The Purim snack from the Marshlands of Iraq
A brief history of khirret
Hello, Snackers. Today on Snack Stack:
Screenshot from a video about how to make khirret (embedded below)
Candy made from the pollen of bardi, a kind of reed. Crunchy and a bit chalky.
Find it in
Iraq, particularly the areas around the southern Marshlands (the Ahwar).
The Ahwar marshlands of Southern Iraq may be best known outside the country for their elaborate floating houses, known as mudhif, that made out of reeds called ihdri. No mere straight-angled huts, these are ornate structures with barrel roofs supported by thick reed beams that arch from one side of the building to the other, and lattice panels to let air flow through. (Seriously, go check out some photos.) Their architects, builders, and residents, the Marsh Arabs, have lived in in the area for thousands of years, but their current population isn’t known—as Reuters noted after the Ahwar was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, “A study put their population at 400,000 in the 1950s but several hundred thousand fled Saddam's repression or become economic migrants.”
Khirret is a candy from the region made with the pollen of a different kind of reed, bardi, which you might also recognize as a kind of cattail, that wetland plant with a corndog-looking spike. When it’s pollinating, that spike is covered with cotton candy-like clump of bright yellow pollen which is highly nutritious. Most pollen harvesting is done by women and children. The pollen is then dried, sifted (to remove anything else that might have slipped in), mixed with sugar (or date syrup) and water, steamed inside a cloth, and pressed into mustard-yellow hunks (you can see the process in the video below).
According to Iraqi scholar Nawal Nasrallah, for many years, khirret was especially popular as a Purim treat sold by Baghdadi Jewish vendors, until the Iraqi Jewish community largely fled to Israel following midcentury repression. (There’s a whole history there, of course, and I don’t mean to gloss over it, but I will direct you to other sources that can do it more justice.)
If you go looking khirret today, you’ll probably need to confine your search to Iraq. Nasrallah found that the treat didn’t make the trip to Israel:
Through correspondence with the Israeli scholar Dr. Susan Weingarten, I learnt that Jewish Iraqis never took the khirret tradition with them to Israel. The new generation growing up there never had the chance to experience it first hand. To them it is just a faint memory. They told her that their parents talk about it, and they describe it as looking like a stone when held in hand, and that they used to eat it around springtime. She speculates that it is quite likely that the yellow coconut sweets they make for Purim in Israel must have been a substitute for the hard-to-find original yellow khirret.
Here’s a video, in Arabic, showing the process of making khirret (you can also see some reed houses in the background):
Get it here
Look around the souks of Basra and Nasiriyah or find a vendor in the Ahwar.
Will you like it?
In My Iraqi Kitchen: “Khirret (cattail/Typha pollen) خرّيط: Gift of the Marshes in Southern Iraq, and the Joyous Festival of Baghdadi Jews”
Green Prophet: “Khirret, A Vanishing Iraqi Sweet Made from Cattails”