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Holidays

Let the Feast Begin

January 28, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tomorrow night ends Ramadan, the month when Muslims abstain from all food and drink during the daylight hours. The fast is a test of a believer's discipline and restraint and can be burdensome, particularly when it falls in summer--the Muslim calendar is lunar and not tied to the seasons.

But there are compensations, among them the eagerness with which the end of the daylight fast is anticipated.

Ayfer Unsal, a very modern Turkish woman who comes from a family of journalists and was educated in American schools, observes the fast rigorously. "I'm making food for hours before nightfall," she says wryly, "so all I can think about is food. But everybody's thinking about food all day."

The end of Ramadan is a three-day holiday with various names, such as the Ramadan Bayram and Eid al-Fitr (the fast-breaking holiday). Because it can fall at any time of the year, it has no seasonal associations, so the foods served at this time are, in general, anything you want to eat.

But the Turks are famous for their sweet tooth, and they have their own name for Ramadan Bayram--Seker Bayrami, the sugar holiday. All sorts of foods may be served, but you can be sure sweets will play a large role. One served all over Turkey is a sweet bread called corek.

Unsal is something of a rarity among Turkish journalists because she specializes in food, particularly in the food of her home town, Gaziantep (known before 1922 as Antep or Ain Tab), which is a crossroads of cultures and traditions.

She has been visiting Los Angeles to meet with Armenians of Gaziantep ancestry. Unsal has taught her city's dishes to students at the Culinary Institute of America in New York--and to hotel chefs in Istanbul, who are thoroughly trained in Turkish haute cuisine but mostly unfamiliar with their country's regional foods.

"One of the dishes we serve in Gaziantep at Seker Bayrami," she says, "is yuvarlama, a stew with tiny meatballs the size of chickpeas. It's very laborious to make. Often women have parties to spread the work around." Another traditional dish is yogurtlu fasulye, a stew of meat, chickpeas, green beans and macaroni dressed with yogurt and then dribbled with sizzling-hot olive oil.

Two characteristic Turkish holiday sweets are rose water-scented rice puddings: Zerde (zair-DEH), flavored with saffron, and Sutla^c (suit-LOTCH), which has a creamy flavor. They're also somewhat laborious to make but indescribably soothing to eat.

"Zerde and Sutla^c are served all over Turkey," Unsal says, "and on any special occasion. But in Gaziantep, we serve them together, one on top of the other, at Seker Bayrami and only then."

SAFFRON RICE PUDDING (Zerde)

1/2 cup rice

Water

1 cup sugar

15 threads saffron or safflower (azafran)

1 to 3 tablespoons rose water

2 tablespoons pistachios

2 tablespoons almonds

Orange peel, optional

Cook rice with 3 cups water and 1/3 cup sugar over medium heat, stirring constantly, 15 minutes. Add 1/3 cup sugar and continue cooking and stirring 20 minutes. Add remaining 1/3 cup sugar and cook until tender but not mushy, about 10 minutes.

Crush saffron or safflower threads and soak in 1 tablespoon boiling water (or put saffron and water in microwaveable cup and microwave until boiling). Strain and add to rice. When cool, stir in rose water. Pour into serving bowls, garnish with pistachios, almonds and optional orange peel and refrigerate overnight. Or serve topped with Milk Rice Pudding and garnishes.

5 to 7 servings. Each of 5 servings:

253 calories; 1 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 54 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.14 gram fiber.

MILK RICE PUDDING (Sutla^c)

4 cups milk

1/3 cup rice, washed and drained

1/2 cup sugar, optional

1 to 3 tablespoons rose water

If you're going to serve the Sutl^ac as a topping for Zerde, omit the sugar and put the nut garnish on top of the Sutla^c.

Bring milk to boil in saucepan. Add rice, bring to boil again, reduce heat to simmer and cook until rice is cooked and liquid is thick but still a little runny, 40 to 45 minutes, stirring constantly.

When cool, pour into serving bowls or onto bowls of Zerde. Cool, stir in rose water to taste and refrigerate.

5 to 7 servings. Each of 5 servings:

170 calories; 98 mg sodium; 15 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 25 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.06 gram fiber.

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