Salem’s Market and Grill, an international food emporium and restaurant at 2923 Penn Avenue, opened in 2010 as a larger version of the Salem family store that had originated in Oakland. During the past eight years it has been warmly welcomed by locals plus the lunch crowd from nearby tech giants. Muslim shoppers from around Pittsburgh have been especially appreciative of the wide selection of religiously correct halal meat.

    What may not be as well known is that the generous family, through the store, plays an important role in the religious obligation to feed others in the community, especially those who cannot afford food themselves. Beyond the obligation is the benefit to earn religious rewards.

    All-natural lamb chops

    All-natural lamb chops

    “Religious rewards are good deeds that one has done,” explains Abdullah (Abdul) Salem. “They will be taken into account on Judgment Day. Everything is based on them as in every religion. I think of it, as a scale. I’m trying to tip my scale as far as possible to
    good deeds.”

    The obligation takes on even greater meaning during the holy month of Ramadan, the joyous holiday that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Mohammed. To emphasize the importance of the holiday, good deeds are multiplied 70 times. For Ramadan, which is from May 6 to June 4 this year, there is an obligation to fast—known as sawm in Arabic—from dawn to sundown; regular activities are continued, however.

    Abdul points out that if you give people food for the meal breaking the fast, called Iftar, you get your rewards plus their rewards and it doesn’t reduce theirs. “I was in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan and went to a mosque to pray and break fast,” Abdul recalls. “This kid outside the mosque grabs me and starts taking me somewhere. I’m thinking, ‘Where am I going?’ Turns out it was to where his dad had placed plastic on the floor. He had brought dates and samosas from his house just trying to find as many people as possible to feed.” Pittsburgh-area mosques serve free food for anybody who comes in, sponsored by congregants doing good deeds at this happy time.

    All-natural filet mignon kabobs

    All-natural filet mignon kabobs

    The day-long fast can be difficult during summer months when dawn comes at 4:00 a.m. and sundown at 9:00 p.m., requiring planning to make it through the day. Some people eat all night so they don’t have to worry about breakfast, or wake up and drink two or three espressos to have their daily caffeine jolt. Or they will have a breakfast meal called suhoor before fasting begins. Ful, an Egyptian dish of fava beans cooked with garlic, tahini, and spices, is a common dish for suhoor, as is bread with cream and honey. “I eat a light dinner at break fast,” says Abdul. “I wake up and have a liter and a half of water and that way I’m hydrated all day.”

    Iftar is what Salem’s offers at a buffet for all who come. It was originally served indoors only but now encompasses an outdoor tent because, says Abdul, “my wife, Liza, kept bugging me” to do it. She was right, as it helped to alleviate some of the rush. “Liza is really the brains of the operation,” he admits, “keeping on top of everything that is required during Ramadan.”

    Dates are traditionally eaten first for Iftar because Prophet Mohammed did so, but that fruit is not obligatory. Indeed, what is eaten first for Iftar, or at the rest of the meal, is as culturally varied as the many food customs enjoyed at Christmas or Rosh Hashanah. In Egypt, where Abdul’s mother is from, logma—fried, really sweet dough balls—are a popular first dish. In Libya, natal home of his father, it is samosas or soup. “It depends on what your mom made,” notes Abdul, stating a universal truism—although satisfying your inner craving, or sudna, is also an important factor. Liza breaks her fast with diet Dr. Pepper, for example.

    Ramadan is intense at the store. In addition to the very well attended buffet, Salem’s caters for 500 to 2,000 more people per day who break fast elsewhere. There was a big a challenge once when a mosque called to say that there was some confusion over sponsorship for that day; 500 meals were needed in an hour. “I took food off the buffet,” Abdul recalls. “We cooked as fast as we could. We struggled through it. Fortunately, our chefs have the recipes down pat. For them it doesn’t matter that they are fasting. They are cooking all day blindly, and they just have to make sure that they don’t go crazy on the salt.” He says that sometimes they may go out to the restaurant, feed a customer, and ask if the salt is okay. His father used to ask the same question of a passerby near their Oakland store.

    Grilled red snappper

    Grilled red snappper

    Salem’s Iftar buffet is open to everybody. There’s an international flavor, from the vast mix of people to the rotating menu of 25 items. Dishes include fried chicken, roast lamb, goat curry, vegetarian dishes, salads, and fruits.

    “Ramadan is a wonderful time, the best time,” emphasizes Abdul. “It is like Christmas every day for a month.”

    The cost of the Ramadan buffet is $15.99, $7.99 for kids 4-12, and free for children under 4. However, Abdul says that “anybody who comes in and doesn’t have money for food we feed. It is part of what makes Salem’s what it is. We’ll also send food home for the family. We are always contributing to the community.”

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is a freelance writer whose articles about art and food appear regularly in multiple publications. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has recently completed a biography about noted abstract expressionist artist Sonia Gechtoff. She lives in Mt. Lebanon.
    Photography by Greger Erickson

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