Ramadan is receding from summer in the Northern Hemisphere. After this year, the rhythm of fasting and tarabeeh, Ramadan’s nighttime prayers, won’t fall during the hottest months for about another twenty years. As a child, I was aware of Ramadan’s progression through the seasons — it begins about 10 days earlier each year — but I hadn’t realized how at once slow and fleeting the holiday’s movement around the Western calendar is.
Through all four seasons, the food that my American-Bangladeshi family breaks fast with stays the same. One Ramadan classic is chole, black chickpeas cooked with cumin and onions. Chole may not sound like much, but for me and many other Bengalis, Ramadan would feel incomplete without it.
For a month, Ramadan takes food, water, and sex out of the daylight’s equation. I don’t always fast, but when I do I value how the abstentions clear my mind and sharpen my senses. I treasure the quiescence during suhoor, the meal before fasting begins at dawn. At iftaar, the meal to break fast at dusk, I curl up in the comfort of food my mom makes every year: a jug of sherbet with water, lime juice, and sugar; chickpea-flour-battered and fried slices of eggplant called beguni; lentil and onion fritters called pyaju; and of course, chole. Right before serving, my mom tosses her chole with red onion, cilantro, green chiles, and lime juice. Chole’s earthy, sweet, and acidic notes cut through the oiliness of iftaar’s fried fare.
“Chole is a must in our community,” said Azam Sikdar in Bengali. Sikdar, 52, is the head chef at Aladdin Sweets, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi restaurant in my neighborhood in Astoria, Queens. I used to whine every time my parents suggested eating at Aladdin. Now, however, I appreciate Aladdin’s role in the Bangladeshi immigrant community. “Cabbies and those with jobs around here, they come here for Ramadan, for our desi items,” Sikdar said, referring to Bangladeshi dishes. “They feel good. Outside, they can get burgers or bagels, but they don’t get satisfied with that.”
For Ramadan, Aladdin opens to the public at 2 p.m. instead of 9 a.m. and offers an iftaar buffet. Sikdar serves chole under the name chana bhuna next to foil trays of kebabs, samosas, and jelapi, fried curlicues of dough sticky with syrup and flecked with nigella seeds, like insects stuck in amber. You can also buy puffed rice called muri to add crunch to chole.
In the United States, black chickpeas are not as common as the beige garbanzo variety. Black chickpeas tend to be smaller than the beige ones, denser in texture, and nuttier in taste. They also take longer to soak and cook. In dried form, their color ranges from terra-cotta to charcoal. After cooking, the outer skin retains a bite that gives way to a soft but firm interior. I’ve never seen canned black chickpeas, but South Asian supermarkets stock dried black chickpeas under the names kala chana or Bengal gram.
You can substitute beige chickpeas for a silkier chole, but I prefer how the solidity of black chickpeas plays with whole cumin seeds and onions.
Making chole is simple, but there is no denying that soaking and boiling chickpeas and caramelizing onions takes time. I cook the onions on low heat while I tend to other things, adding salt when the onions start to soften and get translucent, about ten minutes in, and water to deglaze the pan every now and then. You can use cumin and coriander powder in a pinch, but if you happen to have more time, I recommend toasting and grinding whole spices to usher out their flavors. I use a coffee grinder, but a mortar and pestle work just as well. Stirring in an additional teaspoon of whole toasted cumin seeds at the end adds textural interest.
This chole recipe, based on my mom’s, offers a starting point for variations: Feel free to chop mint and parsley along with the cilantro, or to cook tomatoes with the onions for a sauce like in chana masala. With a dollop of labneh or Greek yogurt, chole makes a quick bite before work or an easy desk lunch.
After observing Ramadan in the summer for the past several years, my family has been thinking about how it might be different in the future. “I wonder how it will be when Ramadan approaches winter,” my mom said in Bengali recently as she prepared iftaar. “It might be harder to go to the masjid [mosque]. You have to wear boots. You have to find a spot in the masjid for your coat.” The last time my parents observed Ramadan in the summer was when they immigrated to the United States about 40 years ago. “I remember because it was so hot in our apartment building,” my mom said. “We used to gather outside right before iftaar with the other Bangladeshis who lived in the building to catch some air.”
Even though it is challenging to fast during long, hot days, I will miss celebrating Ramadan in the summer. This may be one of the last Eid al-Fitrs when my family and I can take pictures in front of the roses in my parents’ garden. The Eid bazaars that sit in the sunshine on masjid parking lots will have to move inside. Whatever Ramadan looks like in the future, I’m happy knowing I will always be able to turn to a bowl of chole.