Adapting a Ramadan tradition to the all-American diner
It was 3 a.m., and the booths at Fred 62, a popular Los Feliz diner, were packed. Small groups of clubgoers — women in teetering heels and tight miniskirts, tattooed men in open-neck shirts and fedoras — milled about the sidewalk, waiting for tables.
Ahmed Abedin brushed past the crowd and approached the hostess with an unusual appeal. He and about a dozen friends had just come from a mosque; they needed to eat before sunrise, he explained, the start of the daylong fast for Muslims in the holy month of Ramadan.
Abedin threw in a “please feed me” look and soon the group was seated.
In a country known for its all-night diners, it may have been just a matter of time before the all-American love for breakfast at any hour became wedded to an important Muslim observance. After all, fasting is just as valid when the pre-dawn meal comes with a side of home fries.
“We definitely are seeing young Muslims celebrate Ramadan in a way that is uniquely American,” said Soha Yassine, youth coordinator at the Islamic Center of Southern California.
Large communal dinners are a signature part of Ramadan, a time of prayer and dawn-to-dusk fasting. But the pre-dawn meal known as suhoor is typically intimate, prepared at home and shared among members of a household.
For young Muslims in America — more likely than their counterparts elsewhere to live on their own, often far from relatives — suhoor meals with friends have become a way to replicate the family experience and make it their own.
Two years ago, Yassine and her friends ate suhoor at Denny’s so often that she began following the restaurant chain on Twitter to get updates about the changing late-night menu. That year, she met her now-fiance at a suhoor party for Los Angeles natives and transplants at a friend’s home.
“I don’t think you would see that anywhere else in the world,” Yassine, 28, said. “I love seeing people connect, whether it’s over a grilled cheese sandwich at Denny’s or over the Koran at the mosque.”
This year, a youth group from the Islamic center began an online photo project titled “Breakfast at Night,” inviting submissions from across the country to “debunk the myth that Ramadan is a ‘non-Western’ practice.”
At the crowded Los Feliz diner, Abedin and the soon-to-be fasters were crammed into two booths — men and women side-by-side. They scanned the large menu as 1980s alternative rock blared.
“It’s about creating new traditions, getting the same feeling that you got from the traditions you had growing up, but it doesn’t have to be the same format,” said Abedin, 40, who develops medical software at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. “As long as you have friends and family there — and food, of course.”
Raised in Kansas City, Mo., by Indian parents, Abedin was used to heavy pre-dawn meals during the holy month. His family typically ate parathas, an Indian flatbread, and leftovers such as rice-based biryani and kima, a meat dish.
To Abedin, the suhoor meal is one of the best parts of Ramadan. And his parents are pleased he has continued to observe the practice with friends.
Ali Saleem, a pricing manager for an auto parts company, was considering ordering something called a white trash tuna sandwich. “How are we doing on time? We should order by 3:30.”
The waiter — a man named Achilles with a braided ponytail and a black T-shirt that read “Friends don’t let friends get married” — asked about drink orders. But the group was ready for food, mindful that dawn would break at 4:30 that morning. They constantly checked the time on iPhones.
“Coffee, lots of coffee,” said Sarah Sabet, 31, of Ontario. “The thing is, we’re kind of in a rush.”
A sociology and psychology instructor, Sabet grew up in Orange County with a Muslim Egyptian father and British Jewish mother. She followed her father’s faith but seldom fasted or observed other Ramadan traditions, including suhoor.
After college, she lived in Egypt for six months with her aunt’s family. There, each day’s early meal was a warm family occasion with a generous spread of fava beans, goat cheese, pita bread, eggs, yogurt and lots of water.
Sabet said it was an experience that set the bar for suhoor when she returned to the U.S. She began seeking out a social group to re-create the sense of belonging she felt with her relatives. And though she rarely wakes up for suhoor during the workweek, on weekends Sabet enjoys meeting with friends to share the meal.
“As you get older and live by yourself, you no longer want to wake up and cook for yourself,” she said. “There’s something comforting about eating with friends and family.”
Eating the suhoor meal isn’t an obligation of Ramadan, but the prophet Muhammad is said to have told his followers that there is a blessing in it. Then, the meal probably consisted of something simple like water and a few dates, rather than, say, the International House of Pancakes’ stuffed French toast.
Muslims have different approaches to preparing for a day’s fast.
Saleem, who was born in Pakistan and moved to the U.S. when he was young, grew up eating parathas, eggs and pancakes that his mother prepared. Now the health-conscious 25-year-old opts for lighter fare such as granola, scrambled egg whites and a protein shake.
Some advocate eating as much as possible, consuming till the clock runs out. Others approach the meal strategically, thinking about which food might best get them through the 15-hour fast.
“Is that going to hold you over for the day?” Abedin asked, eyeing the small fruit salad in front of Aisha Nouh, a 27-year-old dance instructor from Los Angeles.
“I can’t even bring myself to eat it,” she said before stabbing a piece of cantaloupe with a fork and popping it in her mouth. Two other women at the table agreed that eating at 4 a.m. isn’t ideal.
“But I feel that making suhoor to ‘80s music helps,” Abedin joked.
“I think doing anything to ‘80s music helps,” Sabet said.
As the clock wound down, they took final sips of coffee, drained the last of the water and divided the bill.
Then they piled into their cars and rushed to a nearby mosque for morning prayers.
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