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Thursday, 11 July 2013

Ramadan in Iraq - (Part 2) Cultural Traditions - 'Sweet ‘n Golden Vermicelli Noodles' A Traditional Iraqi Dessert

The Almost Tangible Spirit of Ramadan
From Communal breaking of fast, to ancient open markets filled with buyers and buzzing with sounds to after Iftar outdoor games played with the enthusiasm of the Mondial, and the qussakhoun (story tellers) entertaining customers of coffee houses during the evenings, to children trick or treating in their neighbourhoods, these are the colours of Ramadan's cultural traditions in Iraq. Over there, the Holy month is one filled with contemplation and after Iftar fun.

In yesterday's post I was telling you about the Iraqi cuisine and its Ramadan foods, but my conversation with professor Nawal Nasrallah did not stop there. As Ramadan in Iraq is way more than just the food.
As in all other countries, the Holy month in Iraq is one filled with contemplation done through observing the fast, praying and reading the Quran. Where people focus their energies on worship and on their spiritual side, and many would even devote most of the evening for prayer at the mosque. There too, most people observe the fast, contemplate, pray and devote their month to worship.

With that said, Ramadan in Iraq is a month of celebration, as Ramadan is to all Muslims. It is a a month filled with fun. Nawal described to me some of the beautiful Ramadan traditions in Iraq, many of which take place at the chaikhana (literally meaning teahouse) and referring to the traditional coffeehouse, patronized by males only. She said:
"There, the fun doubles during Ramadan when a storyteller (qussakhoun) entertains customers with exciting stories of romance and heroism. In addition, a very popular ring game, mheibis, is often played by teams from different neighbourhoods. Men would divide into two parties, covering their hands with a blanket. The ring is put in the hand of one of the participants and the other party has to guess in whose hand the ring is. One of them would stand up and rule out the empty hands by asking them to open them up, thus until guessing is narrowed down to the hand that has the ring. The penalty is a tray of baklawa and zlabya bought by the losing party to be shared by all."

The century old tradition of Majena
Photo by Mohammad Ali Al-Salim

The children too have fun enjoying the century old tradition of Majena, which is a kind of trick or treating they do for sweets and money. The children would go from door to door in their neighbourhood singing:

ماجينة ياماجينة           حلّ الجيس وانطبنا

تنطونا لو ننطيكم ؟           بيت مكّة نودّيكم

ياهل السطوح                تنطونا لو نروح ؟

Translated as, 
"Majena ya majeena, loosen your purse and give us some of what you have.Will you give us or shall we give you? We’ll take you to Mecca if you do so. You people on the roofs, are you giving us anything, or shall we leave? "

While some houses will give the children candies and sometimes money, other times all they get is a bucket of water poured on them by the roof people, and all they can do in return is to scurry away saying:

طشّوا علينا الماي أ هل الفُكُر 

طشّوا علينا الماي أ هل الفُكُر 

Translated as,
"Oh, we've been drenched in water!!Oh, the stingy ones, they drenched us in water!!"

Communal Breaking of the fast

Communal breaking of the fast is very common in Iraq. Ramadan is about Unity, not just with the immediate and extended family, but also with all other Muslims. Therefore, it is very common to see such gatherings of men to break fast together as a community.

These are just some of the colours of Ramadan in Iraq, but ones that actually give the Holy month its unique spirit, that which makes people anticipate and eagerly wait for celebrating this month every year.


Sweet 'n Golden Vermicelli Noodles, a traditional Iraqi dessert
Photo by Nawal Nasrallah
Nawal Nasrallah's
حلاوة شعرية
Halawat Sha’riyya (Sweet ‘n Golden Vermicelli Noodles)
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: 
"Sha’riyya is very thin wheat-noodles, similar to angel hair pasta. It is mostly sold in the form of balls (also called ‘nests’), available at Middle Eastern stores (labelled ‘thin noodles #1’)."

You Need
2 tablespoons butter plus 1 tablespoon oil (such as canola)
6 ounces (175 g) vermicelli noodles (about 7 balls)
2 ¼ cups (548 ml) hot water
A pinch of salt
1 cup (8 oz/ 225g) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon rose water
½ cup broken walnut pieces, optional

For garnish 

2 tablespoons coarsely ground pistachio

Melt butter with oil in a medium heavy pot. Slightly crush noodle balls between your fingers and add them, stirring constantly until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Carefully pour in hot water, and add salt. Stir, and bring to a quick boil, then lower heat and simmer, covered, until the noodles start to soften, 4 to 5 minutes.

Add sugar, cardamom, rose water, and walnut, if used. Stir until sugar crystals dissolve. Let the pot simmer, covered, on medium-low, stirring 2 or 3 times, until moisture is absorbed, noodles look glossy, and sugar starts to stick to the bottom of the pot (12 to 15 minutes).

Immediately, spread it on a platter, and give it a generous sprinkle of ground pistachio. Serve it warm. Leftovers may be refrigerated and heated for 30 seconds in the microwave when needed.

Halawat Sha'riyyah
Photo by Nawal Nasrallah


Professor Nawal Nasrallah 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. 
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 (unless otherwise indicated) and the Sweet 'n Golden Vermicelli Noodles 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
One's Biggest Challenge is Always The Self.

I hope you have enjoyed exploring what the Iraqi people do in Ramadan for fun. I would love to hear your thoughts, do let me know about your country's fun Rmadan Traditions... Do you have specific activities that become especially famous during Ramadan? Go ahead and share with us this way you will help me keep the conversation alive.

Come back tomorrow for traditional Old Fashioned Drinks 
Revived into New Ramadani Traditions :)

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