Medieval Egyptian and Modern Iraqi Recipes for Ramadan

15 April, 2022
Shorbat Māsh (Soup of Mung Beans شوربة ماش), a recipe from Delights from the Gar­den of Eden.


Nawal Nasrallah


After long hours of abstain­ing from food and drink, it is always a con­cern how to keep our bod­ies hydrat­ed and cooled. We nat­u­ral­ly seek foods and drinks known to deliv­er in this respect. Drinks made with tamarind and apri­cot paste (qamar ‘l‑dīn) , for instance, are at the top of the list. There is also a dish com­mon­ly known today as khushaf, which is made in many dif­fer­ent ways. Basi­cal­ly, it is dried fruits moist­ened or boiled in sug­ary solu­tions. The term is Turk­ish, which itself is derived from Per­sian, khoshab, a com­bi­na­tion of khosh+ab (moist, juicy). Its name is naqūʿ (moist­ened) in Arabic.

As we learn from medieval naqūʿ recipes that sur­vived in 14th-cen­tu­ry Egypt­ian cook­book, Kanz al-Fawāʾid fī Tan­wīʿ al-Mawāʾid كنز الفوائد في تنويع الموائد, only apri­cots were used, and they were steeped —not cooked—in the sug­ary solu­tion. One of them was par­tic­u­lar­ly sin­gled out for Ramadan (recipe giv­en below).

To the medieval Arab physi­cians and botanists, it was a dish to be esteemed. 12th-cen­tu­ry botanist Ibn al-Bayṭār, for instance, once wrote, “I do not think there is any kind of food that cools the stom­ach more than naqūʿ.” So, let’s heed the wisemen’s advice and make naqūʿ for Ramadan, a time when our bod­ies most need it.

From the same book, we also come across a Ramadan drink made with malt­ed bar­ley, called māʾ al-shaʿīr, lit­er­al­ly ‘bar­ley water’ (recipe below). It was believed to aid diges­tion and quench thirst. How cool can this be!

Here are the two recipes, deli­cious, and worth trying: 

naqūʿ (steeped apricots)

Recipe for نقوع naqūʿ (steeped apricots)

Take dried apri­cots and wash them with water until all the sand and impu­ri­ties are removed. Spread them in the sun to dry. Take a suit­able amount of vine­gar, and add sug­ar to it to sweet­en it. Also add ½ dirham (¼ tea­spoon) saf­fron, as well as aṭrāf ṭīb (spice blend), musk, rose­wa­ter, as need­ed. Stir this liq­uid sea­son­ing mix (mizāj) by hand, and then set it aside from ear­ly in the morn­ing until noon, all the while keep­ing the apri­cots in the sun [to dry].

Now, take a wide-mouthed jar (barniyya), either porce­lain (ṣīnī) or ceram­ic (qīshānī); wash it, dry it, and per­fume it with the smoke of aloeswood and amber­gris. Close the open­ing of the jar [while doing this,] so that it is infused with enough smoke (bakhūr).

Take the apri­cots, put them in the jar and pour on them the pre­pared liq­uid. Top the sur­face with musk and rose­wa­ter, and set it aside for a while. [The apri­cots are eat­en, and] the liq­uid is served in small bowls (sakārij) as a sweet and clear drink after fil­ter­ing it.

For Ramadan days, make it ear­ly in the morn­ing and serve it in the evening [with the ifṭār meal]. Dur­ing the non-fast­ing days, make it at night and serve it the fol­low­ing morning.


Malt­ed bar­ley drink.

Recipe for a drink of malt­ed bar­ley (māʾ al-shaʿīrماء الشعير ) for the month of Ramadan

Take picked over bar­ley grains, soak them in water overnight and drain them ear­ly the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Spread them on a large bas­ket, and weigh them down [by cov­er­ing them with chard leaves and stones spread on top]. Wait until they sprout, and then dry them in the sun, and fine­ly grind them into flour.

