“Iftar is more special than just a normal meal,” says Hazan “Kasy” Norawniakasy, who this week travelled from Phnom Penh, where he works as an English teacher, to his home in Pursat’s Kandieng district to celebrate Ramadan with his family.
For the 236,000 mostly Cham Muslims in Cambodia, next Thursday marks the end of a month of daily fasting from sunrise to sunset.
“In Pursat tonight, we have to break the fast at 6:35pm, but in the other provinces it’s a bit different,” 23-year-old Kasy said, noting that each community follows a calendar set by the local Islamic clergy for each night.
While the holiday is a time for spiritual reflection, charity, family and for the community to come together, the anticipation of iftar – the evening breaking of the fast – makes dinner a special occasion.
“It’s more delicious, and [there is] more food than normal,” Kasy said. “There’s a passion to eat, so people just make it more interesting”.
That can involve anything from a more elaborate and halal variation on the Khmer dish of gah koh (a chicken or fish curry made from coconut milk, young Jack fruit, pumpkin, young papaya, eggplant, chili leaves, maranga leaves, mushrooms, rice powder, peppers, chili leaves, garlic, lemongrass, and an assortment of other roots and spices), to traditional Cham dishes passed down through the generations, since the ethnic minority settled in the Kingdom during the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Tonight, we have a kind of rice porridge – phek – it is a traditional food for Cham people,” Kasy explained. It is made from coconut milk, baby pdau, fish, rice, lemon grass, yellow roots, garlic and various spices and leaves. It is also tradition, Kasy says, to drink milk or fruit juices with an iftar meal.
Kasy’s mother spends several hours every day preparing the iftar, which can be eaten at home with the family or at the local mosque, where participants each contribute a dish to be shared. “We call this cooperation eating – chumuvann – in the Cham language,” Kasy said.
This year, Kasy’s family is joined by a foreign visitor, Drew Lysne, a US Peace Corps volunteer hailing from the predominantly white Christian community of Boise, Idaho. Lysne has lived in their home in Sthany village for seven months. This is his first Ramadan.
“It’s the most different experience I could have imagined coming from Idaho,” he said. “It’s great.”
But for Kasy, Ramadan simply means having a taste of home.
“I love chicken. I have lived in Phnom Penh for five years, and I miss the chicken in my rural village so much.”