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Relief for a hot month of Ramadan

Dishes reward both memory, faithfulness

At Boston Kebab House, chef-owner Osman Kiranoglu, who grew up in Turkey making yogurt, cuts cucumbers to mix into cacik, a versatile dish during Ramadan. At Boston Kebab House, chef-owner Osman Kiranoglu, who grew up in Turkey making yogurt, cuts cucumbers to mix into cacik, a versatile dish during Ramadan. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Omar Sacirbey
Globe Correspondent / August 3, 2011

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As the son of a goat, sheep, and cow herder in the tiny northeastern Turkish village of Rize (REE-za), Osman Kiranoglu grew up making and eating lots of yogurt. Today, Kiranoglu parlays his fluency in yogurt as the chef-owner of the Boston Kebab House in Liberty Square.

Kiranoglu counts on his experience again during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began Monday, when observant Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk to remember the hardships of the poor. “This year, it’s going to be very difficult,’’ Kiranoglu says. “Long days. Hot.’’ For religious holidays, Muslims follow a lunar calendar, whose year is about 10 days shorter than the solar-based Gregorian calendar. This means that the first day of Ramadan always falls about 10 days earlier than the previous year. For example, Ramadan is likely to start around July 21 next year, and July 11 the year after, and so on.

It takes about 35 years for Ramadan to travel through the solar calendar, so it will be a good seven or eight years before it leaves summer for the shorter, milder days of spring.

Until then, Boston-area Muslims have a bevy of dishes for either suhur, an early morning breakfast that precedes the fast, or iftar, the meal after the fast, with which to sustain them during this fasting month. Kiranoglu’s go-to summer recipe is cacik, a combination of yogurt, cucumbers, fresh dill, and mint, which can be served thin for a soup, or thick for a tangy bread dip. “If you go to any house in Turkey, they give you this,’’ says Kiranoglu, who learned the recipe watching his mother in the kitchen and, as the oldest of six children, knew how to make cacik by the time he was 9 or 10.

Cacik has several advantages during a hot summer Ramadan. It is fast, easy, and doesn’t require an oven or stove, and the yogurt helps rehydrate the body after a long day without fluids. It is also deliciously refreshing, as soup and dip, led by the saltiness of the yogurt, followed by the tanginess of the dill, finished with the sweetness of the mint.

Ahmad Yasin, owner of Yasin Culinary, a catering company and cooking class studio in Watertown that specialize in Arabic cooking, also has fond memories of Ramadan in northern Syria, where he grew up. “The most beautiful time of the day is when everyone is rushing home after work, before iftar, to be with the family and prepare the food,’’ says Yasin.

Among the dishes he learned to prepare, and one of his favorites, is chickpea and roasted red pepper salad, with chili pepper, black or green olives, thyme, and parsley. It’s a tasty dish packed with protein and vitamins that recharge the body, but light enough for Muslims to respect the dietary advice of the Prophet Muhammad, says Yasin. “You shouldn’t eat until you’re hungry, and you shouldn’t overindulge, so you can work and pray.’’

Another prophetic tradition with nutritional value, Muslims say, is always breaking the fast with dates, which are high in sugar. The theory is that hunger is caused not by an empty stomach, but low blood sugar. A few dates can quickly quell hunger, and prevent overeating after fasting. Typically, after a few dates to break their fasts, Muslims perform evening prayers, which take just a few minutes, before starting their meals.

Sugar’s knack for mollifying hunger is also behind the popularity of khushaf, a mixture of dried fruits and nuts soaked in water until it becomes syrupy, consumed after the dates but before prayers. “It’s sweet and refreshing,’’ says Sana Fadel of Newton, who remembers the dish from childhood visits to relatives in Egypt, where the weather was “super-hot.’’

Dishes prepared from qamar id-deen, an apricot paste, also figure prominently during Egyptian Ramadans, Fadel says. Among the most popular are apricot drink, which frequently accompanies dates and khushaf, and apricot pudding as dessert.

This Ramadan, Fadel hopes to introduce khushaf to her two sons, who are too young to fast but old enough to enjoy a family tradition.

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at osacirbey@hotmail.com.