A little taste of Ramadan

Mai Samih , Monday 3 May 2021

Al-Ahram Weekly learns how one fresh university graduate in Cairo has been decorating Ramadan dishes for children

A little taste of Ramadan
A little taste of Ramadan

Many mothers can have a hard time feeding their children during the holy month of Ramadan when they are learning fast and can end up eating less. For this reason, it is particularly important that they eat what healthy foods they can, and from here comes the idea of food art directed at children.

 Food art is the art of decorating dishes using food like fruit or sweets to make it more attractive to young children. There are also now new approaches using vegetables, meat and carbohydrates like bread, rice or pasta, all of which are components of a healthy meal. 

Fatma Arafa, a freshly graduated engineer in Cairo and a mother, took up this new approach of decorating dishes as a hobby, and now she helps other mothers feed their children while giving them a fun experience during the holy month of Ramadan. She mostly draws from famous cartoon characters from programmes broadcast during Ramadan for her ideas.

“I graduated from the Faculty of Engineering, specialising in biomedical engineering from Mansoura University in 2020, and of course I had never taken any courses in cooking,” Arafa said. “But I have always had a passion for both art and cooking, even if I never used to cook much. When I would serve food, I liked to serve it in the form of the face of a cartoon character. After I graduated, I wanted to start doing my hobby again, but this time I wanted other people to know about it.”

She subscribed to Internet food groups like Irsem (draw), which encouraged members to draw cartoon characters and post them on the site. She created images of characters like the Minions cartoon characters using bell peppers and eggs, for example, which became popular with other members of the group. She then started to make other cartoon characters.

A little taste of Ramadan
A little taste of Ramadan
A little taste of Ramadan

“Some of the images I have created from food thus far are of cartoon characters Bakkar, Bugi and Tam Tam, Diasty, Fananees and Shadi and Hadi, all of them from the children’s TV show Alam Simsim (Sesame World),” the Arab version of the US TV show Sesame Street, she said. “All the characters are famous Egyptian Ramadan cartoon characters for children.”

Arafa works with three main ingredients that are easy to shape, like mashed potatoes that can also be coloured easily. She uses bread that can easily be cut with scissors to make shapes with, as well as rice.

“The Ramadan characters can be served during the Ramadan iftar meal and include ingredients like grilled kofta [meat balls] with rice or toasted bread or baladi bread [traditional Egyptian bread] and vegetables. For example, to make the Fananees cartoon character, I use grilled kofta, red peppers and basmati rice. For Tam Tam and Diasty, I use mashed potatoes that I colour with beet and boiled eggs with cucumbers,” Arafa said.

“I make the Shadi and Hadi characters with fruit like mangoes, guavas and apples. For the sohour meal, I usually use lighter ingredients. For example, to make the Bugi character I use cheese, petit pain, black olives and tomatoes.”

There are some ingredients that Arafa rarely uses like warak enab (vine leaves stuffed with rice), omelettes and sweets. “I don’t use sweets because I feel they are not healthy for children. I don’t use icing for the same reason,” she said.

Ramadan this year has had a surreal and creative theme for Arafa because she has been making fawanees (Ramadan lanterns) using sambusas, a kind of pastry, and images of landscapes using yameesh (dried fruit and nuts), including palm trees made of dates and pistachios and the crescent moon using coconut. 

One of her most popular dishes has been a face she made using falafel and bread, which was liked and shared by over 130,000 people on Facebook and Twitter. This encouraged her to start her own pages.

After more than 135,000 views of her videos on the Internet, Arafa launched her own Facebook page and YouTube channel and started to develop them. “I started to give my videos more time, so I would do more dishes and post the links to my page on food groups,” she said.

A little taste of Ramadan
A little taste of Ramadan
A little taste of Ramadan

Since Arafa is working on an amateur scale, she is not seeking profit for her work. She is more interested to help mothers who may be struggling to feed their infants. “I launched my Facebook page with that in mind, and I do complete meals for children, helping mothers to prepare healthy meals for their children like rice and green peas or fava beans and bread or yoghurt with fruits arranged in a certain way or rice and kofta or mashed potatoes and vegetables,” she said.

She added that sometimes she makes up her own cartoon characters using healthy food and is often inspired by the food she uses. 

Arafa has no sponsors, and she only uses the food she has at home. The only thing she has brought is a professional video camera to make her videos. “So far, my recipes are not that costy to make. I wish I had sponsors, though, as that would enable me to do more,” she added.

Positive feedback is one of the things that makes Arafa want to go on with her project, while she also benefits from constructive criticism. “I am really very happy when I get feedback about my work, especially from mothers. I get messages from mothers who tell me that after seeing my videos they know how to feed their children better and to make them eat healthy food,” Arafa said.

“I once got a message from a mother who sent me a picture of one of my dishes she had imitated. This made me very happy, and I thanked her for it. However, I sometimes get criticisms that are not constructive, which makes me feel that I am doing something wrong. For example, people sometimes criticise the idea of using food for decoration.”

“Some people may think that I waste food, but this is not true. I always eat what is left over after I make my dishes. I don’t think that it is always possible to change people’s beliefs because they tend to hold on to them if they can. If some people think that what I am doing is a waste of time, I will not be able to change what they think,” she commented.

But Arafa constantly reminds herself that it is the spirit of Ramadan that she wants to convey to children, not only the nutritional side, but also the moral side, albeit in an indirect way. What she does is to teach children love and respect for their mothers who work so hard to make their meals and decorate their plates. 

Arafa also tries to overcome the difficulties that some mothers may have in making her designs, above all because of time. “Some dishes may take me 45 minutes to make. So, I try to come up with ideas that can be made in short periods, as many mothers don’t have much time to decorate dishes for their children,” she said. 

 “In future I would like my YouTube channel to have more viewers and my Facebook page to grow more popular with more followers,” she concluded. “And I would also like to make more videos.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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