Diners help put N.J. spin on Ramadan observance

BY HANNAN ADELY

It’s 3 in the morning, but Sameer Sarmast and about 20 friends are very much awake, seated around tables at the Chit Chat Diner in Hackensack, chowing down on pancakes, French toast and omelets— but not bacon.

Between bites they catch up on their jobs, travels and relationships before they are due to begin the sunrise prayer and daily fast that marks each day during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

This same scene has been playing out in diners and pancake houses across New Jersey, where young Muslim Americans are creating their own tradition, bringing the pre-dawn meal — typically celebrated at home with family — to the 24-hour diner. They are keeping religious custom, but in a uniquely American way by spending the time with friends and enjoying breakfast-at-anytime specialties for which diners are famous. Some are capturing their wee-hour feasts with online photos and tweets.

And where better to be for Ramadan, they say, than in New Jersey where a 3 a.m. meal is never far away?

“Being in New Jersey, I think we’re the capital of diners so we have a lot of options late night,” said Sarmast, 34, a Paramus resident who organized the get-together.

Online, young people post pictures of heaping stacks of pancakes on Instagram or write joking tweets about their obligatory annual trip to IHOP. Or they organize those outings through social media.

Sarmast invited his friends by spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. People he knew from mosque, school and his community started streaming in at 2 a.m., joining the company of police officers picking up orders, tipsy dressed-up couples who looked as if they had just come from a formal event, and a Muslim family tucked into a booth.

At the Chit Chat Diner, the friends said that their get-togethers are social events, but also a place to find inspiration and motivation for the difficult daily fast. During Ramadan, practicing Muslims don’t eat or drink even water from sunrise to sunset so they can focus on prayer, reflection and self-discipline.

“It makes it easier because we are all fasting together,” said Hana Iqbal, 34, of Hawthorne. The holy month ends this weekend and is followed by a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr that includes celebrations, feasts and the exchange of gifts.

More than 160,000 Muslim Americans live in New Jersey, according to a 2010 census by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. So at many of the 500-plus diners in the state — but especially in parts of northern and central New Jersey with large Muslim populations — groups marking “suhoor” can be found at tables next to night-shift workers and club kids who frequent the eateries in the early morning hours.

“I’ve seen lots of people posting pictures on social media, where everyone shows up at 2:30 in the morning and wants pancakes,” said Sabiha Ansari, co-founder and vice president of the American Muslim Consumer Consortium, a non-profit marketing organization based in New Jersey.

Ansari was asked, why diners? She answered: “Because it’s open and because everyone loves pancakes. Who doesn’t like pancakes?”

Ansari said chain restaurants like IHOP and Denny’s that replicate the diner experience have also gotten a Ramadan boost as groups of friends, and sometimes families, flock to them for the pre-dawn meal. The diner chains are also popular suhoor spots in other states that don’t have a local 24-hour diner that is so common in New Jersey.

“The ones in this area, they know if Ramadan is coming to expect big groups,” said Ansari, who lives in Middlesex County.

Perla Martinez, assistant manager at the Chit Chat Diner, said Muslim locals often come in groups of three or four during Ramadan to eat in the pre-dawn hours. “We are usually very busy anyway, but it does give us an overnight boost” on weekdays, she said. It makes sense, Martinez said, because many Muslims live in the neighborhood. “I’m sure they see us open 24 hours. They come with friends and they bring a new friend,” she said.

The gatherings are also a draw for students and workers who are away from home and families and want the communal feeling that underlies the Ramadan season, said Noveen Lakhani, 25, of Woodbridge, who was sharing suhoor at the Chit Chat.

“If you don’t have family here, it’s a way to reconnect,” she said.

Lakhani grew concerned when her French toast order didn’t arrive after everyone else was eating and sunrise was fast approaching — a time when they stop for prayer either on their own or at mosque — so Iqbal shared hers. Mozzarella sticks, french fries and coffee were also on the table, even though some group members said they, like other Muslims, try to stay away from thirst-inducing foods during the fasting month.

Suhoor isn’t the only meal of the day during Ramadan. Muslims break their fast at the end of the day with a large meal called the iftar, usually in a festive setting with family and friends and lots of food. Iftar may take place at someone’s home, at a mosque or at an iftar buffet offered at local ethnic restaurants. Everyone begins to eat at the same time each night, traditionally starting with dates and water.

Hours later, they wake up in the dark before dawn to guzzle water and eat filling foods that will power them through the day.

Sometimes, Muslim Americans will visit local Middle Eastern and Turkish restaurants that extend their hours for the pre-dawn meal. That includes businesses in Paterson and Clifton that stay open until 3:30 a.m. during Ramadan to cater to Muslim customers and to recoup business they may have lost from the fasting lunch crowd.

Sarmast stars in “Sameer’s Eats,” a Web show dedicated to eateries that are “halal,” or that serve meat prepared according to Muslim dietary law. He likes visiting the halal places in the area for food like meat kababs, hummus and a fava bean dip known as foul — pronounced “fool” — for his early morning meal.

But sometimes, he said, he enjoys the syrupy breakfasts and egg concoctions that are so familiar in diners. The large portions are another plus for people like him who won’t be eating for the next 15 hours, he said.

“You can’t eat hummus and falafel every day,” said

For Aamir Ahmed, 26, of Teaneck, the diner gatherings are a fun way to connect during Ramadan.

“We’re just excited to go out to eat and hang out with friends,” he said.

Saad Malik, 23, of Woodbridge said his parents don’t go to diners and were probably sitting at home eating chutney, eggs, ground beef and a thin bread called paratha. Gathering at diners and restaurants is a mark of their own “subculture,” Malik said, but one that is rooted in faith and community.

“The culture of sitting together and eating together, that’s still passed down from our parents,” said Malik, the other co-founder of “Sameer’s Eats.” “That hasn’t changed. But this is an American thing and that’s why we’re here.”

Sameer Sarmast