For religious watchers, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives, including how we worship. For Muslims in particular, that meant closing masajids or limiting the number of Muslims allowed to pray in traditional rows, shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot, in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
It also meant suspending Ramadan traditions, such as communal iftar, the daily breaking of the fast at sunset. Fasting – abstaining from food, drink and intimate pleasures during the day – is a commandment from Allah observed in the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan. Home to more than 270,000 Muslims, the Philadelphia area has seen a return and recovery of these traditions this year.
Iftar is a deeply communal experience, an invitation to come together and rejoice in the breaking of the fast. It’s the rush to the mosque, greetings of As Salaamu Alaykum (“peace be upon you”) from aunts and uncles in your community as the aroma of roast chicken and lamb floats in the crowds that gather to sit and patiently await the sunset prayer. It’s the sound of boxes of fresh dates being opened and fresh watermelons being cut into pieces. We fast, pray and reflect together. During quarantine, our gatherings have been canceled – however, this month’s new moon marked the return of iftar as it should be, a sacred interaction with Allah and fellow Muslims.
When looking for options for iftar, Muslims are not looking for a complete assortment. Iftar should be just enough food to break the fast and provide energy to continue the evening prayers. The meal should be halal and light on the stomach.
But what is halal? It’s not a kitchen but an Arabic word that loosely translates into English as “permit”. Halal does not include pork or contain pork-derived ingredients. It must also be free of blood and protein must be prayed before being slaughtered in a dignified manner, so that the animal does not suffer.
For those looking to support local restaurants during Ramadan, the following establishments will be offering special offers throughout the month. More importantly, they provide a space to gather with your family or other Muslims who might be complete strangers, to break the fast and observe a sacred tradition of breaking bread, together.
Brother Abdul Qawi is CEO and head of Muslims Serve, a local hunger relief organization in Philadelphia open to anyone seeking food assistance, regardless of religious background. Over the past eight years, Qawi and his wife, Shahidah Ellis, their children and volunteers, have distributed more than 145,000 plates of food. “We plan to serve around 300 Muslims per night Monday through Thursday, and double that number Friday through Saturday,” Qawi said. Currently, the association serves 5,000 people a month, fueled by donations from its 15 soup kitchens. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims Serve will serve iftar at the historic Philadelphia Masjid in West Philly (located in the Sister Clara Muhammad School Building).
4700 Wyalusing Ave, 267-265-6434, MuslimsServe.org, @MuslimsServe
If you’re craving some serious soul food using certified halal zabihah meats, Southside Zabihah Halal is your next stop. Satisfy your craving for an authentic Philly cheesesteak, slow roast chicken, mashed potatoes with homemade gravy or even sautéed garlic green beans. You’ll also find creamy mac and cheese, tender cabbage, and the ultimate fish and grits. For the month of Ramadan, Southside serves up a plate of convenience by offering a variety of family-sized iftar meals that can be pre-ordered and chosen in time to break the fast at sunset.
“Ramadan can be busy for the person who is usually responsible for preparing meals at home, especially mums,” owner Husain Thompson, who worked opposite his father’s mosque, Masjid Mujahideen, told the 60th and Osage in West Philadelphia before the pandemic, but recently moved to Woodland Ave. “Our service is also convenient for those who have to fulfill the obligation to feed believers on an empty stomach because they are unable to fast themselves, and those who prefer to expend their energy in increased worship during the month and not behind a hot pan.
Iftar meals offer a variety of options, including curried lamb over rice, turkey or beef lasagna served with garlic bread and a garden salad. Each meal serves a family of four and comes with a two-litre drink.
6150 Woodland Ave, 267-279-7687, @Halal_Eatery
During a pandemic that has stifled much of the restaurant industry for nearly two years, Jamela Bilal and her father James are harnessing three generations of family recipes to deliver traditional homemade desserts and charcuterie options from quality in Jenkintown and neighboring Philadelphia County. The new iteration of this bakery opened in January and is quickly making a name for itself with melt-in-your-mouth brown sugar cookies, while Amish carrot cake is a customer favorite. Chocolate-covered, peanut-butter-filled medjool dates and authentic bean pie — a staple in the Muslim community since its development by the Nation of Islam — are must-haves after a 15-16 hour fast.
723 West Avenue, Jenkintown, 267-279-7687 @BilalsBakeryDeli, bilalsbakery.com/
Victoria Tyson opened Victoria’s Kitchen in 2008 and for the past 14 years has served tasty soul food all over Philadelphia and nearby Cheltenham and Elkins parks. Muscularizing through the pandemic, Tyson is now teaming up with his cousin, chef Jamela Bilal, to offer catering based on religious dietary needs. Bilal also owns Halal 2 Go, a halal meal prep service that ships nationwide. In addition to offering halal meat, the service offers local and organic vegetables, vegan and vegetarian selections, diabetic, gluten-free and hypoallergenic alternatives. “Finally, Muslims who observe halal-only diets have healthy and tasty convenience options that aren’t currently represented in their supermarket’s frozen food aisles – they can find it in the fridge shelf at Victoria’s,” says Bilal. Place an order for Victoria’s Fried Prawns or stop in before breaking your fast to grab Halal 2 Go’s Chicken Pot Pie or Korean BBQ Cauliflower Wings.
7304 Ogontz Ave, 215-927-1066, victoriaskitchen.com, @victoriaskitchen
Sharon Muhammad has always operated on the values of “doing for yourself” anchored in the Nation of Islam, of which she has been a faithful follower for 40 years. .
She has operated her restaurant, Sister Muhammad’s Kitchen, in its current location on Germantown Avenue since 2011. Its menu reads, “O men, eat the lawful and good things of what is on earth,” a ayah (or verse) from the Quran, the Muslim holy text, a reminder of her cause “to serve people who serve others”, she says.
The pandemic has been particularly difficult for Muhammad, who lost her 42-year-old husband in March 2021. And like other restaurateurs, she has struggled through the various ordeals adjacent to the pandemic, having to raise around $10,000 to stay open. . “We have reduced the hours but all praise is due to Allah and thanks to everyone who donated, we are still here,” she said. Despite these challenges, Muhammad still serves staples like his authentic Muslim fish hoagie, lamb cheesesteak on fresh whole wheat buns, and fish fried rice.
4441 Germantown Ave, 215-261-7258, sismuhammadskitchen.com, @sismuhammadskitchen