Ode to Kitchri

A Jewish Iraqi delicacy that was served every Thursday evening is still popular in communities around the world.

by Dr. Ilana Sasson

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Imagine walking through the narrow alleys of Hinnuni, or Bab el-Shargi, two of the many Jewish neighborhoods of Baghdad, on a Thursday afternoon sometime in the first half of the 20th century. No doubt you would be engulfed by the fragrance of  kitchri simmering in every kitchen. Thursday’s main meal was always dairy — a simple dish that they called ‘the meal of the poor.’ This was how the community eased into Friday, when each household would serve a festive Shabbat meat dinner.

kitchri 3Thursday was also laundry day. On Wednesday afternoons laundry women, known as ghassalas, would flock to the Jewish neighborhoods from the outskirts of the city, where they would be hired to wash the laundry of the large Jewish families. The ghassalas would sleep in their employers’ houses in order to be able to get up before dawn to begin their day by squatting in the inner courts and tending to the huge tanks of boiling water sitting on top of kerosene burners. They would spend the rest of the day grating blocks of laundry soap, scrubbing, washing, rinsing, and finally wringing piles of linens and clothing.  Their strong hands would be immersed in sudsy hot water up to their elbows, their fingers like prunes, their bracelets chiming gently. The ghassalas’ teenage daughters would join them in the morning and spend the day running up and down the stairways carrying the heavy loads of wet laundry to hang on rooftop lines to dry. While the ghassalas tended to the laundry, the women in the kitchen prepared kitchri.

Jewish Iraqi cuisine is very conservative and prescribed. Recipes are followed to the letter. The repertoire is impressive, but no deviations are allowed. Every Iraqi woman makes the same aruk (griddle cakes), kubba burghul (bulgar kubba), kubba hamodh (sour kubba), kubba shwandar (kubba in root beet sauce), the same mukhallala (pickled root beet) and the same babe btamar (date cookies).  Yet, when it comes to kitchri, each household follows its own tradition. The common ingredients are rice, red lentils and cumin. Most garnish their kitchri with garlic fried in butter. Some begin by frying an onion. Some include tomato paste, others turmeric. No matter which tradition you follow, the fragrance is irresistible. My mother, Ora Sasson (née Mun?ra Darzi, who was born in Baghdad and now lives in Holon, Israel), begins by sautéing an onion in butter, oil, salt, and tomato paste. She then puts in rinsed rice and red lentils, adds water and simmers until the lentils are dissolved and the rice cooked. She melts butter, garlic and cumin in a frying pan for garnish. After the rice and lentils are cooked, she pours the garnish on top and mixes thoroughly.

Tomato paste, like most other condiments in Iraq in those days, was home made. In the summer, when tomatoes where abundant, the man of the house would go to the market and bring home boxes of them. They were washed thoroughly and then whoever was available, mostly children, would spend hours squeezing them with their little hands. The crushed tomatoes would then be put into large metal bowls and taken to the roof to dry in the sun. At night they would be covered for protection from debris and pollutants, and in the morning someone would remove the cloth and stir the thickening mush. This was repeated for a few days until the right consistency was reached. Then the paste would be put into smaller ceramic bowls called burniyyis and taken to be stored in the cool basement.

The kitchri of my aunt Shula Darzi (née Suh?m Shammai, who was born in Amara, southeast Iraq, and lives in Holon), comes out yellow, not orange like my mother’s, because she uses turmeric rather than onions and tomato paste. So, too, is the recipe that my friend Elie Yeshua (née Liyy?hu Shua, born in Hanaqin, northeast of Baghdad, and living in Teaneck, New Jersey) follows, his mother’s legacy. My friend Hagit’s mother, Aliza Goral (née Louise Dudi, born in Basra, south Iraq, living on Kibbutz Beeri), remembers that in her family they used purified butter made of buffalo milk.

Thursday evening, the ghassalas would be paid their wages, and given a big bowl of kitchri to feed their own families. Jewish families would gather around their dining-room tables and  the kitchri would be served. Kitchri is not merely a dish; it is an entire meal, always served with creamy yogurt on top, alongside fried eggs, and accompanied by a salad of finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, and lots of parsley, dressed with sesame oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper. To show their appreciation, people at the table would thank the cook saying, “ashtidek” (may your hands live).

Jews lived in Iraq for 2,500 years. The Iraqi diaspora is the oldest Jewish community outside the Land of Israel. Soon after they arrived, the exiles took heed of the Prophet Jeremiah’s advice:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

The Jews lived peacefully among their non-Jewish neighbors. Their communities prospered. The first Jews exiled to Babylon in the fifth century BCE were Hebrew speakers, but they quickly adopted the local language, Aramaic, including its writing system. Hebrew script, or square script, is not really a Jewish invention, rather it is credited to the gentile Aramaic speakers of antiquity. The Jews can only be credited as the guardians of this script. First used as a secular language, Aramaic eventually was used in liturgy and prayer as well. Soon after the spread of Islam, in the seventh century CE, when Arabic replaced Aramaic, Iraqi Jews adopted the new language, spiced with terms and vocabulary from Hebrew and Aramaic.  Jews retained their medieval Arabic as they remained a constant entity in a land that went through population shifts and migrations.  As a consequence, it was the Jews who held on to the language of the past.

After 2,500 years of sojourn, Jews left Iraq in the early 1950s. Most of those whose mother tongue was that unique dialect of Jewish-Iraqi Arabic are now departing this world one by one. But the Thursday kitchri tradition is alive and well. Perhaps not in the narrow alleys of Hinnuni or Bab el-Shargi, but in households all over the world, the fragrance of kitchri continues to fill the air. It was indeed on a recent Thursday afternoon that my 24-year-old son called from across the continent and asked me to guide him through the preparation of kitchri. I knew I had done something right.

Join in the tradition with these kitchri recipes provided by Dr. Sasson!

Dr. Ilana Sasson’s parents emigrated to Israel from Iraq in the 1940s. She received her Ph.D. from the department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages of the Jewish Theological Seminary. She currently teaches Bible and religion at Sacred Heart University.