Break Fast with Eggs!
Aylin Öney Tan - firstname.lastname@example.orgWriting an article on eggs just seems to be the right thing for Easter or Passover, but definitely not for Ramadan. As Ramadan shifts 11 days every year, it falls in every month and season over the course of years. This makes it hard to associate Ramadan with certain seasonal produce, though there are exceptions for all-time favorites like dates, olives, etc. Eggs, like many animal-sourced foods, become abundant in spring, and that is the reason behind its significance in spring rituals. It represents the rebirth of seasons, the life cycle and of course the spring season. Ramadan cannot claim any egg symbolism in this context, but in Istanbul eggs used to have a strong role in Ramadan feasts, unfortunately no longer remembered. In daily life eggs belong to the breakfast meal in almost all cultures. The days usually start with a boost of power capsuled in the shell of an egg.
Breaking the fast in Ramadan is called “iftar” in Turkey, an Arabic word that actually has the same sense as breakfast. The word comes from the root “fatr,” meaning to break open or cut. The word breakfast stands for exactly the same meaning. It comes from breaking the hunger after long hours of sleep, which can be described in a way as a long fast. Though iftar is an evening meal, or rather the grand feast to celebrate the break of the fast, it was initially meant to be a modest meal just enough to satisfy the empty belly. After the breaking of the fast with a few morsels and quenching the thirst, there would be the praying, very sensible as the Muslim prayer namaz involves physical exercise. Only after the praying, later at night, would there be another proper meal, or the real feast. It has been long since we lost the “breakfast” version of iftar, as nowadays contemporary iftar tables are all about plenty or more correctly about excess.
Amidst all the excess on iftar tables we have forgotten an essential dish, the one that was about excess in its own way, the egg course. In Ottoman times almost all records about iftar menus include an egg course. That would be either eggs with sautéed mincemeat, or kavurma, (a sort of confit of cubed meat), or sucuk (cured sausages), or pastırma (salt-cured dried meat). There would be lighter versions like spinach, or calorie bombs like eggs fried with dates, an unusual sweet-savory combination. The egg course would be served strictly after the soup following the iftariyelik, the small morsels of breakfast food like olives, cheese, jam, honey, clotted cream and much loved pastrami. After the egg course the main dishes would follow, a chicken or meat course, or both, then a pilaf and a savory pastry course, and so on. These dishes would be accompanied by hoşaf, a dried fruit compote, serving as both a palate cleanser and a beverage, but not as a dessert, which would be the last but not least course.
My own revelation of the link between eggs and Ramadan began with an article by Zarif Ongun, a researcher and employee of Topkapı Palace Museum. His article published in 1981 gave many details about food in the Ottoman court and included a rather simple recipe of eggs with onions. The recipe seemed to be a basic one but as all grand simple recipes of history it was hard to get right, so hard that the cook who perfected it and exceed all other cooks would be attained as the kilercibaşı, the key person who controlled the entire pantry of the Ottoman Palace. The secret lies in patience and determination, and hours of slow cooking of onions to just the right stage between being soft and limp and caramelized. The ceremonial preparation of eggs and onions used to be on the 15th day of Ramadan, and presented to the sultan at the “iftar/breakfast” table, for him to choose his favorite. From the moment I read about it, the recipe has been a favorite of mine, and I have been making it ever since, every Ramadan, usually for breakfast. It is a royally festive egg to break the fast!
Bite of the Week
Recipe of the Week: Don’t be baffled by the amount of onions, you need to have at least 1 kg of onions, if not more. Although big onions seem to cut down the laborious task, choose medium or smallish onions, they seem to work better in this recipe. Peel and cut lengthwise the onions, slice in half circles. Put in a large pan with 4-5 tablespoons clarified butter, sauté the onions on slow to medium heat stirring constantly until totally collapsed and beginning to change color. According to Ongun, this stage used to take about 3 hours, but then that was the palace scale; at home it may take a little shorter, but still you need a good hour or so to have the onions properly cooked. When the onions are translucent and thoroughly soft and limp add 1 teaspoon of sugar, about ¾ teaspoon each of allspice and cinnamon, salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon and 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar; and continue to stir. When the onion is golden but not too brown, spread it on the pan and spread open holes to break the eggs into. This recipe will accommodate about 8 to 10 eggs; the ratio of onions to eggs depends on you. Cook until the whites are set; tilt the pan once in a while to collect the butter in a spoon and pour over the yolks to cook them properly. Enjoy with freshly baked pide bread, another essential food of Ramadan!
Fork of the Week: This week I chose a book as the Fork of the Week, a special one that includes many delights like the eggs with onions. It is “Essential Turkish Cuisine” by Engin Akın, with a foreword by Anya Von Bremzen, a longtime friend of Engin. The book covers many aspects of Turkish cuisine, includes a chapter on eggs like in the old days, unfortunately omitted mostly in contemporary cookbooks. Engin takes care to describe the true essence of dishes, she names this one as “Place Eggs with (almost) Caramelized Onions,” rightfully so, and she also rightfully mentions Ongun, who made us aware of this wonderful recipe in the first place. Gift yourself and your friends this book, you’ll be rewarded with good reading and perfected recipes.