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Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Ramadan in Iraq - (Part 1) The cuisine & Ramadan food culture - Chicken with Red Rice, A Traditional Iraqi Recipe

The new edition of Nawal Nasrallah's book 
Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine
has just been released

"Ramadan is not the month for cooking or tasting experimentations, period. After long hours of fasting, people usually crave comfort foods, and expect to be pampered with the delicious traditional foods they have been dreaming of all day."  
                                  - Professor Nawal Nasrallah, author of 'Delights From the Garden of Eden: 
                                                                                     A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine'

Iraq is a country with a huge legacy and a history that dates back to the most ancient of times. It is the land where human civilisation first took shape, and one that continued to enrich human history for the longest time. It is therefore, not surprising that the Iraqi cuisine - being one of the oldest - is the reference for many food historians, as the cuisine not only has created recipes that are at the base of most modern cookery, but it also has some of the world's earliest records of cookery and recipes. When it comes to food heritage, Iraq is at the heart of it, influencing not only all Arabic cookery, but also more than a handful of the world's recipes. For this reason, I thought that Iraq is the best country to start with.
I have had the most pleasure in chatting about Ramadan in Iraq with professor Nawal Nasrallah. Her passion, input and knowledge about Iraqi cuisine, culture and history are so admirable that a chat with her is utterly interesting and so enriching. I have just recently discovered her blog: In My Iraqi Kitchenwhich I can safely say is the best find I have come across in a long time. Our chat about Ramadan in Iraq, the food and traditions was so interesting that I am dedicating two posts for Ramadan in Iraq. This post (Part 1) explores the Iraqi cuisine, cooking and eating traditions in Iraq during Ramadan, and tomorrow's (Part 2) will explore the cultural traditions of Ramadan in Iraq. This way you will get a thorough feel of how Ramadan is celebrated over there.

al- Shorja bazaar, Iraq
Photo by Nawal Nasrallah

The Iraqi cuisine 
is one rich with varieties, their tables are filled with delicacies throughout the year, and Ramadan is yet another occasion to celebrate such abundance of choice. Traditions and spirit are always derived from the history and evolution that eventually make up a culture, and Ramadan is not a departure from a country's traditions, in fact it is a time where traditions are highlighted giving each country it's unique spirit. The spirit of Ramadan is almost tangible in Iraq, and it appears in the country at least a couple of weeks before the beginning of the Holy month. The bazaars, which are usually located in the busy and crowded downtowns become especially crowded with shoppers who are stocking their pantries for the month's cooking. If you happen to be in Baghdad, that would be al-Shorja bazaar, the famous medieval market-place characteristic for its narrow alleys and roofed tops.

Moona is an Iraqi term for pantry, and is the term for pantry in most Arabic countries. The pronounciation might be different such as mooneh or mooni in the Levant.

One of the most characteristic aspects of Ramadan everywhere is the stocking of the pantry. People normally go shopping prior to Ramadan stocking their pantries with food items that they will use for cooking during the month. 
While some people mistake this pantry shopping for 'an urge to lavishly shop for the sake of shopping and producing lavish meals most of which go to waste', it is in fact not that. Stocking of the pantry is done to take away from the hardship of doing so during fasting, especially in hot summer days. 
Moona, is also a tradition based in the old days when most ingredients were not available all year round, and therefore people would prepare them and stock them during the seasons when they are abundantly available. 
Moona in Arabic cuisine is not limited to Ramadan, as most Arab cooks prepare moona all year long, to include pickling and jam making...etc. The tradition has lived on, although the assortments have become more limited today as most foods are available year long. So instead of storing vegetables and fruits, moona today is more about stocking the p[antry with preparations such as pickles, jams, lathers and so on.
During Ramadan home cooks will have to produce daily multiple-course meals for their families, and the different courses of the meal are made to allow the body to recover from a whole day's fast. The stocking of the pantry ensures that cooks have all the necessary ingredients on hand instead of having to shop while they are fasting.

This actually is in line with the spirit of Ramadan during which the fasting are required to rest and not do any strenuous or energy depleting activities

Photo of Dates by Nawal Narsrallah, to which I added the few lines

Ingredients of the Ramadan Pantry
"In normal circumstances, people in Iraq traditionally start to do some shopping for the kitchen pantry, usually referred to as moona, a couple of weeks or so before the arrival of the month of Ramadan. They are mostly dry foods, which keep well at room temperature such as: rice, sugar, flour, oil, vermicelli noodles known as sha’riyyaas well as nuts, legumes and spices such as baharat (a special spice blend) in addition to Numi Basra (dried Lime) and dried fruits such as raisins, prunes, and apricot known as turshana. And for making the sweet refreshing and thirst-quenching drinks called sherbetqamar id-deen (dried apricots sheets) as well as tamarind are essential." 
explains Nawal.