Now, take ½ qadaḥ (a lit­tle under half a kilo, or approx. 1 pound) of this flour, as well as ¼ qadaḥ wheat flour, and put them in an earth­en­ware tub (mājūr). Sep­a­rate­ly, boil water in a large pot; pour a lit­tle of it first into the tub, and stir it with a ladle, then add the rest of the hot water—enough to sub­merge the flour mix. Set it aside for the rest of the day and overnight, so that it sours. Ear­ly in the morn­ing, add more cold water to fill the tub, and set it aside for two more days.

On the third day, add leaves of cit­ron (turunj) and sour orange (nāranj) to it, along with leaves of rue and mint. Cut 10 lemons in half and add them to the tub. Add just enough salt to give it a pleas­ant taste. In the evening of that day, take the amount you want to serve, strain it, squeeze some lemon juice into it, add sug­ar, musk, and rose­wa­ter, and it will be ready to drink.

A Bowlful of Soup for Ramadan

In the Arab world, it is not cus­tom­ary to offer soup on a dai­ly basis as an appe­tiz­ing course that her­alds a meal, as is done in the West­ern regions, for instance. Often­times, soup is the main dish itself, cer­tain­ly with some bread, per­haps along with sal­ad, a sand­wich and the like. The soups we make are quite sub­stan­tial, what with the veg­eta­bles, beans, grains, option­al cuts of mut­ton on the bone or meat­balls. That is, except when it is Ramadan.

For Ramadan, no Iftar meal is com­plete with­out a bowl­ful of soup to start the meal, to hydrate and pre­pare the sys­tem for the feast to follow.

As a vari­a­tion on the cus­tom­ary Ramadan lentil soup (shorbat ʿadas), here is one made with mung beans, very pop­u­lar in Iraq. It is also quite appro­pri­ate for the dawn meal (saḥūr), nour­ish­ing and sat­is­fy­ing. Ramadan Karīm.    

The fol­low­ing recipe is from my cook­book Delights from the Gar­den of Eden. 

Shorbat Māsh (Soup of Mung Beans شوربة ماش)

1½ cups (12 oz) whole mung beans, washed and soaked for an hour, and drained 
2 tea­spoons salt
1 tea­spoon ground cumin
¼ tea­spoon black pepper 
2 table­spoons olive oil
1 medi­um onion, fine­ly chopped
2 table­spoons flour
½ tea­spoon turmeric
Lemon juice, to taste

In a medi­um heavy pot, put the mung beans and cov­er them by two inch­es or more with cold water. Bring the pot to a quick boil, skim­ming froth as need­ed, then reduce heat to low. Let it sim­mer gen­tly, cov­ered, for about 30 min­utes, or until the mung beans soft­en. Stir in salt, cumin, and pepper.

In a small skil­let, sauté the chopped onion in oil until gold­en brown. Stir in the flour and turmer­ic and fold until the mix emits a fra­grance, less than a minute. Imme­di­ate­ly emp­ty the skil­let into the pot, and stir. To deglaze the skil­let, add a ladle­ful of the soup to it, stir it to dis­lodge any flour and onion that might have stuck to it, and emp­ty it into the soup pot. Sim­mer it for addi­tion­al five min­utes, and serve it with a squeeze of lemon.

Bon appetit, sahtain!


Arab cuisineEgyptian cookingIftarIraqi cuisineRamadan

Nawal Nasrallah is an independent Iraqi scholar, passionate about cooking and its history and culture, formerly a professor at the universities of Baghdad and Mosul. An award-winning researcher and food writer, she is the author of Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine, the winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2007. She has also published Dates: A Global History. Her English translation of Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook Kitab al-Tabeekh, entitled Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens (Brill, 2007), was awarded "Best Translation in the World" and "Best of the Best of the Past 12 Years" of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2007. Nawal gives talks, cooking demos and classes and presentations on Middle Eastern cuisine, ancient, medieval, and present.


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