“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 Arab 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 and a chat with her is most interesting and so enriching. I have just recently discovered her blog: In My Iraqi Kitchen, which 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 (The Ramadan Cuisine & Food Culture in Iraq ) explores the Iraqi cuisine, cooking and eating traditions in Iraq during Ramadan, and the next post (The Cultural Traditions of Ramadan In Iraq) will explore the cultural traditions that give Ramadan its unique spirit in Iraq. This way you will get a thorough feel of how Ramadan is celebrated over there. Because these posts are part of my Ramadan Special, they focus on all things Ramadan, however the vast history and culture of Iraq are not fairly displayed in two short posts, nor are they limited to Ramadan and its foods and traditions. This is but a small exploration of one aspect. However I do hope that these posts spark and interest and that you go on exploring this country’s cuisine, culture and history that is not limited to the past decade, century or even millennia! Iraq (aka mesopotamia) is ancient as ancient can get and has contributed immeasurably to all food, cuisine, culture, history and all things human. And as such cannot be confined to a couple of posts, and a specific occasion to understand. It is a whole world to explore.
The Iraqi cuisine
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 happened to be in Baghdad, that would be al-Shorja bazaar, the famous medieval market-place, characteristic for its narrow alleys and rooftops.
Moona مونة (aka Mooneh)
Moona is an Iraqi term for pantry, and is the term for pantry in most Arabic countries. The pronunciation 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, don’t forget that the weather conditions in this part of the world are harsher especially during the summer when it can get extremely hot. Moreover, 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 storing ingredients, saucing, drying, 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 being concerned with storing vegetables and fruits, Moona today is more about stocking the pantry with preparations such as pickles, jams, leathers and so on.
During Ramadan, home cooks will have to daily produce 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 at 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 often and not do any strenuous or energy depleting activities.
Ingredients of the Iraqi Ramadan Pantry
“In normal circumstances, people in Iraq traditionally start to do some shopping for Moona (the kitchen pantry)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, sha’riyya (vermicelli noodles), as well as nuts, legumes and spices such as baharat(a special Iraqi cuisine spice blend) in addition toNoomi Basra(dried Lime) and dried fruits such as raisins, prunes, and apricot known asturshana. And for making the sweet refreshing and thirst-quenching drinks called sherbet, qamar id-deen (dried apricots juice made out of sheets of dried apricots, recipe on this link), as well as tamarind (recipe of tamarind juice on this link), 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 day, when electricity was still a dependable service in Iraqi cities, 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 (meat parcels filled with a mixture of cooked minced meat and pine nuts) 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 Bulgur 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 makingkleicha, the Iraqi national stuffed cookies, made to be consumed during Eid (the feast that celebrates the end of Ramadan).”
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 (recipe on this link) and zlabya (sweet and syrupy fritters, recipe on this link) 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
Nawal explains that “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 (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 flatbread sopped in the stew’s liquid, recipe on this link) 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.
A traditional Iraqi Iftar menu consists of
Fresh or dried dates with shineena (yogurt drink)
Lentil soup (recipe on this link)
Rice with stew cooked with lamb or chicken, served with fresh greens and herbs
(Check the recipe of Iraqi Red Rice on this link and check the stew recipe on this link)
One or two kinds of Nawashif *
* 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). 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, recipe on this link).
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, recipe on this link).
After Iftar & later at night
Later in the night, store-bought baklawa (recipe on this link) and/or
zalabya (recipe on this link).
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. 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.”
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 Sohour, 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.
- Find The Cultural Traditions of Ramadan In Iraq
- Find Nawal’s Halawat Shariyya (traditional Iraqi sweet noodles dessert) recipe on this link
- Find Nawal’s traditional Iraqi Red Rice recipe on this link.
Meet Professor Nawal Nasrallah
She is the published author of Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine, a new edition of which has just been released.
Professor Nawal is also the author of the 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.
All the information and pictures (unless otherwise indicated) 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 ancient cuisine’s Ramadan cooking ingredients and traditions. 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 we are here to learn more…