Iraqis seek blessings with centuries-old tradition of donating food during Muharram

Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar and Shiites mark it with myriad rituals

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It is that time of the year again in Iraq. The aroma of ceremonial food cooked slowly in large pots over a wood fire wafts through the air in several cities.

It is Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, a time that Shiites mark with different rituals.

The 10th of Muharram in 680AD marked the death Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Hussein bin Ali, outside the city of Karbala in modern-day Iraq.

Shiites mark the occasion each year by serving free food to mourners, pilgrims and neighbours.

That food is meant as a blessing for the soul of Imam Hussein and Shiites also ask forgiveness, to atone for their own sins.

Although the event is observed in several countries, the mourning period in Iraq is different.

It is not confined to the 10th day, known as Ashura, but lasts until the middle of the following month of Safar, to mark Arbaeen, which means 40 in Arabic. The traditional length of mourning is 40 days.

Several dishes are prepared for this occasion, but the main meal is the timman and qeema, or rice with a thick stew of chickpeas and diced meat.

“People from all backgrounds seek blessing in these meals,” Ali Hameed, a chef from Baghdad’s Shiite district of Kadhimiya, told The National.

“Those who cook or eat, whether poor or rich, seek blessings and forgiveness in these dishes, as well as other rituals."

People from all background seek blessing in these meals
Ali Hameed

Cooking qeema requires many steps and a collective effort.

The meat and chickpeas are boiled separately, before being mixed in a vat without water. The soft mixture is fried, with fat and wedges of onion added.

When the onion and meat turn a dark golden brown, boiled water is added to start the most important step: stirring and mashing.

The mixture is cooked for hours, with tomato juice and paste, salt and ground dried lime added, as well as spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, cubeb, cloves, cumin and black pepper.

Long-grain rice, preferably basmati, is cooked in other pots. Before it is cooked completely, saffron is added and the rice is covered without stirring. When it is cooked, it is stirred and served.

Qeema varies depending on where it is cooked and there are three types in Iraq, Mr Hameed said. What makes them different is the amount of ingredients and the way they are cooked, which affects the thickness and taste slightly.

The most famous is prepared in the southern province of Najaf, where cooks mainly use beef or camel meat, with the bones, and whole chickpeas. The recipe requires equal amounts of meat and chickpeas mashed together.

The type cooked in Kadhimiya is a mixture of mutton and beef, with split chickpeas. The meat is half the amount of the chickpeas and the ingredients are stirred instead of mashed.

The third kind is affiliated with Karbala which is closer to Kadhimiya’s stew.

The three areas are home to revered Shiite shrines.

Another famous meal is harissa, a stew of wheat and lamb. Like qeema, harissa is slowly cooked until it reaches the consistency of porridge. When served, it is topped with cinnamon, sugar and hot fat.

Other meals are sometimes served, or people are simply offered tea and cookies, but it is always free of charge.

It is not known why qeema and harissa are associated with Muharram.

Some have suggested the plight of Imam Hussein provides the inspiration and there is a theory that, during the battle, his brother Abbas tried to bring water from the Euphrates, only for his water hide to be pierced with an arrow.

The word qeema could be traced back even further because it means “finely chopped” in the ancient Akkadian language.

Ancient culinary history

The world’s oldest cookbooks were discovered in Iraq in the last century. Three clay tablets, written in cuneiform script and dating to about 1700 BC, are now housed at the Babylonian Collection of Yale University.

They give cooking instructions for more than two dozen Mesopotamian dishes, including stews made of lamb or pigeon meat, a turnip dish and a kind of poultry pie.

Culinary arts flourished when Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate from the eighth to 13th centuries and many cookbooks have been preserved from that period.

For the fourth consecutive year, Safa Karim and his neighbours in the Ghazaliya district of Baghdad have donated money to fund the cooking of meals for Muharram.

This year, they raised about 1.75 million Iraqi dinars ($1,200). Eight pots were placed in a street as young Shiite men dressed in black stirred the ingredients in a process that takes about seven hours.

Posters of Imam Hussein and black banners, some calligraphed with Islamic slogans, were draped on the houses and hung across the street as chants mourning and glorifying the Imam blaring from loudspeakers.

“By commemorating the death of Imam Hussein and sharing the sorrow with the Prophet Mohammed’s family, we are trying to be close to them and to seek their intercession,” said Mr Karim, 43.

When Muharram begins, Iraqis bring small pots to places that meals are cooked.

That passion inspired Muntadhar Hussein to start his timman and qeema in Ghazaliya Facebook group in 2020. It keeps residents updated with news on gatherings in the sprawling district and now has about 6,000 followers.

“The aim is to help the poor find out the locations and to help our brothers, the Sunnis, who love eating qeema,” Mr Hussein, 26, told The National.

“This is the month of the poor and those with limited incomes."

Updated: August 25, 2022, 6:35 PM