The recipes in this book are not specifically for the Islamic month of Ramadan but a collection of more than 85 meals and sweets that are, generally speaking, not too long in the making. Those fasting in daylight hours won’t have long to prepare a celebratory feast for nightfall, while everyone else can enjoy the delicious hospitality of worldwide cuisine.
Many who think of Islam, think only of its origins in the Middle East but the Islamic faith, like most religions, crosses all cultures, including Western, Asian, African and European. Saad introduces her cross-cultural cookbook with a message of peace and a brief discussion on the practice and benefits of fasting.
Her food is delicious and her recipes are to be treasured but the cookbook itself is possibly one of contention. I love it. Saad’s style is casual and homely but, released initially in Arabic, the translated version is in broken English, as though the reader is flicking through her migrant neighbour’s personal collection and notes. It’s not difficult to follow however, and adds to the overall charm of the book.
The recipes are of a similar style where the cooking method sometimes reveals extra ingredients that are not listed earlier. Saad also provides vaguer instructions than one would expect sometimes, forcing the cook to experiment with taste. One example of this is in her recipe for African Jollof Rice with Lamb Cubes which I talk about later.
Despite all this, with the aid of her affable introductions to many recipes and the tips she throws in occasionally, it’s hard to go wrong.
There is no table of contents or index to find recipes quickly, but they are broken down into chapters that include Soups, Grab n’ Eat (finger food), Main Meals, Desserts and Drinks. At just over 200 pages, the lack of any practical list of recipes fits with the overall homemade style of the book, as do the colourful, full page pictures and the practical, large text to make it easier to read from across the kitchen bench.
The thick, glossy pages are easily wiped clean and the soft cover allows the book to stay open to the desired page more readily than many other cookbooks.
If you like your cookbooks to be highly professional and polished, or precise, then Ramadan Express may not be for you. If, like me, your focus is more about the quality of the dish, then Lina Saad has what you want. Every recipe I tried tasted great so, like me, you may not be able to limit yourself to just the usual number of recipes you try.
Fatoush (page 39)
Saad explains that Fatoush is a Lebanese salad that is incredibly popular throughout the Arab world and the Middle East, although it has been customised to local tastes around the world. Ultimately, it’s what westerners call a garden salad, with the dressing and toasted pitta bread making it unique.
The dressing includes some lesser known ingredients such as sumac and pomegranate molasses, but both were easy to come by. Coles supermarkets have their own homebrand of the sumac spice, while pomegranate molasses should be available from a Fine Foods store. It takes less than five minutes to make up the dressing and perhaps another ten to chop up the salad ingredients. Serve the toasted pitta bread on the side if anyone has allergies. This salad serves six if made in full.
Lamb Spring Rolls (page 69)
Although the recipe claims to serve ten, I found there was much less to go around by the time I stopped eating the filling directly from the pan. For the spring rolls that fell apart from my abortive efforts to roll them after overstuffing the first few, I was quite content to eat the filling on its own. It’s delicious! I will no doubt be making this cinnamon-infused cabbage, carrot and meat combination again as a meal instead of a pastry filling.
My own spring rolls were big enough to look like deep-fried cold rolls, but there’s nothing wrong with large spring rolls. They still taste amazing, particularly with Saad’s base recipe which can be altered to suit any taste or need.
African Jollof Rice with Lamb Cubes (page 107)
This is potentially one of the longer recipes to make although I threw my lamb in a pressure cooker instead of slow cooking for 90 minutes on a stove top. As a result, the meat melted in the mouth, with enough time on the stove top later for the other flavours to blend with it.
In this recipe, Saad’s instructions advise to “boil or cook [1kg lamb] till tender, with aromatics like carrots, stock cube, onion, cloves, cardamom”. There are no measurements given, which may be daunting for an unconfident cook. I did find that I’d overdone it on the cloves but, thankfully, it’s a taste I like. All other ingredients are measured out and once the cooked meat is added to the pan with everything else, the resulting flavour is divine. The option to include 3 Bell Peppers (capsicums) is worth taking up for additional flavour. I halved the amount and diced up 1.5 red capsicums which was an ideal amount for my taste.
The recipe serves 6-8. It’s a big dish but absolutely comforting and completely satisfying.
Melon and Pistachios Cake (page 157)
I’m not a big sweet eater and found this delightful cake a little too sugary for my taste. I’d probably cut back on the 1.5 cups of caster sugar, but it is a cake I will make again. Serving it warm with custard made me love it even more.
The recipe is straight forward but if you haven’t read the full recipe in advance, you may miss the need to marinate your cantaloupe the night before.
In the spirit of constantly learning the hard way in the kitchen, my cake tin was slightly too small for the amount of batter, resulting in my oven getting an overdue clean the next day as I scraped off the overflowed batter. It’s another example where Saad doesn’t always offer precise details, such as the size of the cake tin needed.
The comical mess I was left with didn’t affect the look or taste of the cake that stayed in the pan, as you can see from the photo above after I’d trimmed off the runaway cooked batter! The cake is crunchy on the outside and incredibly moist and fluffy on the inside. A noteworthy addition to my favourite recipes list.
Reviewed by Rod Lewis
Rating out of 10: 8
Distributed by: Austin Macauley
Released: July 2018
Approx RRP: $22 paperback, $6 eBook