The monotheistic world often forgets that the three major faiths of which it consists have common origins, texts and references, despite the fact they are eternally in conflict, if not at war, among themselves. Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all born of Semitic peoples, warrior shepherds used to eating meat, milk and cereals, men and women whose homes were often a tent and their only wealth a flock. Yes, a flock – lambs, ewes and rams. What is dearer to a nomadic shepherd, than his sheep? Goods that move by themselves, that provide sustenance, drink, clothing and skins. And if God should request the sacrifice of what is dearest to us, if not a son, then here’s a ram. Like Abraham with young Isaac (who, for the Muslims, is Ishmael, son of Agar, an Egyptian slave who gave the patriarch a son before the elderly Sarah did), who climbs breathlessly up a mountain, hiding the real reason for the hard climb from the child. He swallows the pain when he raises the knife over the boy, but God stops his hand and causes another innocent victim – a lamb – to be slain in Isaac’s place.
Since then, the sacrificial lamb has been slaughtered in memory of Abraham’s faith. The metaphor of sacrifice remains for the Jews and the Catholics, who commemorate it in all their liturgies (the ‘Lamb of God’), while for Muslims around the world on the ninth day of Dhul-hijja 1422 (Friday February 22 2002, exactly two months and 10 days after the end of Ramadan) the blades will be raised for the Feast of Aid el Kebir, or Aid el Adha, the great feast of the sacrifice or of the ram commemorating Abraham’s submission to God.
On that day, in all Muslim families, a ritual is celebrated which, unfortunately, is usually only remembered for the cruel aspect of cutting the animal’s throat, but it also has a profound meaning of union and solidarity within the Islamic community. This is also true for Muslims in non-Muslim countries. Sanaa, a Moroccan, has been a resident of Dogliani, the little Langhe town where I live, for about 10 years. I asked her to tell me exactly what happens on the morning of Aid el Kebir. Italian law demands that animals be killed and butchered in an authorized abattoir, but this is not always possible. In any case, at about seven o’clock in the morning Muslims go to the Mosque, or the nearest prayer center (in more remote areas, the celebration can take place at home). Here an Imam (or anyway, a man) recites the bismillah, an invocation in Allah’s name. This prayer always precedes a sacrifice. Then the slaughter proceeds with a clean cut to the jugular vein (the dhabh, cutting the throat). The animal is butchered according to the precepts of halal of course, which allow the blood to drain completely away. Islamic butchers always take care that the animal does not suffer more than necessary and try to kill it with the first blow. The sheep is skinned with the help of the women, disemboweled and hung up for a day. The first parts of the lamb to be consumed are the heart, liver and lungs, used for kebabs, which constitute the first meal of Aid, towards 10am. The shoulder is prepared for couscous, to be served to the whole family at about 2pm. In the evening, more kebabs are prepared using the legs and the leftover couscous is be eaten up. Tradition demands that part of the sheep is donated to the less well-off, who cannot afford a whole animal, because it is not fair for them to forego the feast of the sacrifice. It is the duty of every good Muslim to share what they have with the poor and zakat, alms, is one of the pillars of Islam.
I asked Sanaa what happens to the leftover sheep. Nothing is wasted, she explained, not even the head (mbakhar), which is cooked and preserved and considered a real delicacy. Talk of sheep’s heads takes me back a few years to when, one stifling hot day in August, I visited the covered market of Meknes. An imperial city with majestic ramparts (on which its founder, the powerful sultan Moulay Ismail, is said to have hoisted the heads of thousands of his enemies), Meknes stands on a fertile, sunny plain between Khemisset and Fès. Its food souk is possibly one of the richest of all, along with that of Agadir, in Morocco. Divided by ‘guilds’, it consists of a mass of pyramids of juicy, brightly colored olives, seeds and dried pulses, poultry and butchered animals, all displayed to spectacular effect. In the meat section are mountains of severed sheep’s heads subdivided into categories: freshly severed heads complete with fleece and ears, and ready prepared ones, skinned, and staring at you with the eyeballs almost falling out of the sockets.
