For these friends, bunco night doesn’t stop for Ramadan — it evolves

It was Monday night, the night when my neighborhood girlfriends and I were scheduled to play bunco, the “social dice game involving 100 percent luck and no skill,” according to Wikipedia.

Once a month, we meet at 7 p.m. at one of our homes in Northwest Austin, starting with dinner and then playing 12 rounds of bunco. Dessert and prizes happen after the 12th round. It’s never very competitive because we are just as excited to catch up on what we have been up to as to play our favorite game, but on a recent Monday night, I wasn’t as eager to go because I was fasting for Ramadan and my friends weren’t.

Ramadan is a month in the Muslim lunar calendar when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for about 29 days. It was day 14 of fasting for me. Because the lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, the month of Ramadan circles around the calendar year, and this year’s Ramadan had crept up on the hot and long days of May.

Because I was fasting and our bunco nights involve dinner, I thought about the various scenarios that would play out when I would not eat with my friends at the start of the party. I imagined I would stare at their food and that people would ask questions about why I was not eating. I thought they might skip their meal out of sympathy for me, or I worried about the commotion I’d cause and the whispers that I might have to live through. I’d have to go fix my plate at sunset to break my fast and possibly disrupt the game. My imagination was running wild, but I was looking forward to seeing my friends more than I feared their response.

I haven’t always fasted regularly for Ramadan, but after living in Austin for 25 years, I’ve gradually settled into an annual rhythm of fasting that is part spiritual, part cultural.

“Care to the wind,” I told myself as I prepared a to-go version of iftar I had prepared for my family, which are the dates and snacks eaten to break the fast. My mouth watered at the thought of food. I was craving chaat masala, the salty/spicy powder made of dried mango that is my go-to seasoning on everything. While I was gone, my family would be eating chaat masala on anything they wanted from a freezer stocked with samosas, parathas, dahi baras, chicken nuggets, hamburger patties, egg rolls and more. I’d be eating my to-go iftar, which included chana chaat, a chickpea dish seasoned with chaat masala.

I looked at the time. It was 6:30 p.m., which left just enough time to wrap a gift basket for Katy, this week’s bunco host. I put in a bunch of traditional Pakistani goodies that I enjoy eating during Ramadan: dates, a can of garbanzo beans, a packet of chaat masala, Nimco chile chips and my favorite cookies.

Katy’s house was a minute away, and I was there in no time. I heard my girlfriends laughing and chatting inside as Katy opened the door. “Hey, Sumaiya! Come on in. You are in for a surprise!” Katy said with a big, welcoming smile. I entered, wondering what kind of surprise my friends had in mind. “I have made jambalaya without pork for the first time. It’s all chicken and turkey!” she said as we went to the kitchen, where she stirred the slow cooker.

The jambalaya smelled so good. I hugged her and decided to delay talking about my fasting situation.

Soon, everyone started serving themselves dinner. I thought about fixing my plate and discreetly putting it aside until sunset, but my mouth opened instead. “Katy, I am fasting,” I blurted while standing by the kitchen sink. “I hope you don’t mind that I fix my plate and eat it when I can at sunset. It might be in the middle of the game.”

Katy put down the glasses she was handing out and turned toward me with a big smile. “Of course, honey! You don’t have to eat cold jambalaya. I’ll just let the slow cooker remain turned on and you should have a hot meal. I am just so thrilled we will get to see Ramadan firsthand!”

Katy had worked hard all day yet had the energy to bend backward for her friends. Instead of whispers and looks, I got hugs and smiles from everyone. We started the first round of bunco, and everyone kept an eye on the clock. At 8:29 p.m. Irene, who sat next to me, whispered warmly, “It’s time to eat, Sumaiya. Go fix your plate and I can roll the dice for you.”

I sprang up and fixed a big helping of jambalaya while Katy poured me a glass of water. (Drinking water during the day is also prohibited if you are fasting during Ramadan.)

As the game went on, I enjoyed my meal and watched as my friends won prizes. After we’d finished playing, I brought Katy her Ramadan gift basket. Everyone wanted to know what was in it, which opened the door to more questions about Ramadan. Irene and Mary started Googling the names of items in the basket. They found out that chaat masala was used in making chana chaat, a savory dish made with garbanzo beans.

“Why do you break your fast with dates?” Stacy asked. Before I could reply, Katy jumped in with her cellphone, “Dates are easily digested, making them a quick source of energy and nutrients. They are high in sugar, fiber, minerals, phytonutrients and (when fresh) vitamin C. They also contain potassium, magnesium, iron and small amounts of protein and fat.”

“What if you were sick, Sumaiya?” worried Irene, the most soft-hearted soul in the group. “Well, then I would not fast. I could catch up when I felt better on other days.” That made sense to the group. “And what if you were travelling?” asked Katy. “Same rules,” I smiled. “But what if you just can’t fast?” Sarah went on. “If you can’t fast because of persisting health issues or old age, you can make a payment to feed a person in need for each of the fasting days missed,” I answered. “The payment is equivalent to the price of one meal each for two people or two meals for one person. I would think it would be $10 per day roughly. Also, children are exempt.”

More questions poured in. My friends were getting comfortable, and I was surprised at their earnestness. They genuinely felt for me. In answer to their questions, I told them that we ate a full breakfast every day at 5:15 a.m. and then went back to bed after the short prayer before sunrise. Fifteen hours of fasting fly by as work gets us busy. They laughed when I told them how I had met someone for coffee without coffee as I was fasting. We ended up discussing Lent and Janmashtami, traditions that some friends in the group followed that also involve abstaining from food in different ways.

My friends were happy to see that I did not look thirsty or starving at sunset. They also were glad to see me have fun. I did not win any bunco prizes that night, but what could be better than sharing this Ramadan experience with them?

Chana Chaat

This spicy iftar snack has garbanzo beans, potatoes, onion, tomato and spices, but don’t skip the chaat masala and tamarind garnish, which adds a tangy sweetness to the dish and balances out the smoky heat of the spices. If you can’t find chaat masala and tamarind chutney at a regular grocery store, you can find it at many international markets around Austin.

1 (14-ounce) can cooked garbanzo beans

1 medium red potato, peeled and cubed

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

1/4 chopped yellow onion, plus a tablespoon for garnish

1/2 teaspoon cumin powder

1/2 teaspoon coriander powder

1 medium chopped ripened tomato, reserving a tablespoon for garnish

1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder

Salt, to taste

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 small chopped ripened tomato, for garnish

2 tablespoons tamarind chutney

Chaat masala, sprinkled on top

In a medium pot of boiling water, boil the cooked beans and cubed potato until the potatoes are tender and the garbanzo beans become softer, about 10 minutes. Drain.

In a frying pan over medium heat, saute the onions in hot oil and add the cumin and coriander for fragrance. Then add the chopped tomato, cayenne, salt to taste and lemon juice and stir 2 minutes for the tomatoes to soften. Add the drained beans and potatoes and mix well. Reduce heat and cover, cooking for 5 minutes. Transfer into a serving dish and garnish with remaining chopped raw onion and tomato, and drizzle with tamarind chutney and chaat masala. Serves 3 to 4

— Sumaiya Malik