Outside brightly lit halal butchers, djellaba-clad women line up for lamb to make chorba stew. Tables heave with honey-soaked pâtisseries orientales, covered in plastic to protect them from flies. From fragrant bundles of mint to the mouthwatering smoke of rotisserie chicken, the tantalizing scents on the Rue Longue des Capucins are a sure-fire way to make you hungry. For those fasting for Ramadan, it is the ultimate test of self-control.
The teeming stalls of foodstuffs give Noailles its nickname as the belly of Marseille. During Ramadan, the Marseille neighborhood fattens up. It is a mecca for ingredients and prepared food for iftar – the sundown meal that breaks the fast. “Noailles is as close to Morocco as I can get,” says Rachid Zerrouki, a teacher and journalist based in Marseille for years. Though the multicultural quartier isn’t as busy as his homeland, where “the entire country celebrates Ramadan,” the food and fellow Maghrebis make it feel like home.
Muslims make up a good chunk of Marseille’s population: around 300,000 of the city’s 850,000. Nearly 80 percent celebrate Ramadan, according to Abderrahaman Ghoul, vice president of the CRCM (the Regional Counsel of Muslims in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur). “It’s the most spiritual period in our religious calendar,” affirms Ghoul.
This year’s coronavirus crisis has drastically changed the celebrations in Marseille and beyond. France’s Secretary of the Interior tweeted his remorse “that our Muslim countrymen who must experience this month of sharing in difficult conditions without traditional collective practices.” It is forbidden to gather in prayer together at mosques. Breaking the fast with feasts alongside family and friends is banned. The pandemic has made Ramadan’s most essential ingredient – sharing – as scarce as flour.
The pandemic has made Ramadan’s most essential ingredient – sharing – as scarce as flour.
Thankfully, food has helped the North African community maintain traditions. Pâtisseries and restaurants reopened for the holiday to serve familiar flavors to go. Non-profits have reorganized to cook the charitable meals that are so integral to Ramadan. Though some families are forced to host iftars via video chat, it is the consumption of customary dishes that truly connects them.
It’s a date
During the holy month of Ramadan, observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown. Dates are customarily the first bite to break the fast, as Mohammed decreed to do. He specifically chose a raw food that was untouched by flames, since he believed that fire symbolized wrath. Sales of the sacred fruit spike in Marseille, especially at the popular spice shop Saladin.
The dates are often paired with lait fermenté (fermented milk, similar to buttermilk), a filling beverage that also aids in the digestion of the forthcoming feast. Known as leben or kefir across the Arab world, two-liter bottles are sold throughout Noailles. Find farm-fresh milk at Chez Jacques, a half-century-old shop that sells dairy goods made from the family’s Ardèche cows. Or, head to the giant, stainless steel urn set up at the snack bar besides Pâtisserie Orientale Tanite. The owner sources “the best fermented milk in France,” from Bretagne, the northwestern region that devours their lait ribot with buckwheat crepes and potatoes year-round.
Some like to follow the dates with a few patisseries, like Ramal, an Algerian who insists on “starting with something sugary” to break the fast. Others, like Rachid, opt for a café. “Whatever your personal addictions are,” he smiles.
Feast on this
Next up in a Maghrebian iftar, there’s chorba (for Tunisians and Algerians) or harira (for Moroccans). There are countless individual takes on these hearty soups, but the essentials are chickpeas, tomatoes, spices (like paprika, turmeric or cinnamon) plus chicken, lamb or beef. They are often served with bourek or brik, deliciously fried pastry pouches stuffed with potato, meat, tuna or egg.
Chez Yassine sells both brik and chorba each night to those who don’t want, or have the time, to cook at home. Farad, one of the Tunisian brothers who owns the usually packed Tunisian snack bar, yells “yallah, citronnade,” out front, enticing passersby with their housemade bissap (hibiscus juice) or citronnade (tart lemonade.)
Bûche Braisée, the rotisserie across the street, sells boureks plus wonderfully charred meats for the iftar’s main course – usually a chicken, meat or fish dish. “People usually buy too much,” explains Ramal, the smiling man behind the counter. “They are hungry, so they feast with their eyes.” He hasn’t noticed a decrease in clientele, since after “two months in confinement, people really want to go out.”
