitting in front of a metal container of tea and a large bowl of fresh mint sprigs cajoled me into sharing a plate of warbat bil ashta, or shaabiyat — crunchy triangles of filo dough stuffed with a sweet, creamy filling.
Nearly everyone I speak to gently pushes to feed me in some way — to have another piece of dessert, try the stuffed potatoes, sit down with a cup of tea.
“I like the food and I like the atmosphere here,” said Alia’s husband, Fadi. “I feel at home.”
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