For many Muslims, Ramadan brings a month of inward reflection, a time to get along with one's fellow man and perform charitable acts. The holy month is also when many Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, breaking the fast each night with dinners that can celebrate any number of cultural or spiritual traditions.
Naveen Mohiuddin owns two Halal Guys franchise restaurants, in Northeast Philadelphia and King of Prussia, that serve simple Middle Eastern-Mediterranean food, like gyros, falafel, rice platters, and hummus. Though most of their customers aren't Muslim, Mohiuddin said Ramadan is one of the busiest times of year due to requests to cater dinners for family and friends.
"The bigger the group, the better," he said. "There's nothing like breaking a fast with 30 hungry people."
Mohiuddin, who with his family owns several Burger King stores, was approached two years ago by New York's Halal Guys company to expand to Pennsylvania. A third Halal Guys location, not owned by Mohiuddin, opened in Chinatown Square in late 2016.
Community leaders estimate at least 200,000 Muslims live in Philadelphia, with more in the surrounding region. But when it comes to Ramadan, which ends later this month, misconceptions abound. Some people think you don't eat for 30 days, Mohiuddin said. Others assume practicing Muslims dread the holiday.
"Most Muslims look forward to Ramadan," he said. "It's a very peaceful, self-reflective time. It's like a fresh start. There's a personal goal — can I commit myself to doing it? You start to look at different parts of your life."
Certain traditions, such as eating a date to break the fast, are universal. Others, particularly the foods enjoyed at dinner, depend on the background of the family hosting the meal. Mohiuddin, who grew up in Lansdale, is Indian; his wife is Egyptian.
The pre-sunrise meal during Ramadan is often a high-carbohydrate dish to curb the appetite throughout the day, as well as lots of water, which is also forbidden during daylight hours. Mohiuddin prefers to start with bananas, along with rice and eggs for protein.
Halal Guys' customers often seek out platters of chicken and rice for dinner, or hummus. To break the evening fast, Mohiuddin's family might serve butter chicken and rice, fruits, and yogurt drinks. His wife makes her own version, an "upside-down rice" dish cooked in a pot with layers of meat and vegetables, as well as an Egyptian hummus-like dish of mashed fava beans and spices served with bread.
Other traditional offerings could include crispy falafel patties made from chickpeas or fava beans, or chicken and beef wrapped into a warm pita with vegetables and tangy sauces that ooze out with every bite. Perhaps a few sweet, flaky pieces of baklava for dessert.
On the first few nights of Ramadan, Mohiuddin said, it's not out of the ordinary for him to load up three dinner plates. As the month goes on, he finds he needs less.
"You learn that you don't really need all this food to make it through the day," he said. "Especially if it's nutritional."
It's not easy in the beginning, he said, particularly in years such as this, when the new moon signaling the start falls in a summer month with a later sunset. And there are exceptions: pregnant women, children, the elderly, and the sick.
Ramadan ends on the evening of June 14 with the last night of the holy month and the start of Eid al-Fitr, the biggest holiday of the year. Many families hold large parties and give presents to children. At Halal Guys, Mohiuddin said, he has the managers put out dates for customers to enjoy, and he extends the hours for people who want to come late.