She says that it is not uncommon that the merchants choose to raise the prices for such in-demand-goods during this period, and shoppers with limited means may have to cut down on their shopping lists. But, generally, most families do not hesitate to strain their budgets to make these essential ingredients available before the advent of Ramadan so that they do not have to deplete their energies while fasting, especially if happens to be in the summer. Then once the ingredients are bought, some of the time and energy consuming preparations can also be done prior to the start of the month. She says: 

"Back in the days when electricity was still a dependable service, people used to stack their freezers with some pre-prepared foods, one or two weeks ahead of Ramadan. Foods like the elaborate and time-consuming kubba and boureg (stuffed and rolled thin sheets of dough) freeze very well. They can be taken out of the freezer whenever needed and boiled such as kubbat burghul (stuffed discs of Bulgar dough), or fried as with kubbat Halab (stuffed discs of rice dough) and poteta chap (stuffed discs of potato dough). 
Another special food preparation that takes place during the last week of Ramadan is that of making kleicha, the Iraqi national stuffed cookies, made to be consumed during the feast, which celebrates the end of Ramadan." 

Iraqi Dessert
Photo by Nawal Nasrallah
While the Iraqis cook more or less the same food during Ramadan as they do throughout the year, during Ramadan they tend to cook more of them and indulge more in the rich and elaborate dishes, such as dolma (assortment of stuffed vegetables) and sheikh mahshi (eggplant stuffed with meat), than they usually do on other days. According to Nawal, sweets such as Baklawa and zlabya (syrupy fritters) are available for purchase year round but are had once a month or so. However, in Ramadan, these sweets are enjoyed almost every day, which is why they have become evocative of the fun days of Ramadan.

"Lentil soup is customarily associated with Ramadan, although we also have it year round. It is believed to sooth the stomach with its warmth and prepares it for the big Iftar meal to follow; therefore, no Ramadan Iftar is complete without it. Equally so are the sweet drinks sherbet of tamarind and apricot." 

The Iftar Meal
"Like Muslims everywhere, we break the fast by having a few dates with a dairy drink, following the tradition of Prophet Muhammad. Scientifically, this has been proven to be sound: While the dates provide the body with the needed nourishment fast, the dairy drink helps prevent blood sugar from soaring too quickly. To date, all generations, old and young, honour this tradition."
Besides the dates and soup, people also make sure that the Iftar meal should include a stew dish of some sort, because the body needs to replenish the lost liquids during the long hours of fasting. Thus, whereas in ordinary days the meal may consist just of what is called nawashif, i.e. dry (sauceless) dishes like kebab, kubba, dolma and so on, the Ramadan meal should not be without stew, either served with rice, or prepared as thareed (broken pieces of flat bread sopped in the stew’s liquid) with chunks of lamb on the bone scattered all over it. Speaking of lamb, for Ramadan, generous amounts of meat are used in the prepared dishes because cooked thus the dishes are believed to be filling and nourishing, which is what the fasters need to sustain themselves.

Food of Choice
As is the case with almost all those who fast, Nawal seems to agree with the consensus of traditional cuisine being most preferred during Ramadan. She thinks that Ramadan is not the time for experimentation with cuisine and flavours, but rather one where comfort food of traditional cuisine are most appreciated. Furthermore, she says that she would not eat or serve fish during the month of Ramadan. "This custom does not have any religious or cultural reasons. Fish is avoided because it is notorious for inducing great thirst. You would not want to fill your stomach with lots of water to quench your thirst while there are lots of goodies waiting for you after the Iftar meal." she said. Also for the same reason, spicy and salty foods, such as curries and the popular condiment ‘amba (pickled mango) and pickled vegetables, are not recommended.

Breaking Fast at home or eating out
When I asked her about the Iraqi people's preference of breaking fast at home as opposed to hotel Iftar Buffets and restaurants she replied:

"For practical reasons, people usually avoid breaking their fast at restaurants. They simply cannot afford the ordering and waiting routines in such places. They need to have their meal ready for them the moment the Iftar time is announced. Besides, it is the custom to perform one's prayers after having a few dates with the dairy drink. The stomach thus will be given time to adjust for the onslaught of food coming soon. Besides, people feel lazy after the Iftar and need some time to recline and rest, and perhaps have a snooze. You cannot do these things when you are eating out."

Last minute shopping of fresh ingredients
Photo by Xenia
However, people do like to exchange visitations with friends and relatives later in the evening. They would be offered desserts and tea, and it is not unusual for such social gatherings to last until the wee hours of the night, when they would enjoy together a simple early sohour meal. This is possible only during the weekend though, when they do not have to wake up early for work.

When it comes to Sohour, Nawal explains that most people do not tend to have a big appetite for Sohour as it occurs in the early hours of the day, before sunrise. The majority would prefer to have light foods for Sohoor, such as bread with cheese and cucumber, fruits, heated up leftover lentil soup or hareesa (wheat porridge), along with light sweet tea, and, of course, water.


A traditional Iraqi Iftar menu consists of

Fresh or dried dates with shineena (yogurt drink)

Rice with stew cooked with lamb or chicken, served with fresh greens and herbs (Check the recipe below)
One or two kinds of Nawashif *

These dishes are usually accompanied with bread - either the commercially baked diamond-shaped sammoun or khubuz tannour (flat thin bread with bubbles all over the top, baked in domed clay oven tannour). 

Accompanied with this meal is sherbet, (a chilled sweet drink made with tamarind or qmar id-deen (apricot leather). People believe in their nourishing and great thirst-quenching qualities. 

