A roomful of people are sitting at round tables and talking as the 8 p.m. hour passes, a single date on a plate in front of each of them, next to a small bottle of water. That brown, ovoid-shaped piece of fruit, plus a couple of small vegetable fritters and a little veggie-filled turnover, are the first thing many in the room will consume since before the sun rose that morning. At the fourth annual Community Iftar Dinner, held a week and a half ago at Lancaster’s Farm & Home Center, members of the Islamic Center of Lancaster shared some of their culture with invited guests.
With the dinner falling during Ramadan, an annual monthlong religious observance in the Muslim faith, part of that shared cultural experience is the iftar — the sunset meal with which Muslims break their daylong fast.
Their religion dictates they cannot eat or drink anything — even water — from sunup to sundown during this special month.
“The main thing for breaking the fast is dates. Dates and water,” says John Ansari, a member of the center who helped organize the dinner.
Ansari and the other Islamic Center members, many of whom come from Indian and Pakistani traditions, have been fasting since their suhur, the light breakfast Muslims eat before sunrise in the morning — around 4:30 a.m. during the longer days this time of year.
On the night of the community dinner, sunset, and the breaking of the fast, is at 8:20 p.m.
“First you break the fasting, then you go for prayer, and then you have dinner,” Ansari says.
Once the several dozen people at the dinner have eaten their dates and had a bit of water, Mehmet Canleblebici, of Smoketown and originally from Istanbul, Turkey, stands on the stage and sings the Muslim call to prayer — the adhan, or, in Turkish, ezan.
The Muslims leave the room to gather for their evening prayer — one of five prayer times they observe every day.
When they return, everyone begins dinner with a few vegetable appetizers — a couple of pakoras (fried fritters) and a samosa (a triangular turnover stuffed with potatoes, peas and spices).
Sterno flames warm aluminum pans of bright orange and green Indian and Pakistani dishes, prepared by the caterer, Lahori Kabab & Grill of Harrisburg.
As those attending the dinner form lines for the buffet, Ansari points out the vegetable biryani, a dish of basmati rice, vegetables and spices.
Biryani is also often made with lamb or chicken, he explains.
There’s butter chicken, with pieces of chicken in a creamy tomato sauce, and palak paneer, which finds cubes of Indian cottage cheese floating in a creamy spinach sauce flavored with Indian spices.
Another option at the buffet is chicken mulai kabab, a dish of marinated and grilled meat and peppers.
And what would dinner be without bread? Golden-brown naan, a baked Indian flatbread, is lined up in one of the pans.
At home, Ansari says, Islamic center members from Indian or Pakistani traditions might also eat a lamb or chicken biryani, or a spicy eggplant curry dish called bagara baingan for their iftars.
On the beverage and dessert table, rows of plastic drinking glasses glow with pale-orange mango lassi, a sweet Indian yogurt drink.
Mehmet Canleblebici’s wife, Cigdem Canleblebici, has set out pans of desserts she has brought, including individual cheesecakes.
“This is kadayif,” she says of another dessert. “It’s a custard, and has kadayif on top of it.”
Kadayif is like a shredded phyllo dough, which looks a bit like toasted coconut on top of the creamy custard.
Another of her desserts is sekerpare, which translates, she says, to “a piece of sugar” in Turkish. It’s a cookie made with semolina and covered with syrup and one light-brown almond.
Also on the dessert table is kheer, a soft rice pudding, and gulab jamun, balls of cheeselike milk solids soaked in sweet syrup.
Sitting on couches, surrounded by dozens of brightly colored illuminated Turkish lamps in their Carpet Cafe business at the StageCoach Shops in Intercourse, Mehmet and Cigdem Canleblebici and their son, Nihat, 19, share some dessert recipes and talk about their observance of Ramadan, which ends Tuesday.
Mehmet Canleblebici shows the app on his phone that offers a timetable for the month of Ramadan — listing the times of sunrise and sunset, and the five times each day they must stop to pray, according to their faith.
Their iftar dinners at home, Nihat Canleblebici says, are filled with abundance, since the family hasn’t been able to eat or drink all day. But they eat lots of appetizers to ease into the meal after fasting all day.
The family enjoys sharing their evening meal with neighbors.
“It’s kind of special, because people like to have really good food” during Ramadan, Nihat Canleblebici says. “The meaning of Ramadan is to understand people who cannot eat and drink, and to appreciate ... what you have and be grateful for what you have.”
Their dinners during Ramadan, which come as late as 8:30 p.m., might consist of soup, rice and meat or chicken dishes, or Turkish pide — a little boat-shaped flatbread stuffed with various fillings.
The family also sells Turkish rugs, jewelry, bags and more in their Intercourse store spaces.
But Cigdem Canleblebici, whose desserts went fast at the iftar dinner, loves to cook and bake. She says she would love to be able to open up a Turkish bakery or other eatery someday — maybe in Lancaster city.
Now, they’re looking forward to eating a dish from their native Instanbul, a meat, rice and chickpea dish called pilav nohut, for Tuesday’s Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr, or the final breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan.
Until then, Canleblebici and other members of the Islamic Center will abstain from eating and drinking from sun-up to sundown.
And they will pray, and count their blessings.