HOLIDAY FOOD – Mlukhiyya and the Old New Year

23 Jan 2004

According to the Julian calendar, the New Year commences on the evening of January 13. When I saw the date was imminent, I realized the time had come to cook mlukhiyya—the mlukhiyya of Ras al-am al-‘adjmi, the ‘Foreign New Year’, which my mother calls the ‘New Year of the Blacks’. In the course of time, the term ‘adjmi has taken on different meanings: in the initial period of Islam, it was used to refer to the Persians in particular, but subsequently it was extended to all those who weren’t Arabs in general, bar Europeans, who have always been called Rum, or Romans. In my family, the day was made special by a special dish: mlukhiyya.

But first things first. When I phoned from Turin to ask my sister in Biserta, Tunisia, to find out the exact date of Ras al-am al- ‘adjmi, I can’t tell how astonished I was to hear her reply that she had no idea! “I’ll go and check the calendar,” she said.

The Tunisian calendar is the emblem of the meeting of many different times that live together peacefully. It is bilingual, Arab-French, and it is made up, de facto, of three different calendars: the Islamic, the Julian and the Gregorian. It consists of a collection of 365-366 sheets of about 12cm by 8, that are torn off one by one, day by day. On each sheet appear two different years and four different names of months, the times of the five daily Muslim prayers, Islamic feast days, the Gregorian New Year, the Julian New Year (or ‘Old’ New Year, Ras al-am al-‘adjmi), national holidays and other dates tied to agricultural cycles. The only common feature is the day of the week! If, for example, we take the day of Ras al-am al-‘adjmi, we see: Wednesday 21 Dhû-l-qa’da 1424, 14 January 2004, 1st Yanayer, Djumbur. The first two dates belong, respectively, to the calendar of the Egira (the lunar year containing 354-355 days) and the Gregorian calendar (the civil year); the third date belongs to the Julian calendar, and the last cites the Arab month, in use in Egypt and the Middle East. If this calendar also contained the Jewish liturgical year, it would be absolutely perfect.

The date of our Ras al-am al-‘adjmi clashes with the Staryj Novj God, the pre-Revolutionary Russian New Year, but it was introduced into Africa long before it was ever adopted in Russia. Proof of the fact is a whole set of historical data, too long to cite here. The Julian calendar, which became ‘adjmi after the advent of Islam, is tied to the cycle of the seasons and agricultural rites. The day of ‘adjmi inaugurates a cycle of disquieting nights, the coldest of the year. In the first decade (ten days), these nights is known as the ‘clear nights’ or ‘white nights’ . In the subsequent decade, they are known as ‘dark nights’ or ‘black nights’ (during which trees are supposed to grow). The third decade is called al-‘azara, and the succession of periods of ten days evidently corresponds to the three decades of the Julian month of January, or Yanâyer ‘adjmi, and evokes an ancient conception of the month as being divided into periods of ten days as opposed to seven.

According to the Algerian and Moroccan calendar, the Berber New Year, Amenzu Yennayer, falls on the twelfth of the Gregorian month of the year 2954! It has become a symbolic feast of Berber identity and in France is much celebrated by the immigrant artistic community. The origin of the feast is attributed to the advent to the Egyptian throne of a Berber, Sheshonk, (Sheshonq or Shashnaq in other transcriptions). He became Pharaoh and founded the twenty-second dynasty in the year 950 BC. He is said to originate from Tlemcen, a city in the north-west of Algeria. But, as the founder of the twenty-second dynasty, a Libyan dynasty, he was probably a member of the Mashawas tribe, who had settled in an oasis in Egypt generations previously.

On an Algerian website I found a description of the culinary tradition typical of the feast, which bears the specific name of Imensi useggas. According to region and the means of each person, a propitiatory sacrifice is carried out, usually of a chicken, though it could also be a soup of dried pulses, or pancakes with 12 holes in them (one for each month of the year), or a couscous of meat and dried pulses. Another habit is to arrange spoons round the dishes for those who are not present.

I know firsthand that in Tunisia, on the day of the Julian New Year, in some Muslim circles we cook mlukhiyya. The same dish is cooked for the Islam NewYear, the first Moharram, but without garlic. On account of its green color dish is said to augur a ‘green’ or prosperous new year. It is made from Corchorus olitorus, commonly known as garden mallow or Jews’ mallow). The Arab term, mlukhiyya or melukhiyya according to the pronunciation, derives from the Greek malakhi.

Mlukhiyya is said to date from ancient times, and depictions of it have apparently been found in the tombs of the Pharaohs. The oriental recipe is different from the Tunisian and Moroccan ones. Tunisians can’t stand the Egyptian and Syrian mlukhiyya and vice versa. I have read the comments of a Syrian gastronome about our version of mlukhiyya. His mother, he wrote, ‘… would have choked out of indignation’, if she had heard that we let it cook for hours, since ‘mallow takes no more than a couple of minutes to cook’. It’s true that the two dishes are completely different. It’s the stickiness of Egyptian mlukhiyya, made with fresh leaves, that Tunisians find impossible to stomach. Thanks to a whole night’s cooking, the mlukhiyya powder (we in Tunisia use the dried leaves only), mixed with plenty of olive oil and diluted with liters of water, loses its sticky texture and the resulting sauce is a delight for the eye and for the palate. It turns into a sticky coulis, almost black in color. It is made with beef and even a bit of tripe, though the best version comes with young camel meat. The meat, chopped into bits and seasoned with caraway, coriander, ground red chili and salt, is added to the sauce two hours before it is expected to be ready. Orange peel and a couple of bay leaves may also be thrown in. The garlic, preferably whole and unpeeled, is removed at the end, when a sprinkling of dry mint provides a delicious finishing touch. During the long hours of cooking, the atmosphere is impregnated with the inebriating, persistent aroma which the French doctor and scholar Dr Ernest-Gustave Gobert, writing in the mid-twentieth century, described as ‘un parfum fort agréable’’.
To each his own mlukhiyya… but the Tunisian version is, without doubt, the best!

Adapted by John Irving

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