The meal is ended with several rounds of sweet tea 
some homemade (usually easy to make) light sweets:
mahallabi (milk pudding) or 
halawat sha’riyya (Sweet ‘n Golden Vermicelli Noodles) the recipe will be posted in a following post.

After Iftar & later at night
Later in the night, store-bought baklawa (recipe coming up) and zlabya (syrupy fritters).

* Nawashif نواشف  in Iraq are dry dishes, with no sauce in them, unlike stew. These could be kebab (made with ground meat), or uroog (a mix of ground meat with spices, chopped parsley and onion, with some flour, shaped into patties and fried); and/or kubba, the fried variety, such as kubbat Halab (stuffed discs of rice dough) and poteta chap (stuffed discs of potato dough).


Traditional Iraqi dish - Chicken with Red Rice
Photo by Nawal Nasrallah

Nawal Nasrallah's
دجاج بالتمّن الاحمر 
Dijaj bil-Timman il-Ahmar (Chicken with Red Rice)
Serves 6

This recipe is from her book 'Delights from The Garden of Eden' which professor Nawal has very generously shared with us here. She said: 
"For a recipe to share with you, I choose 'Chicken with Red Rice', a nourishing and delicious dish. It is very convenient to cook as the stew sauce comes as a by-product of the dish itself, as you will see. It is very cooling in the summer, especially when served with yogurt."  

You Need
6 chicken portions of your choice (about 3 lb/ 1.35 kg), trimmed and skinned, if wished
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste (one 6-oz/ 180-g can) diluted in 6 cups (1.50 litres) hot water
1 teaspoon prepared noomi Basra (dried lime)
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
4 to 5 cardamom pods
1 bay leaf
2 cups (16 oz/ 450 g) rice, washed, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, then drained well

For garnish
sliced boiled eggs, toasted slivered almonds, fried briefly in a little oil with raisins

In a non-stick skillet, brown chicken pieces in oil, turning once to allow to brown on both sides, about 6 minutes. Arrange browned pieces in bottom of a heavy medium pot.

In the oil remaining in skillet, sauté onion until transparent, about 5 minutes. Scatter onion on chicken pieces in pot.

Add to pot the diluted tomato paste, noomi Basra, coriander, salt, pepper, cardamom and bay leaf. Bring to a quick boil, and then reduce heat to low, and simmer until chicken is tender, about 30 minutes.

Take out chicken pieces, and set aside at a warm place until serving time. Measure the remaining liquid. You need 4 cups (950 ml) for cooking the rice; the rest can be served in a bowl as extra sauce. Put drained rice in a heavy medium pot. Pour the measured 4 cups of liquid, and bring to a quick boil, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, fold rice gently, then let it simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes, folding rice gently 2 or 3 times to allow it to fluff.

To serve
Place the rice in a platter and surround it with the chicken pieces. Garnish with egg halves, almonds and raisins. Put any leftover sauce in a bowl and serve it with rice accompanied by a bowl of yogurt.


Her Iraqi Kitchen
Professor Nawal Nasrallah

Before moving to the United States in 1990, The Iraqi national, Nawal Nasrallah worked as a professor at the universities of Baghdad and Mosul in Iraq, where she taught English language and literature. 
She currently lives in US, New Hampshire, and in her capacity as an independent scholar, spends most of her time pursuing her passion for spreading the word about the legacy of the Iraqi cuisine and its culture. She does so by writing about it, translating important medieval culinary texts, and giving public talks about the subject, often coupled with cooking demonstrations of medieval and contemporary dishes. 
Professor Nawal is the published author of Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisinea new edition of which has just been released.

Professor Nawal is also the author of a food blog: In My Iraqi Kitchen in which she writes about "the Iraqi cuisine across the centuries, from Mesopotamian times, through medieval, and to the present." A blog that is really worth exploring, especially for those who are serious about their food knowledge, as Iraqi cuisine is one through which you understand so many other cuisines, especially the origin of recipes. Therefore, I highly recommend you subscribe to her blog and read through her fabulous and very informative posts.

All information, pictures and the Chicken with Red Rice recipe are provided by Professor Nawal Nasrallah and are her property. They are published on this blog with her permission. Please do not copy or use them without her permission.


Food For Thought
"Be clear like a mirror reflecting nothing. Be clean of pictures and the worry that comes with images." 
                                                                             - Jalal Ad-Din Muhammad Rumi 
(AKA Sufi Rumi)

I hope you have enjoyed getting to know Iraqi cuisine a little better and particularly some of this cuisine's Ramadan Cooking ingredients and traditions. This is just the food part, and tomorrow I will be exploring the culture of Ramadan in Iraq (part 2). 

I would love to hear your thoughts... Tell me about your Pantry stocking prior to Ramadan, do you do any stocking or do you only buy daily fresh ingredients? Also if you happen to know more about Iraqi cooking during Ramadan, please go ahead and share with us and help me keep the conversation alive :)

The world is beautiful, all its people are beautiful, all cultures equally important, and all the same in the end - all out there for us to explore...
Ramadan Kareem