It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday evening in Detroit’s Banglatown neighborhood and Reshmi Sweets & Cafe owner Shuheb Khan is standing next to a sprawling buffet. Wrapped in a white apron with a serving spoon in hand, he’s ready to pack food for the next customer in line. Metal chafing dishes sit on a white tablecloth, their contents brimming with piles of tandoori chicken and chicken biryani. There’s only a handful of people in line now, but soon the restaurant will be crowded. It’s nearly time for iftar in Detroit — the meal during which Muslims break their fast after dusk during the month of Ramadan.
Food — both fasting from it and eating it — is undeniably central to the experience of Ramadan. During this time, many Muslims in Detroit’s Bangladeshi community seek out their favorite local restaurants to break fast with what are known as iftar boxes — special carryout meals found in Bangladeshi restaurants. Each one comes stuffed with around 10 items such as biryani, sana (fried black or white chickpeas and spices), fyazi (lentil fritters), beguni (battered and fried eggplant), and aloo pakora (sliced potato dipped in seasoned batter and deep fried).
The staff at Reshmi has been preparing iftar boxes for Detroiters for the past six years. Like many restaurants in the area, business hours are adjusted to accommodate the later dining crowds visiting after dusk. This season, the restaurant will make between 50 and 70 of these boxes each weekday. Khan points out a sign behind him that indicates that the iftar meals contain 12 items for $6 per box.
While many Muslims prepare their own iftar meals at home, the iftar box can serve as a special treat or a supplement to family dinner. Khan says many of his iftar box customers are “people who work at factories [on the late shift], people who want to eat out, or those who want to add extra items to their food at home.”
Kawsar Rahim, who works as a Verizon Wireless district manager, stopped by Reshmi to picked up a box on a recent evening while traveling between stores for work. Rahim says he’s never disappointed when he goes to Reshmi. “They have the best quantity. They give good portions and their quality is awesome, because every box tastes the same, every single time.” Rahim says it’s the closest to “homemade” tasting food he’s found in the area. His favorite dish is the lamb biryani, which is cooked with lamb that’s “so tender it’s off the charts amazing.”
Sumaiya Azom is a regular customer at Reshmi, because her husband Thouhid Chowdhury’s cousin works there. Azom’s husband picked up an iftar box last Saturday. Azom says she looks forward to Reshmi’s “mouth watering” biryani during Ramadan. She also enjoys the other items. “My favorite were the fried peppers. I took some from everyone’s box,” she says.
Weekends are by far the busiest time for Bangladeshi restaurants during Ramadan. Reshmi’s owner estimates the restaurant will make more than 150 boxes daily on Saturdays and Sundays when families get together for iftar parties. Nearby Aladdin Sweets & Cafe draws even more formidable numbers. At 19 years old, Aladdin is a mainstay in the Bangladeshi community in Hamtramck and many locals recommend its Ramadan boxes. In the evenings, Aladdin can get crowded with people there to pick-up their meals. Cashier Mohammad Uddin estimates that the restaurant sells roughly 200 boxes per day on weekdays and upwards of 500 meals per day on the weekends.
While the Detroit-Hamtramck area is known for its large Bangladeshi community, many Bangladeshi Americans and immigrant families also reside in the metro Detroit suburb of Warren. Bismillah Kabob, located behind a Burger King off 10 Mile and Ryan Road, is just one of the area businesses that caters to these locals during Ramadan with a hot buffet that gets loaded into styrofoam containers for a fast carryout dinner.
Mohibur Chowdhury, one of the owners of Bismillah Kabob, is taking the lead in running this year’s iftar dinner service. Chowdhury comes into the restaurant in the afternoons where he works until closing. He then goes home to change his clothes and attend tarawih (Ramadan prayers) at a nearby masjid, or mosque. “We have to prepare everything in the morning for 80 to 100 people,” Chowdhury says. The best part experience during Ramadan is watching the race to get food the fastests during the 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. “rush hour,” he says. In order to keep up with the seasonal demands brought on by Ramadan, Chowdhury and his business partner hired four additional workers.
Among those temporary workers is Abdul Jabbar, Bismillah’s jalebi chef. Jalebi is a dessert made from batter squeezed from a bottle into curly patterns in a deep fryer and then soaked in spiced simple syrup. It’s a common item in iftar boxes around Detroit. Bismillah Kabob sells more than 200 pounds of these orange-hued sweets daily, and nearly 500 pounds on the weekends. Jabbar works from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily to keep up with the demand for the chewy, deep-fried treats. A pound of regular jalebi is $5, or for two dollars more customers can buy a pound of jalebi flavored with ghee, or clarified butter. The jalebi sell out almost as fast as they hit the large metal chafing dish.
Unlike some of the other Bangladeshi restaurants in the area, Bismillah continues to sell its regular menu items during Ramadan. Chowdhury says that non-Muslim customers will come into his restaurant order off that regular menu— but they often leave with an iftar box instead.
Where to find Bangladeshi iftar boxes in metro Detroit:
- Reshmi Sweets & Cafe (Detroit): Ramadan hours are 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. The buffet is available from 4:30-8:30 p.m., and closes promptly after iftar.
- Hera Fish Market (Warren): Ramadan hours are 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
- Aladdin Sweets & Cafe (Hamtramck): Ramadan hours are noon to 8:30 p.m.
- Bismillah Kabob (Warren): Ramadan hours are noon to 9 p.m., with iftar boxes available starting at 3:30 p.m.