On May 25 (12 rabii 1423 of hegira) Muslims celebrated the anniversary of the birth of their prophet Mohammed, born in the year 570, with the Feast of Mawlid al-Nabawi.
In Tunisia religious festivals are celebrated with typical meals or sweets, some of which may be exchanged or offered as gifts, and the Feast of Mawlid is no exception. It has come to be associated with the Aleppo pine – or more specifically, with the seed extracted from the fruit of this tree, the zgougou. Assidat ez-zgougou is the name of this sweet made from Aleppo pine seeds – unique of its kind in the whole Mediterranean area – which is traditionally prepared to mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed.
First of all, it should be noted that the Feast of Mawlid is considered by orthodox Muslims (especially in Saudi Arabia) as an innovation, opposed to Islamic tradition, insofar as it is seen as an imitation of the Christian Christmas. Yet one of the first feasts established by the Prophet of Islam was Ashura, which corresponds to the Jewish feast of Yom Kippur – also an imitation, introduced at the will of the prophet Mohammed to seal the alliance of the Muslims and the Jews.
In any case, North Africans celebrate this occasion with popular festivities and truly spectacular national religious ceremonies. The evening before Mawlid, long prayer sessions and Sufi incantations are held in the mosques, not to mention the official solemn religious ceremonies attended by heads of state wearing traditional dress for the occasion. Competitions in reciting the Koran are organised for children and broadcast live on television. In Algeria, the Turkish tradition of lighting lamps along the streets on the eve of Mawlid still continues in country districts, where candles light the way for the night-time processions to the mosques or mausoleums.
Tunisian food tradition celebrates this event with a frugal breakfast like the one eaten by Halima, the mother of the Prophet, before she gave birth. It begins with a simple assida (a sort of wheat or bran flour polenta of a solid consistency) served in an ordinary dish and molded into a dome-shape; a well is made in the top and filled with butter or honey. The whole family eats from the same dish, sharing the simple, unpretentious breakfast in memory of the poverty in which the Prophet was born, and as a sign of belonging to the Muslim community.
From simplicity to sophistication. Over the last few decades, a new culinary tradition has joined the old, and in most cases, has replaced it. This is assidat ez-zgougou, a speciality of the old Tunisian bourgeoisie, which has now spread through the entire nation. This sweet dish requires long, elaborate and tricky preparation: it has the consistency of zabaglione but an unusual flavor that is almost impossible to identify for anyone tasting it for the first time. It is also indicative of luxury and sophistication and its origin is sometimes attributed (wrongly, in my opinion) to the Turks and sometimes to the Andalusians. As far as I have been able to ascertain, Aleppo pine seeds are not traditionally an ingredient in any Arabian or Andalusian recipe of the Middle Ages, nor in any known Turkish recipes from the fifteenth century up to the present. Apart from the Tunisians, who else knew about the flavor of Aleppo pine seeds?
Initially assidat ez-zgougou was only made once a year, for Mawlid, and was only known to Tunisians. However, over the last two or three years the emergence of new social customs (thanks to increasingly intense migration both abroad and inside the country) and modernization are leading to the trivialization of the recipe and the disappearance of the ritual which provided the context for it. The recipe for assidat ez-zgougou has spread throughout the nation despite the relatively high cost of the ingredients, though sometimes prepared on other occasions apart from feast times, when members of the family who live abroad return for the holidays.
This dessert used only to be made in the traditional way and in the home, but is now starting to appear in the menus of luxury restaurants in the capital and in some Tunisian restaurants in Paris, on the day of Mawlid. But the greatest innovation is the recent appearance of ready-to-use Aleppo pine seeds, which save a lot of time but eliminate the need for an important family ritual. Purchasing ready-ground seeds, as if they were a packet of espresso coffee, at the supermarket represents a huge change in behavior in terms of product quality and old food hygiene codes. Many intermediary stages have thus been removed: from the search for good quality seeds and all the sorting and rinsing to the drying in trays over the embers or in the oven, the difficult task of grinding with a hand-operated mill and filtering the zgougou paste after soaking the seeds in water for a night to extract the juice.
So on to the cooking of Aleppo pine seeds. The Aleppo pine, which produces these seeds in Tunisia (where it is called zgougou), is not actually native to Syria, despite its name. The tree is one of the commonest pines in northern and central Tunisia, as well as a large part of the Moroccan Atlas area and northern Algeria, where it is used for its wood. It looks very similar to the Mediterranean pine which gives us pine nuts, but within their scales its cones contain dark gray, almost black, seeds covered with a transparent casing. Studies regarding the medicinal use of the plant in Tunisia show that these seeds have hypotensive, even aphrodisiac, properties.
In Tunisia zgougou seeds can be bought from a month before the feast of Mawlid, and their price increases as the last useful day draws near. This year whole seeds cost about 7.5 Tunisian dinars per kilo, and ground seeds about 9.5 dinars.
Assida, which is made with the extract of the pine seeds, flour, water and sugar, is prepared the evening before Mawlid. It is a long process and requires several shifts of helpers, since the mixture must be stirred continually in a large pot over the fire to obtain a smooth, thick, stringy cream. During the last minute of cooking the mixture is aromatized with orange flower water. The result is a dark gray cream, the sweetness of which may be adjusted to taste and the consistency according to the measuring of the ingredients and the cooking time.
The cream is distributed immediately into glass bowls and other dishes of various sizes, from dessert bowls to soup tureens. Then it is covered with a cloth and left to rest for the night.
The last phase is decoration. Early the next morning, another cream is prepared with milk, starch and sugar and spread in a thin layer over the assida cooked the previous day. Then the children decorate the layer of white cream with dried fruit, pistachio nuts, chopped almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, whole pin nuts, and silver balls – a decoration worthy of a bride! A large, decorated soup tureen is used for the whole family to eat from on the morning of Mawlid. The beautiful cut glass bowls will be served to visitors at tea time, or in the evening after dinner. Other dishes, large and small, are served to neighbors, relations and friends. The children of the household don their best clothes to carry the dishes of assida wrapped in knotted serviettes. After which, the tasting commences ….
Every family tastes other people’s assida. The ritual is taken as seriously as a food contest, even though the scores are never made public! In any case the best assida is always ‘your own’ – no bones about it! The day after Mawlid, the same problem crops up every year. You have to identify the owners of the various dishes you’ve received and give them back, wrapped in serviettes, to their rightful owners. And remember – the dish must never be given back empty!
Lilia Zaoualiis a lecturer in anthropology of the Islamic world at the University of Jussieu, Paris.
Translated by Ailsa Wood