Sanaa explained how to prepare the head. First, you wash it well and scorch it in coals to remove the fleece. You then clean it carefully, removing the eyes, nose and ears, and steam it in the couscous pan with flavorings and spices. The cheeks are the real tidbit. The stomach, instead, is used to make delicious stews with olives, onions, and garlic (tkalia). Then the intestines, for tripe and kadid, strips of intestine (or, as a rich variation, lamb – usually flank meat), dried in the sun, salted, treated with a mixture of spices, braided and sometimes preserved in oil. In a country where refrigerators did not exist and the meat quickly deteriorated in the heat, the only way to preserve it was by drying. Last but not least, apparently sheep’s feet are also used, in Algeria for example, in a dish with tripe.
At Sanaa’s home, the family gathers and, true to tradition, accompanies the rich meat dishes with countless cups of mint tea. Sadly, thanks to globalization, the mutton is more likely today to be washed down with fizzy sweet drinks. Who knows how mbakhar would taste with Coke!
A few recipes for Aid el Kebir or Aid el Adha
Kadid (dried mutton or sheep’s intestine)
Preparation 20 minutes
Cooking 20 minutes
2-5kg of meat (preferably lamb, flank meat), 150g chili pepper, 100g cumin powder, 20g black pepper, a head of garlic, a liter of oil, mint leaves or ground mint, salt.
Cut the meat into fairly thin strips, peel the garlic and crush it in a mortar, add the pepper, chili pepper, mint and cumin and mix together; coat the strips of meat with the mixture. Let it rest for 24 hours. The next day, salt the meat and lay it out to dry in a well-aired place: place a piece of fine cloth over the kadid to protect from insects. When it is really dry – a few days later, depending on the weather and the season – heat the oil and soften the strips of meat in the hot oil. Then let them cool and place the kadid in sealed containers, and cover with the cooking oil. The kadid can be kept for a year or more.
Douara el Khodra (tripe with pulses)
Preparation 60 minutes
Cooking 90 minutes
1kg sheep (or calf) tripe, 1kg peas, 1kg artichokes, 500g broad beans, 4 spoons of olive oil, a head of garlic, one onion, one dried chili pepper, a spoonful of red pepper, a little cumin, pepper, salt, a handful of coriander.
Clean the tripe carefully. Cut it into pieces, then put them in a heavy-bottomed pan (or a pressure cooker) with two glasses of water, the grated onion, and the pepper and salt and cook for an hour. Add the artichokes and cleaned peas, the split broad beans, the crushed garlic, and the red pepper, and cook for another 30 minutes. Lastly flavor with the chopped coriander. To reduce the sauce, leave the pan uncovered while cooking.
Preparation 30 minutes (plus 3 hours marinating)
Cooking 5-10 minutes
500g leg of lamb, 1 large onion, 1 bunch of parsley, 1/2 teaspoon each of pepper, chili pepper or paprika and cumin, 3 spoonfuls of olive oil, salt.
Dice the meat and put it in a big bowl. Add the chopped onion and parsley, the paprika, cumin, oil, salt and pepper. Marinate for 2 hours.
Put the marinated meat on the skewers and grill on a barbecue for 5-7 minutes. Serve hot.
Facts and figures about the Feast of Aid el Kebir in Morocco
4.5 million rams slaughtered
90% of the animals born in the 2000-2001 farming year
the meat eaten during the Feast accounts for 55% of all meat consumption
sheep rearing accounts for 30% of the national agricultural product
about 70% of the rural population works in sheep breeding and herding
Moroccans spend about 6.3 billion dirhamin the course of the Feast
Sales of electrical appliances such as freezers, cookers, stoves, barbecues, grills, knives and kitchen implements shoot up during the Feast
60% of annual refrigerator sales are concentrated into this period
the most sought after sheep breeds are ‘Sardi’ from the Settat region (Skhour Rhamna, Brouj and Béni Meskine ); ‘Timahdit’ from Tadla, Khénifra, Midelt, Azrou (mountains in the Upper Atlas); ‘Béni Mguil’, or ’Hamra’ or ‘Berguia’, from the plateaus of eastern Morocco; and ‘Demmane’, from the palmgroves of the south.
Alessandra Abbona, a journalist, works at the Slow Food Press Office
Translated by Ailsa Wood