While over-eating on filling foods for Ramadan is the norm, some modern families have adjusted to accommodate dietary needs. Mounia, a bubbly Algerian who cleans my friend’s house, says that her husband’s diabetes and her daughter’s vegetarianism – “she doesn’t want to mistreat animals,” she explains – means their iftar includes salads and stuffed veggies (dolmas).
Follow the smell of freshly baked bread to the Au Coin Gourmand boulangerie up the street. Their biggest seller at Ramadan is the pain tajine (khobz in Arabic), whose tree-trunk-like circular pattern comes from the terra cotta tajines in which it is cooked. In his flour-dusted apron, the Algerian baker points out other popular loaves: pain maison (either khobz eddar or khobz koucha) a brioche-style loaf speckled with black sesame seeds, and pain espagnol, a crown-shaped loaf with roots in Andalusia. During the recent lockdown, he had refurbished his interior with white subway tiles and an open kitchen where you can watch the bread being made. A rare bright spot when so many food-related businesses have been burned by the pandemic.
Around the corner, Marseille’s most toothsome kesra comes from the Comptoir des Beaux Arts, a small spot beloved for its inexpensive, homey Algerian dishes. Normally the circular cornmeal bread is made in the nondescript storefront next-door, browned on cast iron pans. But, due to the Covid-19 closures, the restaurant’s tables have been pushed aside to make room for the temporary cooking station, which is overseen by two practiced hands.
Like chocolatiers at Easter and nougat makers at Christmas, the true rulers of Ramadan are the pâtissiers orientales. These confectioners of baked, fried and honey-drenched sweets gross the year’s highest sales during the holiday. “Customers like them for their consistency,” shares Salim Gombara, owner of Jasmin de Carthage in Belsunce, the bustling quartier next to Noailles that also boasts a large North African community.
Salim hails from Ghomrassen, the Tunisian town famous for its pastries. Customers clamor for his zlebia (bright red and yellow cornmeal swirls dunked in honey). Another Ramadan favorite are the oblong-shaped donuts, doigts de mariée (bride’s fingers), which are also a time-honored recipe new brides make for their husbands. After being closed during the confinement, Jasmin de Carthage opened for the holy month, selling both individual and wholesale orders to ensure “the traditions are upheld.”
Pâtisseries orientales pop up at épiceries, snack bars, and boucheries across town, especially aluminum containers of kalb el louz – a cornmeal and almond cake soaked in honey and fleur d’oranger. A very Marseillais story unfolds at Pizza Charly, the 57-year-old institution in Noailles. Charly’s wife, Nabiya, began selling patisseries 15 years ago to “alleviate the drop in sales during Ramadan,” explains her son, another Charly that now runs the pizzeria. Nabiya loves “selling the pastries that the neighboring businesses make.”
A helping hand
In addition to purifying the soul, the act of fasting reminds Muslims of the suffering of the less fortunate. Consequently, giving back is a key part of Ramadan. This year’s Covid-19 restrictions made things more complicated, with closed restaurants unable to serve the customary free meals. But, Marseille non-profits found ways to adapt.
One organization, Il Fait Bon Vivre Dans Ma Cité (It’s Good to Live in the Projects), had participants cook at their homes rather than in a community kitchen to adhere to social distancing measures. Instead of serving up group dinners in city mosques, the Ahsa Association organized food to be delivered to people’s homes. According to the local paper, the elderly, the sick, and families in need were fed in over 47 neighborhoods – more than a third of the city.
This solidarity shows that while the pandemic has made this a Ramadan like no other, it has not put the holiday on lockdown. There have even been some silver linings. “Though the shuttered mosques made this Ramadan less spiritual, I was thankful to have more time to meditate,” shares Rachid. Mounia highlights how the stay-home measures have allowed her family “to truly come together,” in spite of being banned from congregating with their extended clan.
The rampant restaurant closures also mean there is less temptation when walking through town. Save for the street feast that abounds in Noailles.
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