During Ramadan, Asma Houbaizhi will cook all day but not eat

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Scents of cinnamon, curry and garlic wafted from the kitchen of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh as Asma Houbaizhi poured spices over a tub of raw lamb.

For the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins today, she will spend most days cooking for 400 people, but unable to take a bite or even a sip of water. During Ramadan Muslims fast from both food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Ms. Houbaizhi is in charge of preparing the community meal after sundown prayers.

"It doesn't matter if you have strong faith or weak faith. The first day is always difficult," said Ms. Houbaizhi, who came yesterday to start the marinade. Finding no apron in the kitchen the 28-year-old native of Morocco cut holes in a trash bag and wore it over her brightly striped tunic and long skirt. Her hair was protected by the yellow veil wrapped tightly about her head.

On a table nearby, large red boxes held 150 pounds of dates, the traditional food with which Muslims first break their fast.

Ramadan is the month in which Muslims believe God revealed the Quran, their holy book, to the Prophet Muhammad. Because it is a lunar month it falls a bit earlier each year, working slowly backward through the seasons.

The Quran contains the commandment to fast during Ramadan in order to learn self-control, said Imam Abdusemih Tadese, spiritual leader of the Oakland mosque. Everyone -- including non-Muslims -- is invited to the community meal, which typically draws at least 300 people.

"Our sisters and brothers who cook make sure that the food is not only ready, but delicious," he said.

For Ms. Houbaizhi, cooking while fasting is a spiritual exercise.

"The purpose of fasting is to work with your faith to have a strong soul," she said.

"When you are cooking you get the blessing of feeding the people who are fasting."

For tonight, she prepared a Moroccan dish. But over the month she uses recipes from all over the world. She knows French cooking -- Morocco was once a French colony -- and brings that in. Other members of the mosque supply recipes from Syria, Egypt, India, Afghanistan and other nations. There will also be an American night.

She doesn't cook every day. Each meal is sponsored by someone as an act of charity, and some sponsors like to cook. Many volunteers help.

This is her second year in charge. She learned years earlier, working at Subway, that she could cook without eating.

"I didn't eat the food. When you work with it every day, you lose the taste for it. That's me. When I'm cooking, I'm eating with my eyes."

Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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