Cooking on an empty stomach: “It’s not particularly hard… but it’s tempting” | Australian food and drink

While most Muslims prepare to break their sunset fast during Ramadan, not all will be able to enjoy the sweet release of their first meal of the day.

For people in the hospitality industry like Elzhe Pahir, chef and manager at Tarim Uyghur Handmade Noodles in Auburn, the day begins as the sun approaches.

“It’s hard, but cooking for a restaurant is a pretty good thing during Ramadan,” he says, while helping his kitchen prepare for the inevitable dinner rush.

Ramadan is the holiest month of the year for Muslims, during which they must fast between sunrise and sunset.

Elzhe Pahir, chef and manager at Tarim Uyghur Handmade Noodles, serves up her famous dumplings
Elzhe Pahir, chef and manager at Tarim Uyghur Handmade Noodles, serves up her famous dumplings. Photo: Bahram Mia/The Guardian

In Sydney, Iftaar (the dinner that Muslims end their fasting with) is around 5:30pm this year. But the preparation begins long before that.

“We start preparing at 3 p.m.; Our food is also not that easy to prepare,” says Pahir. “Everything has to be made fresh.

“It’s hard to cook while we’re fasting. The hardest thing is that I can’t taste anything. So sometimes we might be low on salt and we can’t tell.”

Tarim is a popular Uyghur spot in Auburn known for its dumplings, handmade noodles and warm atmosphere.

It’s an unpretentious store, sandwiched between small grocery stores and across from rumbling train tracks, but has developed strong ties to the local Muslim community.

“During the day it’s pretty quiet, 85% of my customers are Muslim. At Iftaar time, the front and back areas are completely full, sometimes there are even waiting times.”

“It’s getting so crowded that we have to break our fast here in the kitchen. We must.”

But while iftaar revelry defines the day in Tarim, it’s not the most important time for Turkish pastry shop Gaziantep Sweets, located below.

Zeki Atilgan, owner and chef of Gaziantep Sweets, prepares his baklava
Zeki Atilgan, owner and chef at Gaziantep Sweets, prepares his baklava; Atilgan says during Ramadan that “everything doubles” at night. Photo: Bahram Mia/The Guardian

Their rush comes hours after iftaar, once everyone has finished their meals, said their prayers, and is craving something sweet.

“Ramadan is like a rejuvenation for us,” says owner and chef Zeki Atilgan while squirting chocolate over it Baklava. “We’ve been waiting for it all year.

“It’s not particularly difficult to cook while fasting, but it’s tempting.”

The smell of bloated filo and warm rosewater syrup meander in the side streets surrounding Gaziantep, which is a short walk from the Gallipoli Mosque, one of Sydney’s largest and most popular mosques.

Once the nightly prayers have ended, mosque-goers flock to the store in search of take-out or a quick bite. “We actually have a lot of traffic during the day,” says Atilgan. But at night “everything doubles, you can feel it”.

“It helps the business enormously.”

A similar late-night rush takes place at Sneakies Kitchen in Homebush, where owner Baris Kopuz has extended hours to satisfy midnight cravings.

“We get a lot from the second round of iftaar,” says Kopuz. “Many people stick to their family traditions when it comes to breaking the fast, but we always have a second food.

“Because we’re open late, we get the second round, people go for a snack or maybe something more.”

Sneakies owner Baris Kopuz is standing in his restaurant.  He smiles and points to the camera
Sneakies owner Baris Kopuz says the restaurant is popular late at night, especially for those having a second meal after breaking their fast at dusk. Photo: Bahram Mia/The Guardian

Known for its “pizza burger,” Sneakies is an international fast-food grab bag that serves everything from burgers to pasta, loaded fries and wings. Kopuz describes his menu as “East meets West”.

“Obviously both cultures are very strong for me. You know, like I’m a part of both. I was born and raised in Australia but my background is Turkish so it’s kind of a fusion. It represents me in every detail.”

Bathed in neon red, Sneakies is a mostly outdoor setting, with a projector in the center of the room showing what soccer game is on. Inside, bright colors dance around the kitchen, reflecting off the illuminated signs, toys, and arcade machines that line the walls.

Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, and Kopuz believes the casual but alcohol-free environment Sneakies provides is a major reason for its popularity.

“It helps when people know this is a halal environment … people can stay comfortable late into the night.”

At Kabab Al Hojat, various meat skewers are prepared over hot coals
Kabab Al Hojat owner Rajab Ali says his business is severely impacted during the day when most of his customers are fasting. Photo: Bahram Mia/The Guardian

But not all halal restaurants benefit from Ramadan. Kabab Al Hojat in Merrylands, which serves traditional Afghan barbecue with bread and rice, sees no increase.

“The majority of our customers are Muslims, so our business is severely impacted during the day,” says owner Rajab Ali.

“It’s probably the worst month for us business-wise,” he laughs.

He plans ahead for the slack and reduces the restaurant’s orders from suppliers for the month.

The staff at Kabab Al Hojat prepare their popular skewered meats.
The staff at popular Merrylands lunch spot Kabab Al Hojat prepare their popular skewered meats. Photo: Bahram Mia/The Guardian

Kabab Al Hojat has become a lunchtime staple in Merrylands. Ali says that while it gets crowded at night, it “doesn’t make up for what we lost during the day.”

Though orders are slow, the charcoal stays warm all day and roars to life as night approaches, embracing the suburb with the scent of bread baked on the fire.

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